What are the World’s Best Airport Lounges?

Scott McCartney‘s latest Wall Street Journal column makes some interesting claims about lounges.

Why Are US Airline Lounges So Far Below World Standard?

He explains that US airport lounges are below the standards of Europe and especially Asia because they’re populated by low fare domestic passengers rather than high fare premium cabin long haul ones. In other words, the economics are different. (Though I’m not sure why United’s and American’s international first class lounges, then, would be below the standards of their Asian counterparts.)

That said, US lounges aren’t below the standard of many European business lounges, and certainly not below the standard for South America, or for that matter India or Parkistan. But in some sense that’s what George W. Bush used to call “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

I’ve spent many hours in the American Express Centurion lounge in Dallas, and it’s clearly one of the very best in the U.S..

Where Are the Best Lounges?

Among the best lounges, McCartney quite reasonably lists:

Lufthansa has a separate first-class terminal in Frankfurt, where the airline drives top-tier frequent fliers and first-class passengers directly to airplanes in luxury cars.

Thai Airways lounge in Bangkok often scores well in frequent-traveler polls and surveys, as does the Qantas first-class lounge in Sydney. Lounges run by Cathay Pacific in Hong Kong, Emirates in Dubai and Etihad in Abu Dhabi typically are around the top of best-lounge lists as well.

To be clear though it’s Thai’s first class lounge with semi-private living rooms and escorts to the plane, along with priority access to the spa (Thai business class passengers can do 30 minute treatments on a space available basis) that’s special.

And Cathay Pacific’s newly redesigned first class side of the Wing looks fantastic, I’ll be visiting for the first time since its re-open shortly, but overall ground service is not Cathay’s strong suit. And it’s only very specific lounges in Dubai and Abu Dhabi that make sense for inclusion — the Emirates A380 first class terminal level and the Etihad first class lounge in Abu Dhabi’s terminal 3.

Including Delta’s new lounge at JFK makes no sense in this story at all, except in the context of pointing out the lounge investments made broadly at JFK to understand how New York is a premium market relative to the rest of the U.S.

Overall, and not in rank order, I’d say the nicest first class lounges are:

  • Lufthansa First Class Terminal, Frankfurt

  • Lufthansa First Class Lounges, Frankfurt and Munich

  • Qantas First Class Lounge, Sydney

  • Qantas First Class Lounge, Melbourne (I haven’t been seen since remodel)

  • Thai Airways First Class Lounge & Spa, Bangkok

  • Etihad First Class Lounge, Abu Dhabi

  • Emirates A380 First Class Terminal (I have yet to visit)

  • Singapore Airlines The Private Room, Singapore

  • Cathay Pacific The Wing First Class Lounge, Hong Kong

Are there others that belong on this list? Air France has a nice first class lounge in Paris. Swiss does a nice job with its first class lounge in Zurich, of course.

Airlines Have Their Best Ground Experiences at Their Hubs

About another premium market, London, McCartney declares I think incorrectly, “Heathrow is the only airport in the world with rival lounges drawing industry-best acclaim.”

The best lounges are outside the U.S. Airlines tend to have their best lounges at hub cities. And outside the US there aren’t many cities which are hubs for more than one airline.

But since McCartney names Cathay Pacific, it seems worth noting Thai’s ground services in Hong Kong include planeside meet and greet for first class passengers and a lounge with menu service.

And Seoul is home base to both Korean Air and Asiana, and while neither has the best first class lounge in Asia both offer very good lounges. In Korean’s first class lounge they’ll make customized luggage tags for you.

Is the British Airways Concorde Room the Most Overrated Lounge in the World?

Nonetheless London is interesting as a home airport for both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic.

But while the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at Heathrow is certainly among the very best business class lounges, it is hardly a quiet, exclusive enclave.

And the British Airways Concorde Room is perhaps the single most over-rated lounge in the world.

