What Makes A First Class Lounge Exceptional?

Filed Under: Air France, Cathay Pacific

Earlier today I wrote about the opening of the much anticipated Etihad first class lounge. The lounge opening was delayed by over a year, so many of us have been anxiously waiting for it to open. I’m excited to check out the lounge myself soon, and will reserve final judgment until then. Etihad claims this is “a lounge like no other.”


As someone who has experienced many of the world’s best lounges, it got me thinking… what makes a first class lounge truly spectacular?

I’ve shared what I consider to be the world’s seven best first class airline lounges:

When I really boil it down, what makes an international first class lounge experience exceptional? I figured I’d share the six elements of a perfect lounge. For what it’s worth, no lounge boasts all of these features, so this lounge exists only in my imagination. 😉

I’d note that I’m leaving out the very basics, as they should be a given. These include things like a spacious and private environment, workstations, high speed wifi, etc.

Instead, the six things I’m sharing are over the top amenities which really set the very best apart. In order, here are the things I value most:

1. Seamless gate-to-gate experience

A great ground experience shouldn’t start or finish at the lounge. This is an area where airlines have the most potential to improve, in my opinion. The ground experience should be as easy as possible for first class passengers, so that they can save time getting to the lounge and onto the plane.

Which airline does it best? Air France wins in this category, hands down. If connecting, the Air France first class ground experience is by far the most seamless, as you’ll be picked up in a car from your connecting flight, brought straight to the lounge, and will then be driven to your connecting flight.

Air-France-First-Class-Lounge-Paris - 1

However, for those originating at the airline’s hub, the Lufthansa First Class Terminal deserves credit as well, as you’ll never even have to enter the airport’s main terminal. Unfortunately the experience isn’t as seamless if you’re connecting. That’s why Lufthansa gets a second place finish.


2. Fantastic food

Mediocre food in first class lounges doesn’t typically do it for me, since you can usually have a great meal onboard. However, for the few lounges which truly go the extra mile, a lounge meal can be as good as anything you’d eat at a top Michelin star restaurant. This is especially useful if you want to sleep after takeoff on a redeye, or if you’re coming off a redeye and want to eat in the lounge before a connection.

Which airline does it best? Air France wins in this category, hands down. A lot of airlines have great lounge food, but Air France is on a whole different level. Their menu is created by Alain Ducasse, and the service you’ll receive is comparable to what you’d get in any other top restaurant, down to a wine pairing with every course.

Air-France-First-Class-Lounge-Paris - 59

3. A spa

Sure, you could get a spa treatment any day of the week outside of an airport, but to me there’s something special about getting a relaxing massage before a longhaul flight. A lot of airlines offer spa treatments to premium passengers nowadays, but not all treatments are created equal.

Which airline does it best? The Thai Airways first class lounge offers complimentary hour-long full body massages in private suites, which even have bathtubs.


4. Good resting facilities

Sometimes you have a long layover between flights, and desire nothing more than a real bed. As good as some first class seats are, nothing compares to a real bed. While many airlines have daybeds, there aren’t too many which have real beds.

Which airline does it best? The Qatar Airways Al Safwa first class lounge offers private nap rooms, which really feel more like hotel rooms. I’d actually argue the rooms are more comfortable than those offered at the nearby airport hotel.

Qatar-Airways-Lounge-Doha - 51

Qatar-Airways-Lounge-Doha - 52

5. Over the top shower rooms

It’s nice to be able to refresh after a long flight, though often airport shower rooms aren’t especially nice. It’s still worth the shower to freshen up, but my favorite is when you can freshen up in a gorgeous shower suite, which is as nice as any shower you’d find in a hotel room.

Which airline does it best? Cathay Pacific’s The Wing first class lounge offers “cabanas,” which are the most gorgeous airport shower rooms I’ve ever seen.


6. A gym

I typically feel especially unhealthy after a long flight in first class, given the amount of food and champagne I’ve indulged in. So I’ve long said that it would be nice to have a gym in more airport lounges. A while back I wrote about nine amazing airline lounge amenities, and among those I talked about the mini-gym in one of the Admirals Clubs at Dallas Airport.


Which airline does it best? Etihad’s new first class lounge, which just opened today, features a gym. Here’s how it’s described:

If you have not had time to work out before your trip or you have a long flight ahead, then our Fitness Room offers the perfect solution.

It’s kitted out with state-of-the-art Technogym equipment, free weights and yoga mats. Everything that gym addicts might need for their daily fix.

You can even freshen up with a shower afterwards.

I suspect the gym is slightly nicer than what American offers in Dallas.

