Are “Basic” Airport Lounges Even Worth Visiting Anymore?

Filed Under: Travel

Yesterday I found myself in a situation where I wanted a quiet place from which to work, so I left an airport lounge. That seems a bit backwards, no? It made me question why I even bother visiting airline lounges most of the time. My general instinct is to always visit a lounge if I have time, even if it’s just for a few minutes, but I’m not actually sure why I do that.

Don’t get me wrong, airline lounges are better than they’ve ever been before, at least on the high end. There are airline lounges where you can get a spa treatment, eat a meal from a Michelin-star chef, skip the airport terminal altogether, etc.


In this post I’m not talking about those lounges. Instead I’m talking about the “average” domestic or contract lounge. For example, the lounges offered by most US airlines, the lounges largely offered through Priority Pass, etc.

Going back many years, I remember that the reason I valued access to an airline lounge was because it was a place with free Wi-Fi and a power outlet. Sure, (stale) snacks and soft drinks/water were nice too, but for me, the single most important feature of a “run of the mill” lounge has been a quiet place from which to work.

Well yesterday I had a long layover at SFO. I visited the Amex Centurion Lounge, and it was packed.

Then I visited the United Club, which was even more crowded. The lounge’s Wi-Fi was slow, and it was so full that strangers were asked over the PA to share all tables. I was on my laptop, and when two people sat down at the same table as me and started having a loud conversation, I said to myself “I’m sure there’s somewhere in the airport that’s quieter than this.”


So I headed out into the terminal, and found a countless number of gate areas with dozens of empty seats, easily accessible power outlets, and even “free” desks you could use. Dare I say, I thought they even had a nicer design than the lounge itself. The airport also has free Wi-Fi for all passengers, which is becoming increasingly common.


It made me wonder why I even bothered instinctively working from the lounge, when I had a much quieter place from which to work right at my fingertips.

I suspect part of the issue is that airline lounges have gotten progressively more crowded (as more people have access to them), while airports have invested more in their public facilities, by adding free wifi, plenty of power outlets, etc.


Maybe next time I’ll approach lounges differently, and only bother using the sub-par ones if I can’t find a nice gate area, since I’m not into lounges for the stale snack mix and free soda.

Has anyone else found themselves in a lounge lately and wondered why they even bothered?

  1. Agreed. INSANELY crowded. Only lounges I’ve found enjoyable is Qantas F, Thai F, and Swiss F

  2. Guess that’s why I try to avoid long layovers (unless there is no other option) anything around 2 hrs layover for international flight is good. Domestic, 1hr. Those 35 minute layovers are pushing it. I used to purposely have 2-3hrs layover to check out a nicer lounge, but overcrowding is definitely an issue. I was in ORD and the 3 level lounge was completely packed.. all levels.. yeah I left lol.

  3. I’d agree that domestic lounges aren’t always the best bet. However, it’s always nice to have the option. Some airports are just unbearable and typically don’t have space like you saw at SFO. Newark and O’Hare come to mind.

    I’m based in Phoenix and we’ve got several great local restaurants in most terminals. Often times I prefer to just go pay for a good meal and a drink than settle for cheese cubes in an overcrowded Admirals Club.

  4. ” Only lounges I’ve found enjoyable is Qantas F, Thai F, and Swiss F”

    *Rolls eyes* Give me a break

  5. You want packed? Try SkyClub B18 at ATL. It’s massive and always packed. I’ve seen as many as 5 agents checking people in. The end of the councouse(s) is/are much quieter.

  6. the only value proposition for me with lounges is the free beverages instead of the the king’s ransom, commonly known as “Hudson News”

    but for some airports, like the hideous Terminal B at LGA, a lounge is still infinitely better than the Greyhound Terminal outside.

  7. @James : I’m sure “Arthur” must’ve been suffering seizure when he was inside CX The Pier, SQ The Private Room, or the LH FCT at FRA.

