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Observations from the World’s Ultimate Airport Lounge

Observations from the World’s Ultimate Airport Lounge

Virgin Atlantic LHR Lounge

Why are most airport departure lounges so terrible? In short, it’s because the airlines want to ensure that premium flyers receive better treatment than the regular people. If everyone were allowed “amenities” like friendly staff and clean restrooms, then no one would want to pay more money to upgrade to a higher class of service.

Tim Harford has a nice essay about this in his Underground Economist book, and persuasively argues that airlines even go out of their way to provide bad service to Economy travelers so that their Premium travelers receive “better” service. In other words, says Harford, a lot of Premium flyers travel in First Class not because it’s wonderful (especially on domestic flights; it’s usually not), but out of fear of being mistreated so badly in Coach. This process naturally extends to the way that travelers are treated in airports, including access to the lounges.

Thanks to upgrades and elite status from flying so much, I often hang out in Delta’s Crown Rooms, American’s Admirals Club, and United’s Red Carpet Clubs when traveling abroad from the U.S. I’ve been in most of the major ones now, from Seattle to Atlanta and pretty much every U.S. hub city.

But don’t feel bad if you’ve never been inside, because they’re usually disappointing.

At the Red Carpet Club in San Francisco last fall, I listened to sales guys all around me make one call after another on their Bluetooth headsets. Drinks at the bar were for sale at regular prices, and while I didn’t feel like drinking at 10:00 a.m. after flying in from Asia the night before, I wondered what the benefit of paying for your drink at the airline lounge was versus paying for your drink outside in the terminal.

At most airline lounges in the U.S., mediocre filter coffee comes from a carafe, with no options for cappuccino or espresso of any kind. Meanwhile, the ever-present Starbucks is often right outside the lounge—but you can’t bring your latte inside, because the lounge allows no outside food or drink.

(Knowing this in advance, I smuggled a café au lait into the Continental club in Newark recently, but then I felt like I had somehow cheated myself instead of Continental. If they could just make decent coffee, I wouldn’t have to spend $4 outside and then feel like a reverse shoplifter trying to bring in my Styrofoam cup.)

The model of punishing Economy travelers so that Premium travelers will feel slightly better is probably not the best or most ethical way to do business, but it’s worked for a lot of bad airlines for a long time. Is there a better way? Sure, although you have to look away from the U.S. to find it.

The Best Airport Lounge in the World

A few months ago, I was in London’s Heathrow Airport waiting to fly out to Tokyo. Generally speaking, I think Heathrow is pretty much the worst major airport in the world. I have often flown to Germany or Denmark just to avoid Heathrow transit, and when traveling to the U.K. I try to land somewhere else when I can.

But on my last trip to London, I didn’t mind Heathrow at all, at least once I got past the Orwellian security staff.

That day in Heathrow, I spent about four hours hanging out in Richard Branson’s $21 million Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Clubhouse thanks to a one-way Frequent Flyer ticket I acquired through transferring rewards points from American Express. The cost for my ticket to Tokyo was $212 in airport taxes and 50,000 Frequent Flyer Miles that I didn’t even have before transferring AmEx points. Not bad for a 10-hour flight to Tokyo that included access to the world’s ultimate airport lounge.

At the airline’s flagship clubhouse in Heathrow, passengers can take advantage of complimentary spa services, get a haircut, warm up in a sauna or chill out in a whirlpool, work in a nice office space, enjoy cooked-to-order food from two restaurants, have a drink or a specialty coffee at the full bar, play billiards or retro video games, visit the rooftop garden, and probably some other stuff that I didn’t have time to notice in my four hour visit.

(Yes, I deliberately arrived at the airport four hours early, and you should too if you get the opportunity to experience this. It’s that great.)

Virgin Atlantic’s premium service, and the clientèle it attracts, is markedly different from the average U.S. airline. Here are four important characteristics of Virgin’s Clubhouse and visitors:

You can’t buy your way in. I would easily pay $50-100 for a day pass to VA’s Clubhouses, and so would thousands of other people… but you can’t. The only way in is with an Upper Class ticket, or the highest elite level in their Frequent Flyer program that usually gets you upgraded anyway. Meanwhile, Delta, Northwest, and Continental all sell day passes to their clubs for $25-40, which is usually $20-35 too much.

The dress code is super-casual. On the day of my visit, a high percentage of people in the Clubhouse were wearing jeans, t-shirts, and other casual clothes. In the average Crown Room Club, half of the travelers wear suits or other business clothes. As I spent the morning in the $21 million Heathrow lounge, I realized that some of the people had paid $5,000 or more for their plane ticket, and yet there they were wearing a t-shirt and casual shoes. They had nothing to prove. I liked that.

