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It's unlikely you'll be fed on your next domestic flight unless you're lucky enough to be in first class. And even then, the food probably won't be that great, especially compared to what you could have gotten on the ground—airport restaurants aren't exactly known for being budget-friendly.
Thankfully, I've found a way to enjoy a free meal at the airport before most of my flights. It's all about having the right credit cards. Here's how it works.
How to Get a Free Meal at the Airport With Your Credit Card
Several premium travel rewards credit cards offer airport business lounge access, but these facilities typically offer just free drinks and some light snacks. However, there are four exceptions that will land you a free meal every time you fly.
1. Priority Pass Select Lounges
Priority Pass Select earns you access to many top airport lounges. Similarly, most of these only offer the typical lounge fare rather than a full meal. However, there are a few exceptions that go above and beyond.
For instance, whenever I'm passing through Washington Dulles International Airport, I make a point of using my Priority Pass Select card to enter the Turkish Airlines lounge. It's renowned for offering a full buffet of finely prepared Turkish food, including soup, lamb, fish, rice and even baklava for dessert.
Other top Priority Pass Select lounges with meal service include:
- SkyTeam Lounge in Vancouver International Airport
- The Grand Lounge Elite in Mexico City International Airport
Priority Pass Select Restaurant Credits
The Priority Pass Select program offers access to more than 1,400 lounges, but also many decent airport restaurants if you get it through a non-American Express card.
When you present your Priority Pass Select card at these restaurants, you typically receive a credit per toward food, beverages and taxes. Just note that it doesn't cover gratuities for the server, so you need to pay that out of pocket.
Here's a recent example of how this program works. On a business trip to Washington, D.C., I stopped at the Bracket Room bar and restaurant at Reagan National Airport (DCA) with two of my colleagues. There, I was able to treat them to dinner and drinks before our flights using the Priority Pass Select card that I received as a benefit of my Chase Sapphire Reserve® Card.
Each of us received a $28 credit since this benefit was valid for the cardholder and up to two guests. That means we were able to order a total of $84 from the menu before we had to pay for anything but the tip.
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Which Credit Cards Offer Priority Pass Benefits?
The Priority Pass Select program is offered by more than a dozen premium rewards credit cards in the United States, including:
- Chase Sapphire Reserve®
- Capital One Venture X
- U.S. Bank Altitude® Reserve Visa Infinite® Card (12 months free with four individual passes and four individual guest passes)
Several American Express cards also offer Priority Pass Select, but these cards don't include access to the restaurants in the program, just the lounges:
- The Platinum Card® from American Express
- The Business Platinum Card® from American Express
- Hilton Honors™ American Express Aspire Card
- Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card
- Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card (10 free visits per year)
- Hilton Honors American Express Business Card (10 free visits per year)
Chase Sapphire Reserve®
- Our Rating 4.5/5 How our ratings work Read the review
- APR22.49% - 29.49% (Variable)
- Annual Fee$550
60,000Chase Ultimate Rewards Points
Earn 60,000 bonus points after using your card to spend $4,000 within three months of account opening. Dollar Equivalent: $1,380 (60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards Points * 0.023 base)
This card features an annual credit for travel purchases, which can offset the annual fee, plus bonus points when you sign up. You'll also get free access to tons of Priority Pass lounges and restaurant options around the world, along with access to the upcoming Chase Sapphire Lounge network.
If you’re looking to elevate your travel experience, look no further than the Chase Sapphire Reserve. When you first get approved, you’ll earn a sign-up bonus of 60,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months—that’s worth at least $900 in travel-related spending booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards® and potentially more if you transfer your rewards to one of Chase’s airline or hotel partners.
- An array of premium travel perks including access to Priority Pass lounges
- Easy-to-use $300 travel credit that helps offset card's annual fee
- Generous rewards rates for spending
- High annual fee may be a deterrent for some
- Perks are starting to get stale relative to newer competition
9 Airports Getting New Chase Lounges for Cardholders to Use
2. American Express Centurion Lounges
Another way to enjoy a free meal at the airport is by visiting an American Express Centurion Lounge. In addition to the drinks and light snacks you'll find at any airport lounge, they offer buffets featuring locally and seasonally inspired cuisine from award-winning chefs.
For example, my wife and I recently enjoyed lunch at the Centurion Lounge in the Las Vegas airport, which featured cuisine designed by James Beard Award-nominated chef Kim Canteenwalla.
There are American Express Centurion lounges at the following domestic airports:
- Dallas (DFW)
- Houston (IAH)
- Las Vegas (LAS)
- New York (LGA and JFK)
- Denver (DEN)
- Charlotte (CLT)
- Los Angeles (LAX)
- Philadelphia (PHL)
- Phoenix (PHX)
- Miami (MIA)
- Seattle (SEA)
- San Francisco (SFO)
You can find international Centurion lounges in these cities and more: Hong Kong (HKG), London (LHR), Stockholm (ARN), Mexico City (MEX), Sydney (SYD), and Mumbai (BOM).
Which Credit Cards Offer Centurion Lounge Benefits?
To get access to an American Express Centurion Lounge, you present the Platinum or Business Platinum Card from American Express. These are valid for the cardholder and up to two additional guests. You can also get access with the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card or Delta SkyMiles Reserve Business American Express Card.
Finally, those who hold the ultra-premium, invitation-only black Centurion Card are also offered admission and special reserved seating.
