The rigours of business travel can test the patience of even the most experienced wayfarer. Delays, long lines, uncomfortable seating and the screams of overtired children can make a few hours seem like an eternity.
For small business owners who travel a lot, a lounge can be an invaluable amenity, notes Mary-Anne Huestis, co-founder of MarketSense Inc., a market research company focused on credit cards and reward programs.
"Particularly if there's a layover, they want to be productive during that time, and have a quiet place to work and return calls and e-mails," she said.
Traditionally, travelling in first or business class was the only way to enjoy the perks offered by lounges. But even if you are going economy, you have options – you can visit a lounge by using cash, annual memberships or a rewards program.
What you get in a lounge depends on who runs it, says Patric Sojka, founder of RewardsCanada, which aggregates information about travel rewards programs. Frequently, lounges offer quiet spaces to work, comfortable seating, business centres, computer access, WiFi, local newspapers, magazines and TV rooms. Some lounges offer concierges and serve food and drink, from coffee to cocktails.
"In terms of food, it can be anything from a continental breakfast to full-blown buffet meals and lots of drink choices," Mr. Sojka says.
Some lounges even offer showers for travellers coming off of 10-hour flights, "so you can change and run off to your meeting," he says.
Not surprisingly, one of the main ways to access lounges is through your airline. Air Canada's Maple Leaf lounges are complimentary to passengers holding an executive first or executive class ticket. But if you don't want to pay top fare, you can also purchase a membership in the Maple Leaf Club, choosing lounges in Canada (15 locations for $365 annually), North America (60 locations for $485) or worldwide (more than 270 locations for $648.99). Alternatively, you can purchase one-time access to a lounge for between $30 and $45, depending on whether you're travelling Tango, Tango Plus or Latitude.
Aeroplan members can use their miles for lounge access. Members can download a single-day pass for 7,000 miles, or redeem miles for Maple Leaf Club memberships, says Francine Sternthal, director of product management for Aeroplan.
"For a Canada-wide, yearly membership for one person, it's 43,000 miles, and we also offer the membership-plus-spouse, so you can add someone on to your membership, for 63,000 miles," Ms. Sternthal said.
Porter Airlines lounges are equipped with business workstations, free non-alcoholic drinks and snacks in Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, Ottawa Airport and Newark Airport, accessible to anyone with a Porter boarding pass. And though WestJet Airlines Ltd.doesn't have lounges, it has partnered with other lounge companies and offers access for $24 per person at a handful of locations across Canada.
Lounge access can also come by way of your credit card. Some cards in Canada offer access to Priority Pass, a British-based company with hundreds of lounges worldwide, Mr. Sojka says. You can visit any lounge in the network as long as you have a boarding pass, regardless of what airline you are travelling on.
Priority Pass has three levels. In a special offer that ends Oct. 15, at the lowest level, you pay $89 a year for membership, then $27 per visit to all Priority Pass lounge locations. At the second level, you pay $224 for 10 visits free (subsequent visits are $27). At the top level, you pay $359 for unlimited free visits to business lounges.
Some credit cards will pay the lowest membership fee for you. One is the BMO World Elite card, which for $150 annually gives you a base membership with Priority Pass, plus four free lounge visits for you and a guest (after that, you pay the $27 fee).
Another option is the American Express Business Platinum card. For $399 annually, cardholders get access to more than 600 lounges around the world, says Athena Varmazis, vice-president and general manager of small business services for American Express Canada.
Cardholders get complimentary access to lounge networks such as Plaza Premium and Servisair Executive lounges in major Canadian cities such as Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal and Quebec City, plus Hong Kong, London, Beijing and other international cities. Customers who travel frequently to the United States also get membership in the Airport Club Program through the Business Platinum card, which gives them free access to American Airlines, Delta and U.S. Airways lounges.
On top of the free lounge access, Business Platinum cardholders get free membership to Priority Pass lounges around the world (though they still have to pay the per-visit free of $27 a person).
Lounges aren't limited to air travellers.
VIA Rail Canada offers seven lounges in the corridor between Quebec City and Windsor, with staffed locations in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. The lounges offer comfortable seating, newspapers, magazines, TVs, WiFi, non-alcoholic beverages and snacks (the three staffed locations also feature computers and printers that passengers can use).
With its marble walls and plaster ceilings, the newly renovated Panorama Lounge in Toronto's historic Union Station is twice the size of the old one. Because of the positive feedback since the renovation, VIA plans to fix up the other lounges in the same style, says Dean Rockhead, the railway's product manager for corridor services.
Customers can access the lounge only if they purchase a business class ticket, but Mr. Rockhead says VIA is considering moving to a form of coupon or booklet system for travellers who want to pay for single-use access without buying the more expensive ticket.
Those travelling on the ferry between Vancouver Island and the B.C. mainland can access the Sea West Lounge, available on five of the 35 ferries in the fleet. For $12, you get a quieter, less busy space, with complimentary coffee and tea, juice, pastries, WiFi access, closed captioning TV, newspapers and magazines and a place to plug in and work.
Ms. Huestis says she thinks lounge programs will likely continue to evolve, as people who travel often begin to demand more amenities.
"There are a lot of things suppliers can think about in terms of making that experience more pleasant," she said. "So you're not spending time waiting on other people when you think you should be working."