Here’s what McCartney says about the Concorde Room:

The Concorde Room has a conference room with leather seats from the now-grounded supersonic aircraft once synonymous with elite travel…the Concorde Room, with room for just 150 people, has cabanas, daybeds with TVs and dining cubicles with chandeliers, where fliers can order duck, parsnip soup and other gourmet dishes, all free. The most expensive libation at the bar: Johnny Walker Blue Label, which costs about $246 to $328 a bottle. Grand Siecle Champagne, which retails for about $197, is the most popular, BA officials say.

Gourmet dishes? The Concorde Room has bloody awful food. It also has — at best — indifferent service (even by British standards. The wireless internet is spotty as well.

The only positive about the lounge, in my view (though some will differ and name the attached mediocre spa), is that it has well-worn private shower rooms known as the Cabanas. This is not a world’s top 10 airport lounge. Not even close.

What Are the Most Important Elements of a Lounge?

A good lounge has:

  • Ample seating and workspace
  • Hot food
  • Complimentary beverages (including alcoholic beverages)
  • Free wireless internet
  • Showers
  • Assistance with ticketing and flight issues

A great lounge also has:

  • Food made-to-order
  • Spa services
  • Escort to aircraft

What are the most important elements in a top notch lounge experience to you?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I would add:

    1. Peace and quiet. A good lounge should be an escape from the chaos of the airport. The first-class section of the Star Alliance lounge in Heathrow Terminal 1 doesn’t understand this — constant boarding announcements at an earth-shattering volume, with all the charm of a bus station.

    2. Convenient and ample power outlets. A good lounge has adequate outlets for plugging in and recharging devices — and ones located so as not to require crawling on the floor or under furniture. Yes, United, I’m talking about you.

    3. A private room for sleeping or working. A great lounge has these facilities, which are convenient for a longer layover. The rooms in the Swiss first lounge in Zurich are particularly good — absolutely dark for sleeping, with a fluffy down duvet; a private bathroom with shower; and lighting options to mimic sunlight and fight jet lag.

    I could not agree more with your take on the Concorde Room. That BA lounge cannot even manage the basic requirement of functioning departure screens. I know, I know — I should always use the FlightTrack app on my phone.) For two consecutive visits there, I’ve had to scramble to the plane after discovering that the screens were not updating for departures. (On each occasion, I got attitude from the lounge staff, who were busy texting on their phones and couldn’t be bothered assisting passengers. As for the cabanas, yes, they’re private but shabby. A poor showing.

  2. I think an often overlooked domestic lounge is the BA lounge at SFO. Although I rarely fly BA to London anymore (company switched to United a couple years back), I do have fond memories. Not only are all the amenities and facilities top-notch (particularly of course in the first class lounge), but you can board directly from the lounge in either first or business.

    In comparison the new Cathay lounge at SFO is dismal and disappointing, but I did recently get to visit the first class Cathay lounge at HKG and it is very nice. I dislike the open layout but the food and other amenities are fantastic.

  3. I had a whole response written out then I reread the article to realize you did not put these in rank order. Oh well.

    Having been to a few of these, the Wing is on an in-between level between top tier F lounges and just okay F lounges (i.e. UA GFL SFO). It is obviously nicer than your standard lounge being just redone, and had great facilities, but it was a little crowded for a top tier first class lounge as they let all the emeralds in, IMO, which made it much weaker. Also, the open air setup isn’t quite as classy as it could be.

  4. With all the devices Gary totes around, I’m surprised power outlets weren’t high on the list. Some lounges are terrible-AA JFK out by the gates-people just string cords across the person next to them.

    Kudos to the new AA lounge at CDG. Each seat has its own power set with female inputs for European, UK and US. Very nice.

  5. I think you hit the nail on the head as to why McCartney was wrong regarding the difference between U.S. airline lounges and foreign airline lounges (especially with respect to comparing them to UA or AA IFLs). I wish I could understand why they care so little about investing more in them. Do you have any insight? As you note, DL was willing to invest more at JFK (and AA did a nice job with their premium check-in area at ORD), but since U.S. airlines really do want people to shell out 5K+ for international premium cabins I cannot for the life of me figure out why they wouldn’t want to have a nicer ground product–especially since it’s not prohibitively expensive to update lounge decor.

