Dateline: En route to Nice, France
Today, I’m doing something I’ve never done before.
I’m flying Ryan Air. Having been to Dublin close to a dozen times in the last six years, I’ve only used Europe’s ultra-low-cost carriers once, on a flight from Nice to Paris. It was dreadful, and I haven’t returned.
One thing worth investing in as a nomad is decent flights. Rack up six figures in mileage each year and you’ll probably decide to spend those few extra bucks buying the more comfortable flight from an airport that’s actually in a real city.
One of the airport amenities nomads like myself make use of is airport lounges. If you’ve ever visited an airport lounge in the Land of the Free, you’d probably think these places were vastly overhyped for no reason. Allow me to assure you that US airport lounges are about as bad as it gets outside of flights from cowtowns.
Around the world, including here in Europe, lounges offer excellent amenities from private shower rooms to all-you-can-eat-and-drink food and alcohol to pianists performing in front of brick pizza ovens. On top of that, airport lounges offer free wi-fi in countries you may not have cellular service in so you can stay connected on a layover. (It’s amazing that most airports don’t have working, free wi-fi for all passengers in 2015, but it’s true.)
However, access to the world’s best airport lounges isn’t cheap. In fact, even paying $5,000 for a ticket doesn’t guarantee you access. For instance, my recent business class ticket from Frankfurt to Kuala Lumpur prohibited me from using Lufthansa’s tony First Class lounge, allowing only for the same Business Class Lounge that any credit card holder can get into. The situation was the same while transiting through the fantastic Doha airport in Qatar last year. Lounges at many Middle East airports are flat out amazing, but only the upper crust with really expensive tickets can get the best access. Some of these lounges are truly spectacular.
The last time I was in Istanbul, my friend and I were mixing our own top-shelf whiskey drinks while having a pizza chef make our own personalized flatbreads.
If you don’t travel a lot, or if you’re a bit thrifty as I am and don’t always want to shell out for first-class tickets, there is a cheap shortcut for getting airport lounge access that involves offshore strategies. Quite simply, it’s your bank.
How to get free airport lounge access from your bank
While transiting through Istanbul’s Ataturk airport last week, I had to pass a seemingly endless number of private lounges not controlled by any one airline. These lounges are set up by independent companies and contract with various smaller airlines that aren’t part of an alliance or that don’t have much of a presence at that airport. They also sell access to companies like Priority Pass, which sell access to over 700 lounges for one annual fee.
However, Istanbul is one of a growing number of airports with private lounges operated directly by the credit card companies themselves. In order to be competitive, emerging world banks primarily in Asia and the Middle East are rolling out the red carpet for top depositors. Deposit enough money and you’ll get a slate of benefits traditionally reserved only for premium credit cardholders.
Erste Bank in central Europe offers this to its Premier customers with deposits of as little as $50,000. Other banks have higher minimums, such as HSBC Premier which starts at $100,000 and up. But here’s the catch: you often don’t even have to fund your account to qualify. You simply need to OPEN an account.
For example, out of the three or four different airport lounges operated by Turkish banks at Istanbul airport, I ended up at the HSBC Premier lounge. I simply flashed my ATM card and my boarding pass and was let in.
However, the lounge agent has no idea what my balance is. I presume it could have been zero. I have one friend who told me he opened an HSBC Premier account on my advice two years ago and still hasn’t funded it. Yet he still has the debit card and the account is still open. Opening a premier-level bank account at an offshore bank could be your ticket to free airport lounge access as banks expand their lounge network.
There are HSBC Premier lounges in Istanbul, Mexico City, São Paulo, and Curitiba, Brazil. While HSBC sold off its branch network in smaller European countries a few years back, I would expect to see a larger lounge presence in the next few years. Quite simply, they don’t have a choice. Go to any big city like Hong Kong, Singapore, or Istanbul and you’ll see the big banks wining and dining their best customers as they wait for their flights.
All for free.
Outside of the western world where bank and credit card benefits are declining by the month, foreign banks are tripping over each other to provide more rewards and more luxuries. If you travel frequently, or if you want to be comfortable when you do, the benefits of opening an offshore bank account continue to get better.
There are also times when it’s worth getting not a bank, but a great credit card. US, European, and Australian citizens may find the American Express Platinum card worthwhile. American Express allows Platinum and Centurion cardholders to access their new Centurion lounges. I used the one in Mexico City while en route to our Passport to Freedom conference this year, and the service was quite good. Other Centurion Lounges are in Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York LaGuardia, Buenos Aires, Sao Paolo, and Delhi, with plans for more to come. That’s in addition to access to all Priority Pass lounges. Even in the big bank oligopoly of the United States, credit cards have become very competitive, with a slew of premium credit cards that offer excellent travel benefits.
For US persons, the Ritz-Carlton card and the Amex Platinum card offer $300 in airline travel credits and Global Entry fees.
You may be familiar with the numerous options for airport lounge access at home, but by using my offshore travel hack, you can diversify away from your home country, move your savings to the safety of an offshore bank, and get free travel perks to boot.
That’s exactly what “go where you’re treated best” means.
If you’re looking for an easy-to-use list of offshore banks to get an account set up with, my Best Offshore Banks guide will show you how, step-by-step.