If everyone is VIP, no one is…

This week, Which?, a leading UK consumer publication, ranked the best and worst airport lounges in the country. The list, at the very least, is amusing. The story proceeded to get picked up in quite a few outlets and has people more curious than ever about upgrading their airport experience to the privacy of a lounge. There’s just one problem with that: if everyone is in the lounge, the terminal becomes the best spot.

In my opinion, an airport lounge is at its very best when…

  • It’s not too full. You want ample space to graze.
  • There’s quality beverages worth actually imbibing.
  • Food is of restaurant quality, even if it’s really simple.
  • Wifi is really fast and there are power ports everywhere.
  • There are adequate facilities to shower, change or freshen up.

Throughout the years, I’ve heard anecdotes of shy celebrities shunning airport lounges in favour of hiding in plain sight. There are plenty of bars and restaurants throughout the airport where you can feast on quality booze or food for under £50 per person, and for a celeb, no one is expecting them, unlike a lounge. It’s good cover.

That brings us to the fundamental problem of pay as you go airport lounges: money. Airlines open “invite only” lounges as a competitive business advantage for customers. Wether these lounges are full or empty really doesn’t matter. In fact, customers enjoy them more when they’re empty, so airlines keep access rules tight in hopes of creating that exclusivity. Basically, they need to be there no matter what, so having it full all the time isn’t necessary.

In “pay as you go” lounges, it’s the opposite. These lounges exist purely on the dime of ‘pay as you go’ travellers, and as a money making business, the more customers the better the business is. It’s in the lounge operators best interest to make sure it’s always rammed to the rafters. In my opinion, that absolutely ruins the entire point of an airport lounge. The cheaper the booze the more profit they make. The lower the cost of food, the more profit they make. Where’s the luxury in that?

If it’s champagne I’m after, I could spend £20 on a great glass in the airport and still come out £20 or better versus paying to enter an airport lounge and have a third rate glass of prosecco. If it’s great food, I could visit somewhere like Plane Food by Gordon Ramsay and have a really solid meal for far less than the sausage and bean buffet in the lounge. If it’s less crowded in the public restaurant, it’s yet another tick box in that column.

It’s fair to say that the allure of exclusivity is often more substantive than the actual offering inside. People will pay for things which in theory make them “more exclusive” than others, without actually contemplating the pros and cons. I’ve had amazing experiences in ‘pay as you go’ lounges around the world, but they’re never about the food or drinks. They’re about a space to unwind and relax.

If everyone can get in, there’s nothing special about it. If everyone is in, even more so. If it’s comfier chairs and perhaps faster wifi, the question is how much that’s worth to you. Simply put, this is a draw which has never made sense to me, and a business which never has either.

When a place thats selling the dream of exclusivity, peace, refinement and tranquility makes money by packing in people and finding the cheapest acceptable booze, it’s time to look elsewhere.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. You are absolutely right. A crowded lounge is awful if the terminal is ok. I’m often in SFO or EWR and, more often than not, the terminal is less crowded than the United lounge which can resemble a hell hole. So I promptly leave the lounge and find somewhere quiet to sit that is perhaps by an empty gate.

    Where I disagree with you is that I consider peace, personal space and quiet to be the most important attributes of a lounge. Decent food is a nice to have but not essential ; I don’t drink before flights and, apart from arrival lounges, I wouldn’t normally want a shower before a flight.

    Flying mostly United, British Airways and Lufthansa group, I find it’s the Lufthansa group airlines which get it right. BA’s lounges are super-crowded (often to the point where it’s difficult to find a seat), same but not so bad with United (with the honourable exception of their London and Polaris lounges) whereas Lufthansa’s are simply civilised and restful.

    1. Terminal C in EWR is much improved these days and has so many good and comfortable food and drink options that the United Lounges are awful in comparison.

      The Polaris lounges are wonderful though.

  2. I don’t think you are right. The times when airlines kept the access rules to lounges “really tight” to preserve an air of exclusivity have gone, much like the times when airlines were willing to fly half-empty premium cabins around to preserve exclusivity there.

    There days, airlines want (and need) ancillary revenues anywhere they can find it. This is why more and more airlines monetize access to lounges, be it by selling direct access day passes, offering “add-ons” in the booking process of ineligible fares, or participating in schemes like Priority Pass.

    The same mechanics are at play with the various ways (bids, last minute upsells etc.) to fill every last premium cabin seat.

    Money trumps exclusivity every day now.

  3. Reminds me of the old Groucho Marx quip “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” Same concept, different era.