  6. I recently visited American admirals lounge st JFK travelling business class to London with a British airwsys tiket,i ve been given 2 coupons for dtinks thats unseen before even in africa you have complimentary drinks not 2!!!as for the catering haha carrots olives and crakers!!! Are americans on diet or what???for sure i will make sure BA wont book me on AA.

  7. Sadly there is nothing outstanding in any way (except their size) about the Emirates lounges in the old concourse in Dubai. And, unfortunately, there is no way of knowing until you check in which you will get.

    Whilst only A380s depart from the new concourse (so 777 pax are out of luck) plenty of A380s go from the old one, as I found a few weeks ago.

  8. I let my United Club membership lapse, especially after the downgrade in offerings that coincided with the membership price increase. The Narita lounge was so packed last weekend that i just left, as the internet was overloaded. Could have gone to the ANA lounge, but that was packed the weekend before.

    Other than the special lounges like TG and FCT, i find these lounges to be passé and my wife and i actually now enjoy sampling the airport offerings.

  9. Gary,

    There is a newcomer in the Intl F market since last month. They seem to have pretty decent offerings: Garuda Indonesia. It’s a nice welcome to see one carrier adding Intl F to their service while a lot are actually reducing their capicity (LH) when they are not withdrawing totally (SA).
    Anyway back to the point there is a TR you can find on both Airliners and FT and their service on the ground looks pretty impressive (Wagyu steak, lobster bisque, etc). Their food and service in the air looks amazing too! Wouldn’t mind trying them out!

  10. It’s also important to recognize that the US airlines have MANY more “hub” lounges than any of their competitors. Every other major world airline has just 1 major hub where they can invest tremendously in services/amenities–consider Cathay in Hong Kong, Singapore, Emirates in Dubai, Qatar in Doha, Etihad in Abu Dhabi, Asiana and Korean in Seoul, etc, all of which have but a single place to invest. Qantas has Sydney and Melbourne; Lufthansa has Frankfurt and Munich; ANA and JAL have Tokyo Haneda and Narita.

    But every US airline has multiple major hubs in which they need to invest–United with both EWR and JFK in NYC as well as SFO, LAX, IAD, and ORD alone! American has ORD, DFW, JFK/LGA, MIA, and now perhaps LAX. Delta has ATL, JFK/LGA, LAX, MSP, and now perhaps SEA. No other world airline has as many major hubs at which they need to invest, and that significantly larger hub number means the investment is split. On top of the fact that US airlines get NO major investment/subsidy from the US government unlike in other nations.

    US airlines don’t provide the same level of service as their foreign counterparts for the most part, but this also reflects the significantly larger networks from the nation with the most passenger traffic of all airlines–even China’s airlines won’t surpass the US in this regard for another 20-30 years based on current projections. It also reflects the US need to be more competitive, as no other nation has as many private competing airlines within its own domestic market. No other nation but China has even close to the domestic route map that the US has, which puts pressure on US airlines for staffing/training and the domestic/international difference like no other nation’s airlines except for China’s, which are still in their infancy and which will not even come close to US airline performance for well beyond that 20-30 year projection.

    Yes, the US hubs and lounges and service don’t measure up to the best in the world. But there are numerous reasons for this phenomenon. All in all, however, the US offerings are not nearly as bad as people like to pretend…especially when you consider the more complicated and extensive route networks the US airlines have.

  11. My off-cuff guesses include; a very different pax demographic, different length of stay requirements, different needs and expectations and a VERY different ‘sense of entitlement.’ With a few exceptions U. S. domestic lounges truly suck and, again with some exceptions, out-country lounges tend to be quite good. Foreign lounges tend to be increasing access as services available to in-bound pax, a trend that I’ve not seen in the U.S. (That is a positive, even important benefit at least for my needs and I’m pleased to see the trend.) In the end, I guess that is also a huge difference in how domestic and international flyers understand the simple word ‘service.’

  12. The main problem with the USA lounges is their food and drink selection. Many of the lounges — particularly in the hubs — can be very comfortable and elegant looking. But then there’s barely any free food and drink. This seems a bit odd to me because neither are particularly expensive. I mean, lets be realistic: food is astonishingly cheap in the USA. If the airlines were willing to spend $4 per lounge customer on food, I’m sure they could put out an enjoyable spread. And tap a few microbrew kegs and we’d think they were generous.

