Here’s What Makes a Great Airport Lounge

God Save the Points asks what makes a great airport lounge?

Here are the basics, the bare minimums for a decent airport lounge I think.

  • There should be plenty of seating. The lounge should be large enough that it never feels crowded. The seating should almost all have readily available power so you can charge up before your flight or at least avoid draining down devices before you fly (the airline should have seat power too but why rely on it working?).

    American Airlines Flagship Lounge, Miami

  • The wifi should work, and it should be fast.

  • There should be helpful and experienced agents to assist with travel disruptions.

    AAngels in the Washington National American Airlines Club

  • There should be food and beverage offerings, and they should taste good and look appetizing. A buffet shouldn’t sit unattended for hours, and food shouldn’t be shrink wrapped sandwiches, just veggies and dip, or a snack tower of sadness.

    Noodle bar, Cathay Pacific business lounge Singapore

  • A lounge should have restrooms. Don’t send customers into the terminal. These restrooms should be kept super clean.

  • A lounge at an international hub needs showers. There’s no airport shower quite as impressive as the Cathay Pacific cabanas in their ‘The Wing’ first class lounge in Hong Kong, but I’m happy as long as the room is large, with a toilet, toiletries, and somewhere to place your luggage and clothes as you change.

United has eliminated showers from its standard club concept. Their Polaris business class lounges have showers. Long haul economy passengers won’t have access to showers even with elite status and even with a club membership.

In order to really create a plus experience, go beyond the bare minimum, the elements of a really nice lounge are:

  • Great dining. food that doesn’t taste like you’re in the airport. Enjoy a sit down meal before your flight and you can go right to sleep on the plane.

    I give real kudos to Qantas lounge dining, but I think that American does a nice job in their Flagship First Dining rooms (sadly only American’s own three-cabin first class passengers have access, though ConciergeKey members are being invited to try it).

    Flagship First Dining New York JFK

    Miami Corn Chowder With Corn Fritters

    Emirates does a nice job with sit down dining in Dubai. Air France does an exceptional job in Paris, Lufthansa in their home markets. Cathay Pacific is great in Hong Kong. And cooked to order food is probably the one (and only) nice thing about the Singapore Airlines Private Room in Singapore. It’s also done incredibly well in the American Express Centurion Lounge Hong Kong’s dining room that’s exclusive for Black Card members.

    Centurion Lounge Hong Kong, Centuron Cardmember Dining Room

    Thai Yellow Curry Beef, Centurion Lounge Hong Kong

  • Great service escort from check-in to the lounge, from lounge to aircraft, how do you make the whole ground experience seamless from airport arrival to departure?

    The greatest experiences are those where you don’t have to pay attention to where you are in the airport, when you need to leave, or how to get there. Airports can be unfamiliar environments, and taking away that stress lets you enjoy travel and also focus on enjoying the lounge, relaxing, or working without constantly looking at your watch and worrying about making your flight — that’s someone else’s job.

    JetQuay Planeside Gold Cart Pickup, Singapore

    Being driven to the plane as Lufthansa and Air France do in their home markets is the best, but I love even the escort to the lounge and from lounge to gate from Thai Airways in Bangkok.

    Lufthansa First Class Terminal

  • Nap rooms. Long layovers between long haul sometimes mean needing to close your eyes. And it’s much nicer for the passenger to have a private space to do that, and it’s much nicer for everyone else too not to have people falling asleep in a large open room with everyone else watching.

    United Polaris Lounge Nap Room, Chicago

    A nice solution is what Cathay Pacific offers at ‘The Pier’ in Hong Kong. They have semi-private rooms in an area known as “The Retreat.” These are small cabanas of sort (without their own bathroom), just a little room with day bed and power where you can close a curtain for privacy. They overlook the tarmac offering direct view of aircraft, though you can also lower blinds to keep out the light.

    Cathay Pacific’s “The Retreat” Inside the Pier Lounge, Hong Kong

  • Indulgent services. The best lounge massages are sixty minutes from Thai Airways in Bangkok, and these are available on an abbreviated basis even for their business class passengers subject to availability.

    Thai Airways Spa, Bangkok

    I find the 20 minute massages from Qantas to be excellent. A private spa treatment room, and a table, is key to the relaxation.

    Qantas First Class Spa, Sydney

    Etihad has closed down their “Style & Shave” which is too bad, there was nothing like getting a hair cut before your flight!

  • Design, beautiful spaces. Ideally a lounge will have large windows and tarmac views, I don’t want a darkened windowless space. That’s my biggest complaint about the Qantas first class lounge in Los Angeles. But beyond airport views there are design elements that simply make a space pleasing.