  8. As a Philly local, having a taste of home with La Colombe coffee in all the Admirals Clubs, regardless of location, and a CLEAN bathroom is well worth the visit to domestic lounges, even if it’s just for 15 minutes.

  9. I never work in the SFO Centurion lounge, but sure enjoy food and drink there. I have noticed though that the crowdedness goes in waves as I have been in there recently when its dead quiet. On a side note… you can no longer get cocktails there before 10:30AM.. just beer and wine.

  10. Had a 7.5hr layover in a Doha last night, flying Qatar in Y as an AA EXP and given access to the “all others” First Class Lounge (not Oryx). It was awful. Full at 1 am with people watching all sorts of videos without headphones, even in the dark sleep pod area. Smoke coming from the smoking room was more than annoying. We left and tried to get into the al Mourjan business lounge but were turned away. Went back to the business side of the lounge we started at and it was a little better. But who designs a place with a smoking room next to the dark/quiet area? Agree, as busy as Doha is in the middle of the night, the terminal area would have been a better place to rest.

  11. Depends on the airport and the terminal. The jetBlue terminal space in BOS, for example, is just as nice as a contract lounge, if not more so. DFW, meanwhile, has some nice seating areas with power outlets, though they tend to fill up quickly. Given that there’s 4 Admirals Clubs, a Centurion Lounge, and a PP contract lounge, all connected airside, chances are one of them isn’t packed, so I’d rather find one until it’s time to go. Leave even a crappy lounge to sit in the gate area at ORD, though? Forget it.

  12. Quiet uber alles. I’ll take a lonely gate with no TV and no rabbit food dispensers over a crowded lounge. But if there’s a TV blaring at the gate, I’ll take the crowded lounge.

  13. People go to lounges for the free drinks and the ability to say “I went in a lounge look how fancy I am”. Not to work in peace

  14. For the middle class traveler, paying $8 for Heineken at an airport bar vs. having a few complimentary drinks at the lounge the obvious choice is the lounge if you have access via Priority Pass.

  15. Same story here – wifi in airport terminals got better, as has seating.

    Lounges are often not worth the effort.

  16. I don’t usually do online work in a lounge so crowding isn’t a huge issue unless there’s no seating. As you recently wrote, guest access benefits might need to be modified if the folks actually paying for memberships are driven away due to crowding.

  17. When I travel, I mostly have access to United Clubs. Flying out of Chicago, they mostly suck for the reasons you point out. Flying through Hong Kong and Narita, the clubs offer proper food and are much cleaner, if still crowded. The SATS contract lounge at Changi is so much better than anything I have experienced from United.

  18. I guess as they say, “your experience may vary”. I only travel about once a month or so but I have not experienced what Lucky describes. I typically utilized either the AA or UA lounges and while they can be pretty busy I have never had to share a table and/or deal with that type of crowding.

    At the same time, my outbound airport (O’hare) does not feature free wifi and/or the kind of public spaces he found at SFO nor do most of the places I visit. For me, access to the lounge is a definite bonus and clearly better than being out among the “madding crowd”.

  19. This is why I dropped my United Club Membership years ago. The lounge at DEN, ORD, SFO, LAX, IAD, were always so overcrowded during my trips. I’d rather find a nice bar or restaurant and plunk down a few bucks for a good local beer at a table than be butthole to elbow in a lounge drinking free bud-light. I’ve only had a chance to use the Priority Pass lounge in SJC and PVR. SJC got really busy about 30 minutes before I needed to leave for my flight, but it wasn’t unbearable. I wish there was a Priority Pass lounge in T2 at PHX or one in DEN.

  20. Some domestic lounges are nice, SAN Air Space is nice, where will you find a domestic lounge with a shower??? I use the lounge and shower when departing SAN. Some lounges are crowded, but being able to get a quick bite, coffee is still worth the stop.