    Instead, the powers that be have declared that a USA lounge customer is only worth about $1 in free food. Which is why the lounges suck.

    I do wonder if the airlines might get back that $3 — and more — if they made the lounges better and encouraged biz travelers to fly more by not offering an unpleasant product.

  13. @Bill , Look at LH for example and take their lounge offerings.
    – The concept of paying for lounge membership only exists in North America, yet the lounge still are terrible and you have to pay for it.
    – LH has an extensive network of lounges in Europe and even some in the USA, where you get much better food, drinks, showers that at an RCC / AA club/ US club.

    The LH group destinations and flights beats both UA and AA (at the moment, not after the merger i think).

  14. @iahphx , LH average cost for a customer in their SEN lounge in food and drinks is 2.xx euros (about 3.xx USD).

    What I really don’t understand is with the money they’re getting from membership, they can’t up their f&b offerings. I transited through IAD a couple months ago and instead of going to the RCC i went to the LH loounge even so I was flying UA that day. Better food & drinks.

  15. IST CIP lounge is also good. Sometimes it can be overcrowded, but other than that, it’s pretty good.

  16. I’ve had mediocre food at the Concorde Room as well, but do like the booths for a semi-private dining experience. And they’ve had the most interesting wine selections of any lounges I’ve been to, including the FCT. For me, that makes up for the food, and sitting out on the terrace outside the main lounge tends to be fairly quiet and relaxing.

    For the overall experience, however, LH has it nailed.

  17. I agree with you that some of the best food at any of these lounges has to be the brisket at the AMEX Centurion at DFW……But that is not why I seek out a lounge……..when I am exhausted from long flights I want to be able to lay my “stuff” down and walk away to get drinks and snacks in a “secure” environment……..that is why the Cabana at the Concorde is so great for us……a shower, a spa treatment, chase lounge, PRIVACY………I’ll gladly take that security for better food after I arrive at my location………and it really it hard to screw up eggs and bacon as I would never let a Brit cook my burger…………

  18. The new (relatively) Qatar lounge at LHR is extraordinarily nice. You don’t get a lot of the ‘extra’ services that you get at hub lounges of LH and TG, but solely as a lounge at an outpost, it’s the best I’ve ever been in.

  19. @Leo: I am not disputing that foreign top airline lounges are usually better than US airline lounges. That being said, LH and other top airlines with top lounges have far fewer top hub lounges to invest in compared to US airlines, and LH and other top airlines have far fewer lounges OVERALL to invest in compared to US airlines, as well. European lounges may technically be international for LH, but essentially there are comparable to the domestic lounges offered by the US airlines. And there are FAR more US lounges offered by US airlines than LH or any other Euro carrier offers in Europe.

    Again, I am arguing that while the US lounge quality isn’t as good as that of its top airline peers, I also am arguing that the US airlines have far more lounges and far more airports to consider and invest in compared to ANY other airlines worldwide. That contributes to the reason for the edge that other carriers’ lounges often have over US airlines.

  20. I also think it’s worth noting that the US is full of gluttonous people far more than any other nation, so offering better food at its lounges would cost the US airlines even more than it would comparably cost any other nations’ airlines–since Americans would just eat and eat and eat regardless of whether or not they were full. 🙂 Sad, but yet so true. So perhaps the US airline lounge poorer food selection is preventative.

  21. Slightly off topic. But I think the KLM 52 lounge is what all lounges should at least strive for. Large, Clean, Comfortable, Showers and Pretty good food and good alcohol.

  22. @Bill:

    I am not sure where you get your facts but I just pulled up Wikipedia for LH and UA. LH has 61 locations of Business, SEN’s and First Class lounges, while UA has only 51 locations of RCC, and First Class Lounges. Therefore in OVERALL LH (not counting the lounges of LX, OS, SN, and LO) has more lounges than UA to invest in.

    LH can can manage better service operating more lounges than UA (and i am seriously not a LH fan at the moment but i have to give them their dues where they are).