  4. I have mixed feelings about this. Obviously, no one needs lounges aimed at passengers trying to get wasted for as little money as possible and I often avoid them even if it’s the only lounge option at an airport. That said, sometimes I just want to escape the usual airport hassle and many PAYG/Priority Pass lounges (especially at airports outside the UK) provide some level of tranquility compared to the departures area, even when they are relatively busy. After a long day, it might just be a quick shower I am after and I don’t care at all about the rest of the lounge.

    Of course, I prefer airline lounges, but they aren’t always available or accessible with my combination of booking class and status. In these situations I am happy the PAYG lounges exist.

  5. Most comments on this article are from people expressing their wish for exclusivity and privacy; yet their comments are mostly about THEMSELVES.
    How fascinating: or is it one asks.

  6. I don’t agree with you. Everybody is thinking a payas you go lounge is expensive but I can tell you for my personal experience that it’s the opposite. You are saying you can eat great for less than £50 and I can tell you that you pay less than this in a lounge. There are lounge of airlines companies that are to much full and you have to fight for a seat.

  7. You make some extremely valid points. Certainly, the ideal lounge is 1/3 full with all the bells and whistles. For me at least, the question isn’t whether I should linger at The Wing in Hong Kong, it’s whether I should use the Priority Pass lounge in Jakarta. Airport food is a gamble in many places, so paying a lot for mediocre food doesn’t hold a lot of appeal when I can have other mediocre food for free. Likewise for drinks, although that can be a lot easier to figure out (hint: avoid canned Vietnamese beer, it’s awful). Wifi can depend on whether the airport offers it for free. Ultimately, we have to balance a lot of factors, so it’s not so easy to be absolute about what to do.

  8. I think we should leave the “VIP” designator out of the pay-as-you-go lounge discussion. It is indeed used by the media to ramp up the ‘exclusivity’ factor, but the fact is they are just for-profit lounges, as you say, as opposed to ‘ancilliary benefit’ lounges of airlines.

    True VIP services exist in many airports and usually one cannot buy into their lounges on a pay-per-use basis. Instead, they book as packages including separate screening, ride to plane etc., and many have apartments or mini-lounges where each party sits in privacy. Their price points make them exclusive by design.

  9. I would think that the most important amenity you would seek in a lounge would be quality tissue paper. With so many nosebleeds I imagine soft tissues would be a must.

  10. Try Doha Airport and you will find some of the best lounges in the world. Qatar Airways have made some of the lounges very exclusive not only for Qatar passengers flying first/business class but at the exclusion of other airline premium passengers. Sometimes in 1st class lounge you will only see less than 10 passengers and in the exclusI’ve Qatar business class lounge you will only see less than 30 passengers.

    1. I think it depends on the time of day.

      I’ve been to the Qatar Al Mourjan (Business class pax only, no partner airline status entry allowed here) lounge many times and sometimes often between 10pm-1am it’s a zoo. Even though it’s a massive lounge.

      Other times of the day it’s indeed very uncrowded and serene. It’s a great place for a longer layover.

      I’ve even slept overnight there a few times when I’ve gotten an exceptional fare deal, but the trade off was 11 hours in the lounge.

  11. Absolutely agree, you would love the Manchester (UK) Airport lounges, full to the brim of leisure travelers, even at 5am, trying to force as much alcohol down their necks as possible so they can benefit the most from their £15 “VIP” experience, I rarely visit them now despite having a free to use priority pass. The only airline that seems to get it right these days is Lufthansa, they still seem to care about their frequent travelers l, the lounges in Frankfurt are an absolute delight. A cocktail bar, really good got food options and plenty of space as they have several lounges dotted around the terminal. Who would have thought 20 years ago that Lufthansa would be the only premium airline left in Europe.

    1. In Scotland the pay as you go and PP lounges have a pretty strict 2 drink limit to avoid too many punters coming in, for this very reason.

      You’ll find them instead at the pub. No limit to how many drinks there.

  12. Totally agree, based on London-Heathrow
    I tried to use the lounge and it was rammed! I used one before and the food was terrible!!
    This time I went to Fortnum & Masons in T5 and sat at the bar. The service was great and the food and presentation fantastic. Much better value than a crappy cup of coffee in the PAYG Aspire Lounge. There were very nice customers in F&M and people watching at a good spot without the chaos of the lounge.

  13. The problems you are describing are not unique to pay-as-you-go lounges, they apply to the rest as well. I think you’ve got the economics completely wrong. They all suck when they are full, and it’s in the interests of both kinds of operators to have them running at or near capacity.

    Whether we want them to be empty or not is irrelevant.

  14. And now we have paid access to previously invitation only business and first class lounges as seen with Etihad and Qatar.

    Devaluation by the back door

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