Yesterday I had the opportunity to be one of the very first passengers in an exclusive airport lounge that finally opened after a year’s worth of delays. This was the Al Safwa lounge in Doha, Qatar, operated by Qatar Airways.
I didn’t go on a press junket or anything ridiculous—I just happened to be staying in Doha for a few days this week. When I heard that the lounge was actually opening (it’s been rumored for months, but with many false alarms), I changed my outbound travel plans a bit and was able to spend four hours hanging out before hopping over to Dubai.
I thought I’d share a few impressions from the perspective of someone who flies more than 200,000 miles a year, typically 70% international, and who’s been to just about every major airline lounge in the world.
In other words, this wasn’t my first time in a nice lounge, and I’m not easily impressed. Do keep that in mind, as well as the fact that I was there on literally the first day it was open. I’m sure some things will change and (hopefully) improve over time.
By the way, if any miles and points fanatics are reading this, I should note that this isn’t a proper trip report. I don’t really do those—I expect others will pick up the slack in that department soon—and I’m not a photographer either. All of the unprocessed pictures on this post are from my iPhone.
First Impressions: OMG!
After completing the check-in process and clearing security, I had high expectations as I took the escalator up to the lounge. I was immediately struck with a sense of wonder.
Wow, it’s beautiful! I thought.
And it really, really is, especially in the entryway and long hallway leading to the main central area. Compared to the ostentatious “look at me” bling of Emirates, a major competitor to Qatar Airways, I’d pick the design of this lounge any day of the week.
Both the overall presentation and the little touches were impressive. I have no idea what the budget for this place was, but considering that Doha airport spent $6.8 million on an enormous teddy bear in the terminal, I’m sure it’s ginormous.
The staff was proud of their new digs, and it showed. “I’m so glad it’s open!” I said to several people, and they all laughed and agreed.
Aside from the first impression—which was very good—how was the lounge itself? As with a lot of things in life, the best answer is “it’s complicated.” Again, remember that I’m jaded. If you’ve never been to a premium lounge, especially in the Middle East or Asia, you’d be blown away.
My second impressions, however, were a bit different.
Second Impressions: OK, It’s Nice
After getting oriented, I asked several of the staff what the best feature of the lounge was. One person told me, “The smoking lounge is very nice!” Well, that’s awesome for some people, but not something I care about.
I did pop my head in and look around, and it was … a smoking lounge. There were some nice chairs but not anything special or unique. (There was also a humidor set up in the entryway, but it was empty. File under: close, but no cigar. You’re welcome!)
Someone else said the best feature was the duty-free shopping area. Again, some people may really like that. In my case, I need a duty-free shop about as often as I need a smoking lounge.
A third person said they really liked the media room. I took a peek and decided that I liked the idea of the media room. It’s basically a room with nice acoustics for watching CNN.
Like everything else I’m sure it cost a fortune, but with no option for changing the channel (I read the news online), this wasn’t a place I’d hang out much.
Throughout the lounge, the staff-to-passenger ratio was extremely high. I probably saw more staff during the four hours I was there than passengers. This was nice in some ways but also made me feel a little awkward in others.
Literally everywhere I walked, someone was there to offer help—even the bathroom. “Can I help you, sir?” a guy asked as soon as I entered the men’s room. I didn’t really need directions to the urinal, and I even managed to wash my own hands.
There was a sushi table arranged in one part of the lounge, which I skipped in favor of a la carte dining in the restaurant (more on that next), and every time I walked by, two staff looked hopefully at me. “Would you like some sushi?” they took turns asking.
“No thanks,” I said repeatedly. “I’m all good.”
The watermelon carving was fun, though.
As is the norm in this part of the world, having so many staff may have actually contributed to some confusion instead of alleviating it. When I went to have lunch—which turned out very nice in the end—I was served by several different people. One person took my drink order, another took my food order, another returned to ask if I’d ordered already, and so on.
With so many people running around, I wasn’t terribly shocked when there was something wrong with all three items I ordered. At first I thought they’d brought me someone else’s lunch, but there were only two other people in the restaurant, and they were already eating.
Anyway, there was FREE KRUG CHAMPAGNE! So who can complain? And as I said, it was fine in the end.
For the record, the menu was either exactly the same or at least very similar as the one from the Al Mourjan Business Class lounge. So there wasn’t much in the way of improvement, in other words, but I think that relates more to the high standards of the Al Mourjan lounge than anything else.
It’s very rare to have an a la carte menu service in a Business Class lounge. While it can sometimes take a while to get service over in Al Mourjan, it’s still pretty good food.
In Which I Really Suffer—There’s No Free Hot Tub!
There’s a spa in the new lounge (which isn’t available in the Al Mourjan), but I was disappointed that they only offered paid treatments, and the rates weren’t cheap. This may sound like the ultimate first world problem, but other first class lounges tend to offer complimentary “teaser” treatments of 15 minutes or so.
Even Virgin Atlantic, which only has one premium cabin (i.e. no First and Business Class, just one combined “Upper Class”) offers excellent, complimentary treatments at its lovely Heathrow Clubhouse.
But enough about that. Can we talk about hot tubs?
A couple years ago I was traveling on a OneWorld Round-the-World ticket (the same kind I’m on now, actually, aside from this side trip to the lounge), and I visited the previous Qatar Airways First Class lounge that was located in an older airport. I was hardly an inexperienced traveler by that point and I’d seen a lot, but I’d never seen a jacuzzi and sauna area, freely accessible to anyone who was lucky enough to gain lounge entrance.
Naturally, I partook in the full experience. I even had the whole place to myself for more than twenty minutes. As I sat and splashed around, I giggled to myself and kept saying out loud: “I’m in a hot tub! In the lounge!”