    Regarding your second point of glutony, while i will agree with the stereotype that americans tend to eat more than Europeans the europeans/asian airlines lounges in the USA have much better offerings.

    Now I don’t know if you have ever been to the FRA SEN lounges, or the SIN SQ C SilverKris Lounges around meal times, but about every 10 minutes or so the staff fill up the self serve buffet. One way LH has managed to cut down on cost I think is by having stations manned by staff for noodles / sandwhich spread which I guess limits the number of times a person will help himself.

  23. @Leo, according to the list on United’s website (www.united.com/web/en-US/content/travel/airport/lounge/locations/default.aspx) there are 61 United and Copa Club locations through the world. I cannot find a listing on Lufthansa’s website since they conveniently avoid that–so I will have to assume your 61 LH lounge locations is accurate.

    I assure you that in my travels, I’ve been many times to LH lounges NOT in FRA or MUC that are not any better than those of UA in the US. Perhaps we disagree on what makes a lounge better. But I doubt it. In FRA and MUC, there is no question that LH lounges are superior to those anywhere in the UA system–as I’ve already conceded. The point I’ve already made is that LH has but 2 major hubs to worry about whereas UA (and every other US carrier) has FAR MORE.

    You are focusing strictly on ONE airline–LH–for reasons defying understanding. I stand by my original assessment that US carriers have FAR MORE lounges they need to provide because the US is much larger than ANY other country with bigger hubs than ANY airline’s home country we want to discuss. Germany offers a close competitor since LH is the ONLY big airline from the world’s 4th biggest economy–so per capita it does very well in that regard. The US now has 3 major global airlines, to Germany’s 1, and the resources and revenue get divided accordingly. THAT is what PARTIALLY explains the difference between US carrier’s lack thereof. I’m not arguing that difference. I am explaining reasons for the difference beyond simplistic expectations that US carriers merely are performing worse–because it’s not that simple.

  24. I did not have the chance to try the Concorde Room when I was in LHR (too quick of a connection) but I did spend a few hours at the one in JFK. I have to say, it was very spacious and relaxing. Food offerings were a bit sparse, but decent. The official meal service was nice – once again not a huge amount of options. Drink options were quite nice, though. The staff seemed to act pretty decently – NYC style service, helpful but harried. One (small) complaint is that to get the free 15 min treatment from Elemis you had to exit the lounge and trek across the (very crowded) terminal to the Galleries business lounge. I will say that while crowded and very large, the Business lounge was quite attractive. And the dinner buffet on that side was very tasty with lots of options. Not as fancy as the plated dinner service in the Concorde Room, but very nice options. The F side of the Galleries lounge, for other OW F fliers and OW Emeralds was just a small space on the side of the much larger business lounge and a bit unmemorable. All in all Terminal 7 at JFK has three BA lounges so elite passengers are a bit spread out. But the Concorde Room at JFK was in no way the LH F terminal or lounge in FRA, but one of the nicest lounges I’ve been to in the USA.

  25. As a frequent reader of the this and other FF websites, I will admit to having reservations before visiting the Concorde Room at LHR for the first time. I had seen the “messy bathroom” photo and was expecting the worst. But, to my surprise, everything was spotless, the service was very good (though had room for improvement), the food was excellent, and 4 hours in the cabana was a welcome relief to fight off the jet lag.

    I was disappointed in the Elemis Spa experience. There are too many booths, too close together. It doesn’t feel very private, nor do the massage chairs make me feel like I’m in a real spa. (Though this is a both J and F benefit, I believe).

    Flying in J on the way back, I visited the Galleries lounge, teaming with passengers. It certainly made me long for the CCR!

  26. @Bill
    Well said. Just look at the number of people going in and out of a US airport lounge, it is just unrealistic (financial-wise) for the airlines to provide the same level of service, drink, food etc on their own dime (while the wall street is yelling at the airlines back “CUT, CUT, CUT!!!”).