  21. If that’s the newest lounge by the 60 gates at SFO, it’s always like that. I realize they were space constrained by honestly that lounge is so small even at completely dead times just before closing you’ll still find it mostly full…

  22. I used to value my Star Alliance Gold lounge access, but now that airports have free wi-fi and tons of new seating at domestic gates with A/C and USB outlets, I’m perfectly fine with getting work done there instead. Not only do I get to see people frantically running to their gates, but I no longer have to run to mine since I’m often already there! If the wifi is slow, I have my mobile hotspot. Luckily SFO is blazing fast. Until very recently, ORD used to be the worst with NO outlets to be found except in the lounges or the food court in K, but nowadays even many of those gates enjoy long desks where one can sit down and plug in. It’s all good!

  23. I concur. Most international first class lounges are great. But, the US domestic lounges, and many of those in the Priority Pass (free with platinum AMEX) are nothing special and crowded. For example, one time I was in Dubai at the magnificent first class Emirates lounge. I also wanted to visit the priority pass lounge in Dubai airport – it was awful, crowded, noisy, and the worst finger food.

  24. Congratulations to QR for providing a business class lounge for people actually flying business. If it was a frequent flyer lounge it would be called that. As someone that regularly flies CX and is a Diamond member flying premium cabins I prefer the QR lounge policy than CX whose lounges are overrun by OWE and their guests which make The Pier and The Wing 1st class lounges far from premium.

    And QR policy is no different to SQ in Singapore which puts Star Alliance Gold into a special lounge and does not let them into their (mediocre) Krisflyer Lounge

  25. The United terminal 3 at SFO is one of the busiest locations for lounges. Most other airports in the US you can find a corner or desk to get some work done. It may be busy, it may be loud, but there will be room.

    Yesterday I spent 3 hours at ATL B18 Sky Club. Although 70% of the seats were taken at any given time You could still find a place to sit, eat, drink and get some work done. It was also maintained by the staff fairly well. I find a similar situation at the new United club in LAX or the Admirals Club in SFO.

    Personally I don’t mind the noise or “going on’s” while at an airport, or airport lounge. For myself, it’s part of the experience. I have walked out of a domestic (and overseas) club before because of the crowed conditions. It’s just normally the exception and not the rule.

  26. @Tony:

    SAN’s AirSpace is my home lounge, as well, along with SFO’s Centurion I split my time between SD and SF. I absolutely appreciate the shower in the AirSpace lounge and the $10 credit we get as AmEx Buz. Plat cardholders. However, that $10 covers next to nothing insomuch as food/beverage. And the offerings for food outside the menu are pathetic…even worse than an Admiral’s Club or United Lounge. Considering BA and JAL also use that lounge, AirSpace needs to step up it’s game A LOT. But I will agree that it’s great for catching up on work, and I REALLY appreciate the ability to print. They just need to stop tuning the TV to Fox News.

  27. I think so much of any thing to do with air travel these days is about playing on people’s perceptions. A lot of people imagine the concourse to be awful so they run to the lounge (and therefore assume it is worth it) but ignore that many airports have made significant upgrades to the quality of the concourses. Toronto Pearson is like that – the concourses are actually lovely with iPads (on which you can order food/drink or browse the internet) and outlets everywhere. Sometimes I just go get a drink or two and a snack and then make my way downstairs to the concourse.

    I have come to the point that when it comes to air travel, none of the upsells are worth it to me.

  28. The answer seems to be “depends on the airport”, but at SFO terminal 3 and G international gates the answer is “No”. You’re better off going to one of the nicer restaurants/bars in Terminal 3, then using the connecting walkway to the G gates in international. Just use your phone as a hot spot (it’s more secure) and avoid the crowds and screaming kids. The basic United clubs at SFO are useless, though the 1st class club is very good. Sure would be nice to have a Star Alliance lounge like LAX.

  29. SFO is probably an outlier. The airport leadership there has gone above and beyond to create quiet, clean, workable spaces in all its terminals. Given that, it’s not surprising that a gate holdroom would be more comfortable than a tired old United Club.

