What Makes a Great Airline Lounge, and What are the Bare Minimum Standards?

A Boston Globe piece, tied partially to the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse in Boston, outlines the different features that lounges offer.

The piece begins with a description of what I see as the top two lounge experiences:

When Gary Leff, cofounder of the frequent flier community Milepoint.com, departs from the Lufthansa First-Class Terminal in Frankfurt, his rental car is valet parked, and a personal assistant arrives to take his passport and process immigration, while he is escorted through a short and very discreet security line.

The major stresses of flying now allayed, Leff can savor his waiting time before the flight. He can enter a cigar bar with a selection of 80 whiskies, lie on a comfy leather sofa in his own napping room, or take a bath in an oversized tub.

“When it’s time to board, you’re escorted downstairs to the waiting driver, who takes you across the tarmac directly to your plane in your choice of a Porsche or Mercedes,” says Leff.

At the Thai Airways First- Class Lounge in Bangkok, a golf cart is waiting to whisk you away to rooms full of Thai food or to a prearranged appointment in a spa bungalow for an hourlong Thai massage.

“These are some of the top specialists in Asia, used to providing spa treatments for Thai generals and royalty,” says Leff.

It then offers my distinction between a basic, notch above, and world class lounge:

Leff flies more than 200,000 miles a year and thus spends a good deal of time in airport lounges. He notes that all of them should have these basic services as a minimum: free Wi-Fi, ample comfortable seating, easy-to-access power sources, substantial snacks, and assistance with ticketing. Add showers, drink service at your seat, boarding announcements, and hot food items, and that lounge is a notch above the rest. To be world-class, it must have sit-down restaurant service, a spa, escort to the plane, and private security screening.

So the categories I was thinking of are:

  • Bare minimum acceptable: requires free wireless internet, ample seating, power, snacks, and ticketing assistance (useful for irregular operations, same-day changes, upgrade issues).

  • Superior: showers, hot food, ‘plus’ services

  • World class: restaurant, spa, escort to plane, dedicated/expedited security.

What, in your mind, makes for a great lounge? Do you buy my distinctions? Are there key amenities that I’m missing?

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. Another big difference: complimentary booze (not the bar that you have to pay for). Bare minimum is well drinks and watery beer. A decent lounge will have some respectable complimentary wine/champagne/beer/scotch options. A great lounge has, in addition to service at your seat as mentioned in the post, a variety of high-end drinks to choose from.

  2. I would have said showers (maybe specifically for international lounges) are bare minimum acceptable.

  3. I never got the feeling that you can choose your car at the LH FCT. And I also never asked…

  4. Speaking of LH, I have an AA flight arriving at 6am and a BA flight leaving at 6pm and am planning to go to downtown London during the day. For those of you well-traveled, is there a lounge my complimentary AA day passes from citi will work in prior to my BA flight? I see on the AA site I cannot get into the arrivals lounge or the FCT lounge but can’t figure out if there is another one I can access or not (I am flying economy). My view of a great lounge is simply having a quieter place away from the masses.

  5. Boarding announcements? My favorite thing about lounges is that they’re quiet. So in general, the fewer announcements, the better.

  6. I like lounges with views, such as at Cathay Pacific’s The Wing in Hong Kong. I wouldn’t consider this essential for even a world class lounge, but it does add a nice additional aspect.

    Also, you mentioned spas, Gary. I’m not sure this is essential either. I don’t believe the Lufthansa First Class Terminal or First Class Lounges have these, do they?

    Also, there are spas and there as spas, ranging from the British Airways Concorde Lounge’s fairly minimal spa to the full hour of a nice massage one gets via the Thai First Class Lounge. That massage has me ranking the Thai lounge tops among those I’ve been to.

  7. Oh this is easy – a family area with a door that closes. Everyone wins if there is one, everyone potentially loses if there is not one.

  8. Office facilities like printer and scanner are important for me.

    And yes QUIET lounges please. Nothing is more disturbing as every third minute an announced boarding.

    A big plus (for home airline lounges): Award booking assistance. @LH it’s annoying sitting in the lounge and calling the hotline to check for award upgrades or tickets.

    And daylight areas. I don’t like to sit with artificial light if the sun shines outside.

  9. NOT Overcrowded. IST *A Lounge had been a favorite up until the last six months where it has gotten unbearable.

  10. Mommypoints is right. Most US airlines’ lounges are built under the assumption that kids never travel–or only poor peoples’ kids travel.

  11. I dunno how anyone would apply metrics, but “soothing atmosphere” has to be a criterion for either the bare minimum or superior classes. What I really appreciate about the lounges is that they offer a respite from the bedlam of ticket counters, security and boarding gates. This could be achieved by having more partitions, creating an atmosphere of refuge. Also, cell phone free zones would be helpful. I recall being in an ORD United Club a few weeks ago and the number of conversations I distinctly understood from 15 feet was very, very annoying.

  12. A nuance that some airlines end up missing due to expansions or terminal moves is the ease of access relative to the gates and relative to security screening…..I have to say that has to be a minimum standard no matter what other amenities are………

  13. I agree with mommypoints. I appreciate when there is a kids’ lounge within the lounge when traveling with my family and also when I’m traveling alone (hopefully I don’t have to hear some kid whining that the lounge serves “only” Evian and not VOSS… LOL!) With regards to other aspects, I think a lounge minimum should be location inside the security zone (except for airports which have gate security) and close to the host airline’s flights. Nothing is more irritating than a lounge that inconveniently located because you must leave early. Besides what has been mentioned above, pluses for me include: lounges that press your clothes while you are taking a shower, hot or cold items that are more substantial than pre-packaged nibble food (love the LH potato salad!), unique features like the pool table in IST or the SonicChairs in the FRA LH (tower?) lounge, good selection of newspapers, and great views.

  14. The Boston Globe article is somewhat misleading in stating, for example, that first and business class passengers are afforded lounge access. As we know, that’s untrue for the vast majority of domestic and short-haul international flights.

  15. I haven’t been in any other Delta Sky Lounge except for LAX and they to me meet the Mim, just wish they had more seating.

  16. Agree with Andrew. I’ve been in a number of United Lounges recently where every square inch of floor space was filled with chairs and every chair was occupied. Room after room of them. Virtually no difference from the chairs at the gates honestly, aside from the free (but glacially slow) Wi-Fi and the cheese and crackers…

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