Life / Work balance . During my visit, I noticed that the office area was one of the least-used sections of the Clubhouse. Sure, a few people were working most of the morning, and a lot of others like me stopped in for an hour or two to review documents and clear emails, but most people were more interested in having breakfast, catching up on the news, or visiting the spa.

No one talks on the phone continuously. There weren’t many sales guys (or ladies) hanging out in the lounge. Far more common were people like the two gentlemen sitting at the breakfast table near me. One of them was flipping through the Wall Street Journal. “Here it is,” he said casually. “At least they spelled my name right this time.” The other guy nodded. “Yeah, the fact checker kept calling me after the BBC interview.”

I know a guy who is not fabulously wealthy (he is just beginning a business career and earns about $45,000 a year), but he always travels First Class. He says it helps him to meet influential people and maintain a high-achieving mindset. I was skeptical of that idea before, but after spending four hours in the Heathrow lounge, I was more convinced than ever that the road to success does not rest in making sales calls all day and hoping to make the numbers before the end of the quarter.

You’re better off finding your own way, like paying $212 for a $5,000 ticket. When you’re enjoying the world’s ultimate airline lounge before a long-haul flight, I suspect you’ll appreciate the path of non-conformity just as I have.

Virgin Atlantic LHR Lounge - Chris’s Haircut Virgin Atlantic LHR Lounge

Photos: My free haircut in Richard Branson’s chair; the main hang-out area; breakfast cafe section; bar and waiting area (sorry for the grainy pics– I didn’t want to seem like a complete paparazzi)

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15 Comments

  • Bert says:

    Hey Chris,
    I’ve always wondered what those airport lounges were like on the inside having never been in one. Thanks for the reality check of what they are not. Makes me feel better that I’m really not missing out on much, except perhaps Virgin Atlantic’s lounge. Nice haircut BTW!

  • Cheryl says:

    Just discovered your site via Tonya Poole’s Adventure Journalist blog. Lots of great stuff here, Chris – your site is an invaluable rich resource for travellers looking for inspiration !

    As a frequent traveller, I have also experienced many mediocre airport lounges and Heathrow is also my least favourite airport. Last year, I had access to the Virgin Upper Class Lounge on my way to India and I agree with your comments wholeheartedly. What a fabulous experience! I only wish they were all like that.

    Speaking of lounges, I also use the Eurostar a lot to travel between London, Brussels and Paris. The new Eurostar terminal at St Pancras may have won much kudos but the lounge is abysmal and inferior to the one they had at Waterloo. It’s a long thin corridor which overheats, overcrowds quickly and has a luggage rack by an exit where you can’t keep an eye on your bags. Business TV is piped in constantly with no escape from control over the volume. Zero out of ten, Eurostar!

  • Chris says:

    @ Bert and @ Cheryl,

    Thanks for the comments. Cheryl, that’s great that you were there too! I really hope to be able to go back someday.

    I’ve taken the Eurostar from London to Brussels back in the Waterloo days, but didn’t have lounge access. I try to stay out of London now (too expensive), but if I go back I’ll remember that the new space is nothing special.

  • 42 says:

    Hi Chris, just fell across your site today. The Virgin club sounds fantastic. I bought a WorldClub membership once when I lived in Mpls/St Paul and had to fly NW all the time. But just the once; it was always full of suits yelping competitively into cellphones, or, on weekends, screaming out of control kids. So not worth it.

  • Emily says:

    The British Airways lounges in both Manchester and Heathrow are pretty decent too, although Virgin has them beat…I think there’s actually a Molton Browne spa in one of the Heathrow lounges, but of course it was in a different terminal than the one I was in. That said, I hate British Airways with a passion due to several bad experiences and only end up in their lounges when there’s no Admiral’s Club – which vary a lot among different airports, seemingly regardless of the airport itself (SFO is depressing while SJC despite its 80s style is comfortable and spacious).

  • al says:

    Was recently in this Virgin Club Lounge before a trip to NYC and was blown away. Certainly the best I have been in. I didnt know about half the things available though (spa, hairdresser, etc.) if I had have known I would have arrived hours before I did that’s for sure! Excellent speedy meal, offers of regular Champagne without leaving your luxurious seats, nice spacious lounge with a variety of seating options. This was a great experience and one I’d like to repeat. And it certainly beats the Virgin lounge at JFK.

  • xenia says:

    having never been in an airport lounge, I am gratified to learn I’m not missing much! But as a tip to other travellers, if you’re looking for a high-class experience during frequent travel – I have made my own way to be “pampered”.

