When flying long-haul, I tend to get to the airport early. Not because I’m one of those anxious flyers who likes to sit around in departures for three hours staring at the flight status screens, but because some airlines have upped their lounge game to such a point that it’s essential to allow enough time to enjoy a manicure at the on-site spa while drinking vintage champagne.
The key to getting the VIP experience is forward-planning; you don’t need a wallet full of gold cards, although it does help. Nowadays, even economy passengers can get into airport lounges for about £30 – Heathrow’s No 1 Traveller, for instance, has showers, nap pods and truffled mac ‘n’ cheese on order. I’m a member of Priority Pass (£259 a year), which grants me access to more than 1,000 lounges around the world, regardless of my airline or cabin class.
Credit cards are another way of gaming the system. Although you have to pay an annual fee, the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, Citi Prestige and Platinum AMEX all throw in a free Priority Pass membership. Schemes like these will get you into some of my favourite lounges, including Almost@Home in Helsinki, the Star Alliance lounge in Paris CDG, and the Aspire lounge at Heathrow T5, which serves afternoon tea and London Pride ale.
I’m a member of Priority Pass (£259 a year), which grants me access to more than 1,000 lounges around the world, regardless of my airline or cabin class.
To access the world’s top-tier lounges (which always come with free food, alcohol and wifi), however, you need to be flying business or first class with a specific airline (or alliance; Oneworld, Skyteam or Star Alliance). At Heathrow T3’s hip Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse you can get a free haircut before sitting down for a martini at the bar. Over in T5, the British Airways Concorde Room has private-dining cabanas with waiter service.
In the Middle East, Qatar Airways’s first class Al Safwa lounge at Doha’s Hamad International airport is more like a cathedral than an airport chill-out zone. Here you can admire work on loan from the Museum of Islamic Art and a beautiful water fountain. To top it all off, there’s a fine-dining restaurant, nine treatment rooms and a jacuzzi. (The sprawling Al Mourjan business lounge is equally outstanding.)
Asia does hospitality well, too. In Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific’s The Wing (with separate business and first class sections) features Travertine marble shower suites, unlimited buffets of Western and Asian cuisine, a noodle bar and the Long Bar, which is great for plane spotting. Cathay’s nearby Pier lounge, meanwhile, has its own teahouses, cocktail bars and food halls.
An airline’s best lounge will almost always be found at its home base – Qantas in Sydney, Singapore Airlines in Singapore, Etihad in Abu Dhabi and Emirates in Dubai. They’re all investing in ways to dazzle – be it vertical gardens, cuisine from renowned chefs or cutting-edge design. The only problem is tearing yourself away when your flight is boarding.