New York (MainStreet) -- The holidays are a season for travel. This season, alone more than 90 million Americans will take to the roads, rails and skies, either heading home for the holidays or getting as far away as they can on vacation. The only downside to holiday travel? Everyone else is doing it too. Combine with winter weather and you have a perfect storm for that most dreaded of traveler’s woes: the flight delay.

Not much will get your trip off on a worse foot than spending five hours sitting around LaGuardia.

Fortunately you can make this problem solve itself by taking advantage of one of the more obscure perks that major credit cards tend to offer: airport lounge access. Although most people only think about airport lounges when we’re grumbling our way past the opulent entrances on our way to spend six hours at a concourse McDonald’s, they can be a fantastic way to make that holiday shopping work for you in the form of avoided annoyance.

After all, in an era where the bankable value of miles and travel points has steadily crept downward, this is an excellent way to get some real value back from your rewards card. We caught up with Jason Steele of CompareCards.com for his take on why this one little perk can really matter, as well as which are the best cards for lounging around your airport this year and next.


WATCH: More personal finance videos on MainStreet | More videos from Amelia Martyn-Hemphill

View Today’s Auto Loan Refi Rates

“Most people think of airline credit cards as offering points and miles, which was [once] the main draw,” Steele said, “but today you’re looking at more auxiliary benefits… that’s the real draw there."

Airline miles are increasingly harder to redeem -- effectively lowering their true value. 

"I can remember a few years ago if I wanted to use my airline miles I could call the airline and tell them which flight I wanted," Steele said. "Today that seems almost laughable.”

Dedicated travel rewards users will have noticed this long ago. Airlines have begun making miles worth less and less, at the same time as they give away basketfuls to business clients and first class passengers. Fixed-value auxiliary benefits, however, can still give a real return. Lounge access is one of those perks.

“It’s one of these things that’s not very valuable until you need it,” Steele said.

When you show up on time for a flight and everything goes according to plan, lounge access doesn’t matter much. Delays are another matter entirely, and Steele remembered one particularly nasty weather delay where getting into the lounge of his choice was worth its weight in gold.

“It wasn’t the free drinks or the ability to plug in my laptop or lie down,” he said, “That wasn’t the real benefit I got that day. It was that the two people at the front desk were basically the top guns of American Airlines reservations.”

In a crowded airport slammed by delays, talking to an airline representative can be like getting autographs outside of Yankee’s stadium, and odds are when you do get to the front of the line, you’ll get someone overworked with little left to offer. Lounge personnel, on the other hand, get picked for their experience and at any given time have far fewer customers to make happy. In other words, they have the luxury of caring.

And that can pay off huge when it comes to fighting over statistically fewer seats.

Which card is the best for you?

“I really like what the Citi Prestige Card has done,” Steele said. “What makes the Prestige cards really amazing is the American Airlines lounge access is for one person and two guests, or one person and his family… [And] I’m a big one for family travel.”

In no particular order, Compare Cards identified the following as its favorite credit cards for travelers looking to rest their weary heads:

  • U.S. Airways Premier World MasterCard – One complimentary day pass for the U.S. Airways Club or Admirals Club per year.
  • United Mileage Plus Explore Card – Two complimentary one-use passes per year.
  • The American Express Platinum Card – Unlimited access for the cardholder to more than 600 lounges and clubs worldwide, although new terms and conditions only allow for one free companion.
  • Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard – Two complimentary, one-day Admiral’s Club Passes after meeting purchase requirements.
  • Citi/AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard – Full membership to the American Airlines Admiral’s Club Lounges, the ability to bring all immediate family or up to two companions.
  • Citi Prestige Card – Complimentary access to American Airlines Admirals Clubs as well as all Priority Pass Select lounges for the cardholder, immediate family and up to two companions.
  • Visa Black Card – Full access to more than 350 lounges in 200 cities worldwide.

On top of the Citi Prestige, Shoppers who can afford it shouldn’t ignore the American Express Platinum Card. Less expensive than the Visa Black, it still will get you into just about every lounge on the planet and I say that as someone who has tested this theory personally. The Platinum Card has never failed me yet, and long ago became a very valuable tool in the arsenal of this otherwise dedicated shoestring traveler.

After all, sometimes you just need a decent cup of coffee and the chance to take a nap.

“Reward cards will always have a higher interest rate than non-reward cards,” he said, “and people who are struggling with debt do not need the extra trouble that comes with using [one].”

The interest rates alone will generally cost more than the value of any benefits collected, and no one wants to sit around that lounge wondering just how he plans to pay for it.

--Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website www.wanderinglawyer.com.