    - Find a coffee shop that makes the same drink everywhere – Starbucks for example, or any number of local alternatives where they have a million branches and all make it the same way. Find a drink you like from their menu, that way, no matter where you are, you’ll always have your “favourite” drink to hand, made just the way you like. My favourite’s the Mocha Frappuccino.

    - Get some music, and some comfy headphones. If you can find some music you like that you can also work to, all the better. That way you won’t have to worry about volume control or insufferable muzak.

    - Find an armchair. There’s something about armchairs that make them so much more luxurious than hard chairs. Starbucks often has armchairs. Yes, you pay $300 for the coffee (or $6) but you get the armchair time! Curl your feet up and enjoy your personal soundtrack. They almost never ask you to take your feet off the seat – I personally have never once been asked to do so.

    - If you can find a book you like, or a magazine, or a newspaper, or a website … find something to engross yourself in, and float away. Favourite drink, favourite music, comfy seat, and a great novel: 2 hours drifts by like nothing … who needs fancy-schmancy Club lounges, anyway?!?

  • Dan Pierson says:

    Hey Chris,

    Next time you’re in Hong Kong, check out the Wing, Cathay Pacific’s lounge. Easily the most elegant, lavishly appointed place I’ve ever been to (and for free!). You should be able to get in with your OneWorld Emerald status.

    Happy flying,
    Dan

  • Chris says:

    Yep, I’ve been there several times. It’s one of my favorites, but still not as nice as Virgin’s flagship lounge.

  • Merijn says:

    As for headphones (tech-alert), I really like noise cancelling ones, for instance:
    Creative HN-700: http://bit.ly/42MeCB (redirects to trustedreviews).
    They are not too big, and with switching on the headphones, you switch off the train, bus or airplane.
    Even better and smaller were my sennheiser ones, but they broke down and were rather expensive to replace.

  • Que says:

    Hey Chris:
    I found this site after googling for a way to buy a buddy pass.
    (A plain ticket I can use for 1 year for a specific price)
    I have not been inside a premium lounge , but always wondered how it differed.
    I use the military USO which is about the same without the alcohol
    These lounges do aloud you to get to the airport a couple f hours early without dealing with the crowds.
    Trying to find a seat, and keeping an eye on your luggage.
    After reading your article I know now that I would never pay to party.

    Safety 1st
    Que

  • Cristiana Jurgensen says:

    Chris,

    Our family loved this article on lounges. We have lived and traveled abroad for 10 years and have spend A LOT of our time in airports. One of the best ones for us was the British Airways lounge in the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, Nigeria. The lounge itself was your standard issue lounge (I mean no free haircuts or anything!) but what made it so great was the alternative was so bad! Sometimes the awfulness of an airport makes any respite VERY welcome.

  • Michael F. says:

    Chris, agree with you re Virgin clubhouses, but may I provide a correction that you and your readers may benefit HUGELY from?

    Especially for non-US residents, it is worth joining BMI’s FF scheme, called Diamond Club, and is also part of Star Alliance, instead of USAir/Continental/United.

    BMI has some big benefits over the Yankee schemes –

    1. superb points redemption value using their miles plus cash option
    2. the low threshold for status – silver is 15k and from there to gold (and to retain it) is 38k, which is pretty low
    3. BMI Gold get to use ALL Star Alliance lounges regardless of class of travel, including domestic US lounges
    4. BMI Gold also get to use the Virgin Clubhouse at Heathrow (not sure about other ones) when flying with Virgin, regardless of class of travel!

    May I add that the BA Gold/First Lounge at Heathrow T5 is lush and has a free Elemis spa. The Swiss First Lounge in Zurich is also amazing, and the El Al King David Lounge in Tel Aviv is nice too.

  • Johnny says:

    Very nice! I fly to and from Thailand often and with Eva Air they have a very generous frequent flyer program. I got upgraded from their basic class to the next class up within two or three flights and from that point on I get access to their Evergreen VIP Lounge at all airports (expect for SFO).

    I usually fly from San Francisco to Bangkok with a layover in Taipei, Taiwan, where I go to their lounge to take a shower (they provide a kit with a towel, shampoo and soap) which is very relaxing after a 13 hour flight. Then I enjoy their free buffet, magazines, internet, but skip the free bar since I don’t like drinking while flying. But they do have Jonnie Walker Black label for those who do!

  • 123caphe.com says:

    constantly i used to read smaller articles or reviews which also clpear their motive, and thaqt is also happening
    with this post which I am reading here.

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