What Makes a Great Airport Lounge

Airline lounges range from opulent and decadent to basic and overcrowded. Here are the bare minimums for a decent airport lounge I think. Many people have sought to socially distance, but personal space mattered before the pandemic. But there are many things beyond that which make a great lounge.

Many lounges are still closed, especially lounges for international flyers. That will change. And new airlines or credit card companies will take over the space and have to consider what’s most important for them to offer.

  • 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. Ideally shoot for 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 and the airline sells access).

    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. Etihad has long 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.

    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 not 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 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. Quiet! I can’t stand London’s British Airways lounge or Newark’s United lounge. It’s quieter to go to the gate, my gosh!

  2. Having good agents are important. United’s trend of replacing them with a QR code to a virtual agent needs to be stopped.

  3. Nice list. But, other than that, what have the Romans ever given us?

    I agree with Felicia: Quiet. Which folds into a calm and elegant ambiance. Getting away from the din of the concourse.

  4. I was wondering Gary, how do you protect your laptop from wireless hacking in a lounge?

  5. You have not mentioned the Turkish Air Business Class Lounge in Istanbul. My absolute favorite!

  6. @RF: I am the opposite. I appreciate the QR code, especially for crowded lounges. It gets access quicker. Let the agents actually deal with changes and issues. Maybe you had an issue with a QR scan?

  7. Why are some lounges still closed? On Friday, I encountered an airport where the only lounge in the terminal was closed. Now that the passenger numbers are so high again, there is no excuse for lounges not being open.

  8. I realize not every lounge can do this, but the BA lounge in Boston offers direct boarding of the aircraft from the lounge, which is a neat trick. They call the flight and you go a separate entrance to the boarding gate, complete with ticket check, never encountering the gate area. Since we were on the 7 AM flight to London, my new favorite way to fly to Europe as it almost completely avoids the worst of jetlag, they serve a decent breakfast, then you have a chance at second breakfast once the flight is underway. The lounge is quiet at that hour as you check the morning’s email or headlines, perhaps make a late dinner reservation in London, which you can make off this flight.

    FWIW, once the new Elizabeth Line runs straight through, replacing the Heathrow Express, getting to Central London will be super easy. New York could learn a lesson about what to do from Manhattan to LGA and JFK.

  9. Yes, showers! Last week I was in AMS, WAW, and RIX and each has a lounge with a shower. Economy flyers probably need showers more than Business/First flyers.

    This year I got the Citi AA Admirals Club credit card because American has a few showers for members flying domestic and I dropped my Chase United Club credit card because they closed the few remaining showers built by Continental.

  10. Good list. At a minimum a comfy seat with good WiFi, nearby bathroom, snacks, power available.

  11. Agree with both Felicia Demos and Reno Joe. “Quiet Lounges”, should’ve been a factor in making for a Great Airport Lounge. I have found that the ANA and JAL lounges in Japan to be the quietest. The Japanese do have the advantage since “quiet” is part of their culture, except during elections where they have vans blaring the candidates’ message to the people! The ANA and JAL lounges have plenty of private rooms for making calls as well. Truly an Oasis…

  12. How about some decent booze for house drinks. Midgrade would be fine ie.
    Dewars ,Jack , Tanqueray and Titos. Good local craft beers instead of coors light.

  13. Alaska Airlines Seattle lounge ..is like a college dorm room. furniture is cheap, very few outlets. food was subpar . There was NO dresscode…. if there was it was NOT inforced.. grown men were in flip flops, girls in short shorts, wife beater shirts. The Guests were LOUD i mean while talking on their phones and speaking with others. Compared to other lounges I have been to this was bad bad bad

  14. You kind of buried it in there, but electrical outlets. Lots of them. Nowadays, most have got them, but when you come across once that doesn’t, you feel it. It is important that lounges make you more productive on the road.

    A good local beer without an additional charge is also much appreciated.

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