No, I’m not kidding. It was an amazing experience and one of my favorite travel hacking memories. It also reminded me of the time I skinny-dipped on a roof pool in Singapore, but we’ll save that story for another day.
Unfortunately, another hot tub visit wasn’t meant to be, at least not on this trip. I was told that the new spa area now had a hot tub once again, but now there was an additional charge to use it. How much? I asked.
The attendant said “60,” and I thought she meant 60 QAR, which is about $17 USD. That’s still quite a price to pop into a tub, but since this was a special experience and I had several hours until my flight, I thought I might go for it. But no—the 60 was USD, as in $60. Whoa! No thanks.
“What if I just want to take a shower” I asked.
“You still have to pay,” I was told. What, really?
I was surprised that the hot tub was only available for paid visits, and really surprised to hear that showers weren’t free either. Fortunately, this last information proved to be incorrect.
After I’d had a nice meal (once they sorted out the issues of bringing the wrong food), I asked to visit the “Quiet Area” section and take a nap. This area consists of a group of individual little day rooms with a twin bed where you can crash for a couple of hours. A few other airlines have them, but they’re rarely equipped with an actual bed. I liked this feature a lot.
Lo and behold, the rooms in the Quiet Area have showers! And though I didn’t take advantage of it, they looked like good showers (sorry, no pics … I took a very jet-lagged nap and then went to my gate).
I chalk up this miscommunication to the fact that it was the first day. Presumably, showers will be easily accessible to all, even if you don’t know to ask for the Quiet Room. And who knows, maybe the hot tub area is really worth $60.
As I write these notes I’m kicking myself for not investigating further, since I have no idea when I’ll be back. Blame it on the FREE KRUG CHAMPAGNE and the jet lagged nap.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
The communication on the way out was also a little odd. I followed the signs for “Lifts to Departures” but encountered a glass door that failed to deliver on its promise to automatically open as I approached.
Naturally I stood there for a few minutes, waving my arms in anticipation of the glass door responding to my command, but had no luck.
One of the many staff members came over with the ubiquitous question, “Can I help you, sir?” and this time I actually needed help. “Yes!” I said. “I’m trying to leave.”
“This isn’t the exit,” he said.
“No?” I asked. “The sign says ‘Lifts to Departures.’”
He looked me like I was from Mars. “This isn’t the exit,” he said again.
OK, cool. So I guess the exit is … somewhere else? Is this a test to see if I really belong in the First Class lounge?
I never really figured out the fake exit situation, but the staff member led me to the other side of the lounge, next to the duty-free area (helpfully manned by three staff who looked bored out of their minds) and I was able to head back out to the terminal area next to the big-ass bear. Lounge visit wrapped!
How Does It Compare?
On the way to my gate I still had some time, so I stopped off at the Al Mourjan lounge for an espresso. I think I also wanted to compare the visit and see if I still liked the Al Mourjan as much as I had before the Al Safwa was open. And I did. The space was still nice, albeit not quite as architecturally stunning, and there were still plenty of comfortable seats to have a coffee and do one final email check.
For me, the main question for future travel is: would I go out of my way to visit the “spectacular” Al Safwa lounge, compared to the “very nice” Al Mourjan lounge which is accessible to all Business Class passengers as well as OneWorld elites?
I think the honest answer is no. If I have access to Al Safwa in the future, I’ll certainly look forward to visiting, but I’m just as happy in the “basic” lounge, especially since presumably it will be emptier now that the new one is open.
Still, it was certainly a lot of fun to experience on the first day it was open—and as I said, if you haven’t been to a lot of nice lounges, I think you’d be very impressed.
How You Can Visit the New Al Safwa Lounge
Unlike other OneWorld First Class lounges, the Al Safwa lounge doesn’t allow OneWorld elites to access it based on status. You have to be flying First Class—not Business Class—and only on Qatar Airways itself, not Qantas, British Airways, or another OneWorld member.
Naturally, First Class tickets to London, Paris, or Bangkok, the only three Qatar Airways long-haul routes that offer three-class service, aren’t cheap. As always, though, award tickets are eligible for lounge access—meaning that you don’t need to purchase a First Class ticket to visit the First Class lounge.
Also, flying regional First Class on Qatar Airways counts. So in this case, you can be on the hour-long flight to Dubai, and as long as you’re sitting up front, you can enter Al Safwa.
So that’s what I did: I used Avios points, transferred from American Express Membership Rewards, to get my ticket. A one-way Economy redemption is only 4,500 points, i.e. really cheap.
Normally, I’d be perfectly happy with Economy on an hour-long flight. Since I wanted to visit the new lounge, though, I used 18,000 points for a First Class redemption.
You can earn up to 100,000 points from the latest British Airways Signature Card offer. Even if you don’t complete the hefty spend requirements to get the full 100k points, you’ll earn 50,000 just for completing the first $2,000 in spend.
You can also transfer points directly from either Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express, like I did.
Since Avios points are so accessible these days, I didn’t consider it exorbitant to use the extra points for this experience.
Life and Miles Are for Spending: On to Dubai and Beyond
After I completed my visit, I said goodbye to my closest friend in Doha…
…and then headed out to the gate for the quick hop to Dubai.
I was the only First Class passenger on the flight, and upon disembarking at a remote gate on the other side, I had my own shuttle bus for the short ride to the terminal.
I’m pretty sure this was the first time I’ve been in a major lounge on opening day. It was a coincidence that I happened to be in the region this week, but I’m glad I adjusted my plans to stop in and have a look around.
Oh, and that FREE KRUG CHAMPAGNE wasn’t bad either.
*Shoutout to my friend Ben Schlappig, who encouraged me to write up these notes even though I don’t normally post trip reports. For once I managed to get to a new lounge before him!