  27. Leo —

    I’m not sure where your stat comes from, but I wouldn’t be surprised if LH only spends a couple Euro per person on food to operate a decent lounge. I don’t think it would take much and — given that these lounges charge membership fees and/or require significant spend at the airline — it seems somewhat shocking how cheap the USA airlines are in doling out hospitality. It would be like somebody coming over to your house for a visit and you offering them only tap water and white bread. It’s weird. And have you noticed how the airlines almost never change the paltry snacks they DO serve: like it can be the same odd bag of tortillas or Milano cookie for YEARS. Why would you do that? So the repeat guests get so tired of it and eat even less? The whole catering (or lack thereof) of USA airline lounges deserves an investigative report. 🙂

  28. Yes, showers are important, especially in international airports and US international gateways, but don’t forget just regular bathrooms. As examples, the SQ lounge in BKK and the TG lounge in SIN don’t have bathrooms in the lounge. A huge lounge benefit is easy access to clean bathrooms, and these 2 don’t deliver.

  29. @Loran That is pretty funny that you point that out…….maybe the next time Lucky posts his BA bathroom photo you can post a picture of a wall with a urinal drawn in marks-a-lot and then ask readers which bathroom they prefer……..BA SQ or TG……….no one has ever claimed the Brits can cook but at least they are civilized……………

  30. To add a few lounges that you can get into with priority club or lounge club if you are just an economy traveler, like I usually am; Helsinki Home lounge, Seoul Hub lounge, and Zurich Senators lounge. Good hot food is hard to find and those 3 have it, although the last two can get crowded. I will be trying out both the Thai Bangkok first class lounge and the Frankfurt Lufthansa next month though!

  31. The LH First Class Terminal in Frankfurt has two private sleeping rooms plus a wake-up call for your departing flight. If you have arrived from the west coast, that’s the most valuable feature of all!

  32. You ask my opinion of what constitutes a good First lounge? The ones that have a mobile phone area so the guests don’t have to listen to self-important middle management discussing their lives on the phone, Americans are the worst. I don’t want to hear it. LH F FRA, TG F BKK are the best, QF F SYD is a glorified cafeteria. If you want to make a really important call, go outside

  33. I agree the CCR is overrated, however even the rubbishy Servisair business lounges have a better food and drink selection than all US lounges I’ve been in save for Amex and Flagship ones. I can’t believe people pay for Admirals Club membership yet only get water/coffee/OJ and some pretzels!

  34. @nsx Only 2 private rooms……Concorde Room has to have more Cabanas than that……..Are you able to reserve in advance and are your chances of getting one always slim?

  35. The Turkish Air business lounge at IST is the best I’ve visited. It offers a wide variety of meal-type food, booze, storage lockers, showers and even sleeping rooms…all at no cost.

    And, the room itself is beautiful, with arches reminiscent of the city’s mosques.

  36. After applying the elements listed at the end of your post, I have trouble understanding your conclusion that US airline lounges are equivalent to European business class lounges. Almost every Euro lounge I’ve visited (including even the inferior *A lounges) has a far better selection of food and beverages than any UA, DL or AA lounge. Also better chairs, showers, bathrooms, etc. It isn’t even close. You can actually make a meal in a Euro or Asian lounge, and you aren’t limited to horrific Bud and Miller products.

    Maybe you spend too much time in F lounges? Is that a realistic comparison for the vast majority of travelers – even top FF elites and paid biz class flyers who rarely qualify to visit F lounges?

  37. Don’t understand why UA is sending me a Regus business world card when I have a lifetime Red Carpet club card? Why do I “need” this?

  38. You don’t need to have it but it can be handy in some cities – I used it in KL to get free internet and some refreshments in the middle of the day when I had some emails to do.

  39. No, no, no. IST CIP lounge is NOT one of the “best” lounges. Nearly always overcrowded, loud, people acting like ravenous animals with the food offerings, mediocre to poor customer service.

    Just no.

  40. 1. Peace and Quiet—I’ve always enjoyed the F section of the Wing in HKG.

    2. Quality Food and Beverage. @bill—DL actually seems to have an ambitious program to get rid of their 1MM and 2MM customers and not have to deal with lifetime benefits!—most of their snack food is chock full of saturated fats…

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