The Local newsletter is your free, daily guide to life in Colorado. For locals, by locals. Sign up today!
Credit cards used to reward travelers with airline miles, which remain a valuable type of currency, but lounge access is increasingly becoming the carrot with which banks lure new customers to their cards. And some of those customers are willing to pay annual fees as high as $695 (for the Platinum Card from American Express) to access the cards’ perks. Are the benefits worth the cost? Often they are, given how staffing shortages continue to make travel even more difficult than it was before the COVID-19 pandemic—especially if the thought of escaping into a private lounge during delays is appealing to you. Here, our picks for the best credit cards for travelers who are regulars at Denver International Airport.
Venture X Rewards from Capital One
If you’ve flown through DIA lately, you’ve seen billboards for this credit card. Capital One is aggressively going after people who fly through Denver often because the company is set to open a new luxury lounge on the mezzanine level of DIA’s Concourse A. Originally slated to debut in 2022, the Capital One Lounge has experienced supply chain delays that prevent the company from forecasting an updated opening date.
The first of Capital One’s planned network of three branded airport lounges opened in November 2021 on Terminal D at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), and by all accounts, it’s awesome. The bar and food area features local craft beers and premium grab-and-go snacks that represent familiar favorites (charcuterie) and veggie-centric options (Texas-grown olives). There’s also a section for families with kid-size tables and chairs, and a “wellness corridor” with a workout room and Peloton bikes, nap/relaxation pods, a shower suite, and prayer rooms.
“We thoughtfully and purposefully designed the DFW lounge with local touches that inspire our cardholders by celebrating the many offerings of Dallas, including partnerships with area artists, breweries, coffee roasters, and cocktails bars,” says Jenn Scheurich, head of travel for Capital One. “We’re thrilled with the response to our DFW Lounge and cannot wait to bring our Capital One Lounges to even more destinations.”
Forthcoming lounges at Washington Dulles (IAD) and Denver will include similar amenities (although Denver won’t include a workout space). Cardholders will also have access to more than 1,400 additional airport lounges worldwide through Capital One’s partnerships with Priority Pass and Plaza Premium. Cardholders may be accompanied by two guests free of charge at each of these facilities, which is a boon for leisure travelers. (Other credits cards offering Priority Pass lounge access, such as Chase Sapphire Reserve, charge a fee for cardmember guests.)
The $395 annual fee for Venture X Rewards can be recouped if you spend $300 on travel (which will earn you a cash-back credit) and enroll for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck (where you will get a $100 credit). Mileage bonuses are also attractive; in addition to the 10,000-mile bonus cardholders get starting on their first anniversary (and on every subsequent anniversary), they can earn 75,000 miles if they spend $4,000 within the first three months of card membership. (Mileage earned through purchases is also better than some competing cards: five to 10 times miles on travel purchases booked through Capital One Travel, and two times miles for everything else).
Our take? Consider this card if you regularly fly Delta, Frontier, or American. These airlines use DIA gates at Concourse A, and American’s hub at DFW facilitates access there. Couples and families will also like this card, since it allows for free lounge access for two travel companions.
The Platinum Card from American Express
This is the standout choice for gourmands and anyone seeking very high-end amenities. With this card, travelers will have access to the Centurion network of more than 40 lounges worldwide—including the Centurion Lounge that opened at DIA’s Concourse C mezzanine on February 1, 2021. Its 14,000-plus square feet includes a cooking station where travelers can get made-to-order dishes designed by Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, who co-owns Frasca in Boulder and Pizzeria Locale in Denver, Boulder, and Kansas City.
Yes, there’s a buffet too, but its snacks are several notches above the cubed cheddar and carrot sticks that dominate the platters at lounges operated by United Airlines and most Priority Pass locations. Centurion Lounge menus change each month, which means that regulars won’t get bored. Plus, there’s craft beer bar, a full bar serving wine and cocktails, a game room with shuffleboard and pool tables, shower suites stocked with L’Occitane body products, and plenty of comfortable seating with abundant charging ports.
But the $695 annual fee is tricky to earn back via credits, unless you take advantage of AmEx’s partnerships with specific services (for example, you get allowances toward monthly subscriptions to Walmart+ membership, and the Equinox+ digital fitness app). Given the quality of the food at Centurion Lounges (and the expense of buying airport meals at concessions located between gates) the amenities may be worth the cost—and that’s without the Membership Rewards Points that you can earn through purchases and subsequently redeem for travel.
Our take? Go with this card if you often fly Southwest—which uses Concourse C gates—and if you travel enough to fully exploit the Centurion network. It’s also best if you’re flying solo: The current policy permits two guests free of charge, but that will change on February 1, 2023, when guest fees go into effect—$50 per adult and $30 per child—if Card Members do not spend $75,000 or more each calendar year on their account.
Cards for Airline Loyalists
What if you mostly fly United or Frontier, which operate hubs out of DEN? The Frontier Airlines World Mastercard from Barclays doesn’t offer lounge access among its benefits, but its mileage-accrual program can pay off for frequent Frontier fliers, and the $100 flight voucher (received after spending $2,500 or more annually) more than covers the $89 annual fee you pay after the first year.
United does include lounge access through two of its credit cards. The United Explorer Card from Chase has a $95 annual fee (after a free introductory year) but gives you and a companion one free checked bag apiece per flight, includes a $100 credit toward Global Entry, TSA PreCheck, or Nexus, and provides two passes to the United Club lounge each year. The network includes 45 United Club locations, two of which are located on DIA’s Concourse B. The United Club Infinite Card from Chase costs $525 annually but waives fees for two checked bags and includes club membership (plus you get the $100 PreCheck credit).
But you can’t access United lounges unless you’re holding a United boarding pass. And while the clubs’ quiet work spaces and free alcoholic beverages can seem like day-saving amenities during a stressful travel stint, these aren’t exactly luxurious spaces. You’ll see some torn leather on the armchairs, and the snacks cover basic lunchbox territory: tortilla chips and salsa, cookies, and celery with ranch dip, for example.
Our take? In the cost-to-quality competition, United’s Club Infinite Card loses the contest to Venture X Rewards, but the United Explorer Card emerges as a winner in the best value category.
Clarification: This story was updated to reflect that Capital One Venture X cardholders receive 10,000 bonus miles upon every account anniversary and that Platinum Card from American Express cardholders will have guest fees waived if they spend $75,000 or more each calendar year on their account.