    But most US airports are not like SFO. Look at ORD, LAX, ATL or the New York airports. People sitting on the floor, gate holdrooms packed to overflowing, few or no power outlets, long lines to get anything to eat, and CNN Airport Network screaming at you from overhead televisions. Even a crowded lounge beats the public spaces in those airports.

  30. As crowded as it is, a breakfast at SFO Centurion, with freshly made guacamole beats UA’s hot gruel, I mean oatmeal in their even more crowded, narrow tunnel of a lounge.

  31. Two words: diaper change. The bathroom facilities in even the most dour lounge are head and shoulders above the public restrooms in the rest of the airport.

  32. Meh….SFO has some of the nicest public areas for a domestic US airport so not quite a fair comparison. I’d gladly hang out in the public ares of SFO’s Terminal 2. Love the spacious desks and power ports.

    As much as I complain about the crowds at the Centurion Lounge, it truly comes in waves. Wait 20 minutes and everyone will be gone.

  33. You didn’tention the free alcohol. I like to booze-it-up before my flights and during layovers. I find that Centurian lounges, while often crowded have quality alcohol. Hopefully Amex lounges will improve crowd issues with the new policy changes.

  34. Last month at IAH, one off the UA lounges was packed. While it was very busy, the worst was the little kids running around loud and at times screaming…..unbearable

  35. Lucky,
    Just for curiosity , why didn’t you visited the United Global First Class lounge? I believe it’s near gate G103?
    It’s nice and quiet with good food & wine selection…

  36. Try doing that at ORD or EWR and let us know how it goes. Nevermind, I already know you won’t be able to.

  37. For sure. Domestic lounges are largely useless these days. United Clubs are always overcrowded and if I go with my family 2-3 times a year, it has become impossible to sit together. I don’t care if it is at EWR, IAH, ORD, SFO or LAX. Always overcrowded and restrooms fully occupied.

    Why bother anymore?

  38. Why would I pay $10-15 for crappy airport food if I have access to a lounge that will give me free food? Its not great food, but the airport food isnt that good either, and free food always tastes better.

  39. In BKK, I always go to the Louis Tavern VIP lounge (free with my Diner’s Club card), which is less crowded with better food than either CX or JL.

  40. Was in DFW Admirals Club last night in Terminal A. No too crowded and the rabbit food was fair for a hungry person. Soup was very good. Though no half sandwiches or hot food.
    What bothered me was having to go to bar area to get ginger ale with ice. I guess the woman serving the coke wanted a tip to give out-what—cokes ? I do not need hard expensive liquor or the atmosphere before a flight.
    Shouldn’t have to find bar and leave my paperwork, luggage, computer, etc. to find something to drink. Lemonade would have been great.
    The Priority Club lounges in Europe tend to be much better with real hot food.
    Heathrow has some great lounges.

  41. Real question, not trolling:

    For all those who who travel mostly in the USA and view airport or lounge wifi access, don’t you have wifi/MiFi cards/hubs that you can use for multiple devices? I’ve been equipped with this (by my company) since 2007, and I just assumed (perhaps wrongly?) that most business travelers were equipped as well.

    While the cards/hubs aren’t helpful outside the USA (and outside the USA is where I view lounge/airport wifi access as required, but then I can also tether my phone in a pinch), I work wherever I please, and honestly my MiFi hub is noticeably faster than most airline lounges…

  42. The Alaska Airlines Board Room at SEA was closed to members of Priority Pass this morning due to crowding…I then ventured a few gates down and found a free table with 3 empty chairs and as many power outlets I could ever need, and there were probably only 10 other people in that same gate area mulling about.

  43. Honestly, I think quiet in an airport comes in the form of earbuds and heavy metal.

    It’s an odd value of quiet, but I find it works better than most other options.

  44. Very true.
    My home base is MUC – and I must say it is a VERY nice airport, even if you don’t have lounge access.
    You can usually find a seat in the LH lounges even at rush hour times, but I have left a couple times because of overcrowding.
    The airport offers free wifi and some very nice seating areas. The free drinks and snacks are what keeps me in the lounge most times though. I usually fly 3-4x domestically a week and even just a coffee and a sandwich would really add up over time if I had to pay for all of it.