    Qantas First Class Lounge, Sydney

    I think the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at Heathrow is beautiful. I love the feel of Cathay Pacific’s The Pier first class lounge in Hong Kong.

    Cathay Pacific ‘The Pier’ Hong Kong

    But perhaps the most beautiful lounge, to me, is the Qatar Airways first class al Safwa lounge in Doha. It’s not a top five lounge otherwise, though I think it’s top ten, but the space is just gorgeous.

    Qatar Airways al Safwa Lounge

For the purpose of this post I’m not really interested in what one lounge is best overall in the world, or ranking lounges, just thinking about what elements make for a great lounge.

In some sense my favorite lounges aren’t actually the very best lounges but they are very good and also accessible. The Qantas first class lounges and the Cathay Pacific first class lounges are all very good and also open to top tier elite frequent flyers in their own programs as well as those of their alliance partners.

So while I’d love to be able to visit American’s Flagship Dining I’m not often flying American three-cabin first class, indeed they don’t offer it on many routes at all. And the American Express Centurion Dining in Hong Kong inside the Centurion lounge there is limited to Centurion cardholders. And I’m shelling out the initiation fee and annual fee for a Black Card, even if I could finagle an invitation.

Just as with award availability where the best product is the one you’re able to book, the very best lounge is the one you have access to — provided they’re hitting the marks on seating, power, and food.

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, 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. The lounge that impressed me the most (for a business class flyer) recently was the *A lounge in LAX. Lots of room, good enough food, nice drinks, interesting places to sit. Good showers! I was flying UA in J to MEL, and was so much nicer than the UA lounge.

  2. If you like the lounges in Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Singapore, then why don’t you just go live there, Gary—-I guarantee you, if you do, you will end up not becoming Jim Rogers. Everything you wrote is offered inside the US lounges. If you think they are not, then support dumping all of this diversity garbage + send the illegals back. Before you know it, the lounge agents will be a angry, transgendered Oscar the Grouch demanding more rights than you, clicking your upgrade to the back of the plane out of spite.

    There’s always Russia, Gary. You can visit their lounges during a stopover.

  3. @Brian Gary – I am quite confident overcrowding in US airport lounges is not driven by undocumented immigrants. And on the whole Russian airports don’t have particularly special lounges.

  4. That was maybe the most hilariously unhinged comment I have ever seen on *any* travel blog.

  5. May I add that shower rooms should have disposable cups so I can brush my teeth.

    Last time in the AA JFK Flagship lounge I simply grabbed a coffee cup on my way into the showers, but that felt tacky and shouldn’t be necessary.

  6. I would like to add that showers should have adequate ventilation. I can think of a number of lounge showers that don’t replace the air adequately and you end up sweating in the humidity after getting out of the shower which pretty much obviates the purpose of having a shower in the first place.

    Cathay’s arrival lounge and Qatar’s Doha Al Mojaroon are particularly bad in this regard.

  7. Gary, do you know of a single, in-depth site that lists the best First AND Biz lounges, as well as other private (like Priority Pass, since so many of us have access) lounges, both domestically and internationally, by airport? İt would be great to have as a go-to reference source, instead of relying on a mishmash of sites and independent reviews, all of which can take hours to comb through for updated information.

  8. CX also.has a separate sit down dining area in its F lounge at LHR, open to.One World Emerald and not just CX F. The lounge is beautiful with great views.

  9. This is just a rambling post about lounges. Each lounge serves a different purpose. You should narrow it down to

    You cant expect fine dining in a domestic lounge.

  10. @WilliamC – Feeling your inner troll? This is a very good post. It’s not a fluff piece, it’s not credit card centric, it’s well written, and it’s informative. If there’s a problem, it’s not with Don or Gary.
    @Gary – Nice to hear that someone else is not madly in love with The Private Room in Singapore. Good food, though.

  11. I was with you until you got to airport escorts

    Cars to the plane are nice, but dear gosh I don’t need anyone walking me around the airport (or driving me in a golf cart). Slows me down, forces me into awkward conversations, and is just generally overbearing and unnecessary for any able-bodied traveler.

    And the Qatar lounges in DOH are awful – cold (not referring to temperature), sterile, dark, and terrible food. No way they would show up in my top 10 lounge list.

  12. I enjoy Qatar Doha lounge. Sit-down dining is decent. Quiet areas. Plenty of plugs, interesting places to sit and modern showers. (Best showers are Swiss Air ZRH lounges!) // Also really like BA LHR Galleries First lounge, T5 (accessible by AA EP status, long-h biz). Plenty of space, lots of windows, dine-by-order-menu plus outdoor patio w wrap-around view of tarmac. But my fav are AMEX Centurion Lounges (US). Especially LAS, DFW & MIA. Thx.

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