3. United Club Airport Lounges
United Club airport lounges are a haven from the busy, outdated common areas found in many airports. Many of United's clubs offer members and pass holders snacks, power banks, Wi-Fi and pleasant seating to recharge before or between flights. Still, some lounges offer more amenities.
United Club airport lounges that offer meal service include:
- Reagan National Airport, Washington, D.C. (DCA)
- Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR)
- Chicago O'Hare International Airport (ORD)
- Denver International Airport (DEN)
- George Bush Intercontinental Airport, Houston (IAH)
- Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
- Narita International Airport, Tokyo, Japan (NRT)
A Roundup of Current United Credit Card Offers
Which Credit Cards Offer United Club Airport Lounge Access?
United credit cards that offer United Club access are the United℠ Explorer Card, United℠ Club Infinite Card, United℠ Business Card and the United℠ Club Business Card. Some of these cards offer complimentary passes after opening the account and then again on each cardholder's anniversary. Moreover, the expensive United Club membership is renewable annually and offers constant airport lounge access.
United℠ Explorer Card
Secure application on issuer’s website
- Our Rating 4.5/5 How our ratings work Read the review
- APR21.74% - 28.74% (Variable)
- Annual Fee$95
60,000United MileagePlus Miles
Earn 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Dollar Equivalent: $840 (60,000 United MileagePlus Miles * 0.014 base)
United’s mid-tier card offers some nice perks you don’t always get with comparable cards, like two lounge passes annually, along with a free year before the annual fee kicks in. If you’re an occasional flyer not ready to commit to a bigger annual fee, this card is a good middle ground.
The card’s benefits really help it stand out from the crowd. Here’s what you’ll get: One free checked bag for each flight, priority boarding, 25% back on inflight purchases, two United Club airport lounge passes every year and Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee credit every four years. The card also offers trip protections, including primary rental car insurance, trip cancellation and interruption insurance, baggage delay insurance, lost luggage reimbursement and trip delay reimbursement. The card’s annual fee is $0 for the first year, then $95 after that, which will give you some time to confirm that it’s a good fit before the fee hits.
- Free first checked bag on United flights
- Up to $100 back for your Global Entry, TSA PreCheck or NEXUS application fee, every four years
- Two annual United Club passes
- Annual fee is waived the first year (then $95)
- Not the best card for those that fly United more than a few times per year
- $95 annual fee after the first year
United℠ Business Card
This product is currently not available via Slickdeals. All information about this product was collected by Slickdeals and has not been reviewed by the issuer.
- Our Rating 4.0/5 How our ratings work Read the review
- APR21.74% - 28.74% (Variable)
- Annual Fee$99
50,000United MileagePlus Miles
Earn 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Dollar Equivalent: $700 (50,000 United MileagePlus Miles * 0.014 base)
United’s lower-tier business credit card is made for occasional United flyers looking for a solid travel card with a modest annual fee (waived the first year). If you’re looking to try a travel card for your business without a big commitment, this is a good option. And you can also earn more in categories like dining and gas with this card, which isn’t available with the higher-end business card.
The United℠ Business Card features an impressive 75,000-mile bonus, which is among the best travel bonuses currently on offer.
This card’s perks include a $100 annual United travel credit after seven United flight purchases over $100, two United Club passes, a free first checked bag each flight, 25% back on inflight purchases and priority boarding.
- Free first checked bag on United flights
- Two United Club passes per year
- Low $99 annual fee with the ability to add free employee cards
- Other cards can provide better rewards on business-related purchases
4. Delta Sky Club Lounges
While not as well known for offering luxury accommodations and conveniences for fliers, Delta Sky Club does have several locations that are worth a visit.
Delta operates over 50 Sky Club Lounges, mostly in U.S. airports. But the airline also offers select members access to a network of around 250 partner and third-party lounges worldwide. While many of these lounges offer snacks, some of the more notable Sky Club lounges feature more amenities like meals, massage, spa access and stunning views.
Delta Sky Club lounges that offer meal service:
- John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York (JFK)
- Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)
- Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY)
- Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS)
- Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX)
- Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA)
Which Credit Cards Offer Delta Sky Club Lounge Access?
Travelers can access Delta Sky Club with four of the airlines' SkyMiles credit cards:
- Delta SkyMiles Platinum American Express Card
- Delta SkyMiles Platinum Business American Express Card
- Delta SkyMiles Reserve American Express Card
- Delta SkyMiles Reserve Business American Express Card.
However, the Platinum cards only offer discounted access.
Are Airport Lounge Benefits Worth the Cost?
As the saying goes, there's no such thing as a free lunch. All of the travel credit cards that offer these benefits have considerable annual fees. However, I'd argue that even with these fees, you're still getting a bargain.
For example, my Chase Sapphire Reserve has a $550 annual fee, which isn't cheap. But it also comes with an annual $300 statement credit toward any travel purchases, majorly reducing the card's net cost. When I compare it to the $95 Sapphire Preferred® (which doesn't offer travel statement credits), I'm only paying a net additional cost of $155 to receive the Priority Pass Select membership. And as you can see, I easily came out ahead after just a single meal with two colleagues.
The American Express Platinum Card also has a high annual fee of $695. But it also offers a variety of fee credits that reduce its net cost down.
The credit card industry is extremely competitive, and no one is more sought after than premium travel rewards card users. When you look at all of the ways you can use a credit card for travel, opting for a card with these sorts of benefits just makes sense.
For more information on top credit card options that offer a variety of benefits and rewards, be sure to check out our list of the best credit cards.