  45. It’s really easy. The reason YOU go visit lounges is because it’s your job….or am I missing something?

  46. Too many ways of getting access is the problem. Lounges started out as a reward for premium and/or loyal passengers with lots of miles. Now it’s become a revenue opportunity with lounge access for sale. Defeats the whole purpose.

  47. In general, I find most domestic lounges to be on the “meh” side of the scale. Biggest use I have found for them is the availability of staff to help with rebooking if your trip gets clobbered by weather, a mechanical, or whatnot.

    Once upon a time, it was (free) wifi that sold the lounge. Not so much anymore.

  48. The shared British Airways Galleries lounge at Munich Terminal 1B is often rammed, has no toilets, let alone a shower room and getting up there is like negotiating a maze. Still better than the gate but only just.

  49. @Lucky —> No doubt this is clearly a case of YMMV . . .

    EVERY terminal all over the world will experience an “ebb-and-flow” of traffic to a certain degree as planes arrive and depart. (Obviously it’s those waiting for their flight to depart who are filling up the lounges and waiting areas at the gates.) But SFO is far better than most in terms of access to electric plugs and chairs, with or without desks. That said, there are times when you cannot find a quiet spot or a plug-and-a-chair to save your life! So, too, PDX and SEA for example. But on the opposite side, as has already been pointed out, you have to look no farther than EWR-LGA-JFK . . . they’re gawd awful! (Give me the VS Clubhouse @ JFK, however, and I’m in heaven. Well, OK, heaven for an airport, at any rate.)

    Also, apparently I am the only person in the US who has never been turned away from a lounge using my Priority Pass. I can’t explain that, but I honestly have never had a problem.

    But my lounge use is dependent upon where I am — not only what airport, but which terminal. While I’m looking forward to Alaska opening up a lounge in T2 @ SFO, I’ve also never had a problem waiting in the gate areas for my Virgin flight to depart. Actually, the same is true at the IT at SFO, come to think of it, though I often will use PP to access the Air France/KLM lounge — depending upon how much time I have.

    Elsewhere, if lounge access is convenient (i.e.: in the same terminal), and the time sufficient for me to truly relax, I’m there. Usually. Unless I’m at an airport with a gate area that’s uncrowded, and I have access to electricity and wifi . . .

  50. Agreed, after years having Admirals Club membership, dropped it this year. Terminal layouts/offerings have improved immensely. Clubs are packed. I also have rediscovered the joys of plane watching and soaking in the energy of the terminal. Still have plenty of lounge access via OW status and Priority Pass. That’s enough.

  51. In my experience, there are some places where the ‘basic’ lounges are actually better. In Vienna, for example, the Lufthansa Business and Senator lounges tend to be absolutely packed, whereas the Priority Pass lounge next door is perfectly pleasant. I’ve also found that because those who have access through cards are mostly business travellers, there are far fewer children in these lounges, and I’m the kind of person who will take 20 loud adults over a single loud child any day of the week. I don’t know the situation in the US, but in Europe and Asia I’ve found ‘basic’ lounges perfectly serviceable.

  52. I totally see your point! I agree that the basic lounges are getting more and more crowded. With more people and noise, things that would not seem so appropriate in an almost empty lounge (kids running around, speaking loudly on the phone) become more commonplace as it does not stand out. More people then see that as appropriate behaviour. It’s a vicious circle. The lounges are no longer proving to be a refuge from the crowds. If wifi and a secluded corner are available near a gate, it could definitely be a better option.

  53. I totally agree, having spent some time in USA airport lounges recently they are certainly getting busier, while the amenities available in the general lounge are really good. I also like having the option to choose what food I like and not be tied to feeling like I need to travel with a particular airline.

    The Australian airport terminals are being progressively upgrade so there are now quite a few options to find a place to set up and a power point, but not to the extent of the USA airports…

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