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Frequent flyer: How airport lounges actually work

Gaining lounge access isn’t just for those turning left — it can be a respite for weary travellers on a pay-per-go basis too.

Frequent flyer: How airport lounges actually work
Image: Getty

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What are the benefits?
Not everyone has to fight for a seat in the crowded departures area — secreted away in most airports are special, more exclusive lounges. Here, at the very minimum, there are fewer people, comfier seats, more charging sockets, and free food and drink.

How do I get in?
Well, if it’s a lounge run by the airline, you’ll need to be flying business class or have high frequent-flyer scheme status. Major full-service airlines such as British Airways or Emirates tend to have a lounge at most airports they fly to — or will at least have a partner airline’s lounge that’s usable. These tend to be more luxurious than the pay-to-play lounges run by independent companies within airports — but it’s the latter that Average Joe on an economy ticket can get into. Names to look out for include Aspire, Escape and No1, which have several lounges in the UK.

How much do they cost?
When booking online — and you’ll generally save between £3 and £10 doing so, as opposed to paying full price when rocking up on the day — these will cost somewhere between £19 and £45. It’s worth checking your airline frequent-flyer scheme pages for discounts — for example, going through the Virgin Atlantic site can reduce the price of the No1 Lounge at Gatwick from £32 to £25. Holiday Extras also offers reduced-price entry to airport lounges at select international destinations and all major UK airports; for example, £20 at Gatwick and £26.99 at Heathrow, both including access to snacks and drinks.

What do I get for that?
Standards roughly match up to price — the No1 lounges tend to have table-served, fresh-cooked meals, premium drinks and occasionally showers, while at the lower end of the scale the overall offering can be fairly miserable — dull sandwiches and pastries, bog-standard booze and sometimes not even separate toilet facilities. Review sites such as LoungeBuddy and Lounge Review can give an idea of quality, while airport and lounge operator sites list facilities.

Can I buy in bulk?
Most lounge operators have annual pass schemes, while some bank accounts and credit cards (especially American Express) throw in some degree of lounge access as part of the perks package. An alternative is Priority Pass, which is aimed at frequent travellers and brags of offering members access to ‘1,200 lounges in 500 cities across 130 countries’. Packages range from £69 for £15-a-pop lounge entry, to £259 for free entry everywhere. All allow guests to enter for £15. The downside is that entry is subject to availability; in busy season it might be worth paying the extra £5 fee to advance reserve a space in the lounge you’ve got your eye on.

Luxe lounges

Etihad Airways First Class Lounge, Abu Dhabi
This lounge has been designed to make you feel like you’re relaxing in a top hotel rather than waiting for a flight; once you’ve been welcomed in by a hostess (no queuing at a desk here), pick your spot in one of 16 different zones. The dining area is something like a members’ club, with a 24-hour a la carte restaurant. Got the kids with you? Pop them in the creche, staffed with Norland nannies.

Top perk: Those flying Etihad’s super-exclusive The Residence have access to a special lounge within the lounge. 

Lufthansa First Class Terminal, Frankfurt
You don’t have to mix with the hoi polloi at all at Frankfurt Airport if you’re flying first class with Lufthansa — there’s an entirely separate terminal. Quiet rooms have day beds and there are spacious bath and shower rooms. This is stress-free travel: a personal assistant will greet you in the entrance area and take care of all the boring travel admin — they even come through security with you and check you in.

Top perk: Once the plane is ready for boarding, you’ll be taken by limousine to the aircraft.

Thai Airways Royal First Lounge, Bangkok
Some airport lounges have a somewhat clinical edge; not in this warm and welcoming space at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. There’s a dining room serving Thai and international food; after eating have a rest in one of the slumber rooms or freshen up in a shower suite before checking out the music room and mini library. The real attraction here is the Royal Orchid Spa, which has three spa suites, and a gym and yoga room.

Top perk: First-class passengers can treat themselves to a 60-minute full-body massage.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)