Bottom line

The above are the “over the top” lounge features which I value most, roughly in order. While most of these are amenities which are nice to have and not really necessary, I genuinely think a lot of value would be added to the passenger experience if the seamlessness of the services were improved.

What Air France does for their first class passengers by assisting them every step of the way earns them their spot as the world’s top first class lounge, in my opinion.

Conversely, I’m a bit disappointed to learn that while Etihad has opened their new first class lounge, they don’t seem to otherwise be introducing improved ground experiences. I wish they’d offer first class passengers a true fast track through security and immigration, escorts to the gate, and plane side pick-ups.

What makes a first class lounge exceptional to you? 

  1. While they don’t offer “gate-to-gate” transfer, I consider the Al Safwa lounge the most exceptional First Class lounge in the world, simply because of its stunning design (I made a clip with my impressions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vh0aCnXqzkE). I agree with all your points, but I think you should also have taken a lounge’s design or architecture into consideration 🙂

  2. Great post as always, though there are two things I think should be mentioned as well.

    The first thing is that I think a crucial point that can make or break a FIRST lounge is its exclusivity. Most of the lounges you mentioned is only available to first class passengers and thus maintains a certain standard all the time but on the hand First lounges such as the Pier or the Wing in HKG is often overrun by OW Emeralds during peak departure hours(midnight) which drastically decreases their value from my point of view.

    Second thing is I believe the new LX F lounges at the ZRH E Concourse has hands down better nap rooms than QR at Doha

  3. I think gyms at airport lounges are really a waste of space.
    Also, shower facilities are not enough: F lounges should have bathing facilities.

  4. Some anti-gym people, I see.

    I love being able to hit a gym right after getting off a long-haul flight, especially if I am connecting to another flight. A good workout followed by a shower and steam clears out the mental cobwebs and works wonders for countering the ravages of jetlag.

    I’m surprised more premium lounges don’t offer workout facilities.

  5. Ben, It looks like the Etihad lounge doesn’t have a day rooms or places to sleep? Am I reading that right?

  6. The Thai lounge is not in the same league as the others. Yes, you get a nice spa experience…that would cost $15 in Bangkok

  7. To me the seamless gate-to-gate transfer experience is THE defining characteristic of a top lounge. Transiting in European and Asian/Middle Eastern airports can be a royal pain due to multiple security checks and long distances between gates and terminals, aggravated by the trend towards forced tight connections these days. I get seriously stressed out about connections, admittedly irrationally so, but anything to remove the stress and give me even a few minutes to decompress in a quiet space is a big plus.

  8. Great shower and spa facilities are absolutely appreciated in first class lounges. I’m impressed that Thai Airways offers a full hour-long complimentary spa. To think I was already blown away with Etihad’s 15-minute complimentary Six Senses spa treatment!

  9. While some may want to drive around the Tarmac in a luxury automobile that is definitely less convenient for connections than the Emirates Dubai first class lounge which has an elevator to each gate! Their food and service are excellent as well though the showers are nothing special.

  10. I have to say I prefer the Qantas Sydney F lounge to Air France as I love QANTAS’ food offerings.

  11. @Ben —
    How can you make the judgment that Eithad has the best lounge gym if you haven’t experienced it yourself? I’m normally a fan of your work, but this is eerily similar to all the Hollywood critics who give out their Oscar race picks before seeing any of the movies. Rather surprised at you….

  12. If I arrive in F and depart in C (no F service to short haul) the next morning after 20 hour layover, would I get access to F lounge or only look for departing flight to be F.

    Unrelated question, will etihad through check bags for SYD-AUH-HYD with 20 hour layover or do I need to claim in AUH?


  13. The perks that make a business class lounge pretty good:

    1. Anything hot and fresh to munch on is pretty good. Sugary soda, chips, cheese cubes, and snack mix don’t count.

    2. A view. Ideally it should be a view of airplanes or the city, but any kind of window is pretty good. Even a skylight with natural light pouring in is a lot better than a sealed stuffy artificial coffin under buzzing fluorescent tubes.

    3. A shower stall. Plenty of nasty business lounges forget the simple luxury of hot water and fluffy towels. The pretty good ones have them.

    4. Baggage check. It’s pretty good to have a secure place to leave your laptop bag carryon. Then you can retreat to the main terminal to search for a real meal at the overpriced food stalls or just fall asleep in the lounge armchairs before or after a redeye without worrying about sticky fingers.

    5. Long hours. It’s not pretty good to get kicked out into the cold, hard terminal chairs long before the last flight. Neither is it pretty good to be waiting for an hour at 6am in the cheap seats because the lounge isn’t open.

    6. Airline agents ready to help with no line are pretty good. They could even come looking and wake you up if you fall asleep in the armchairs before your flight; that would really be pretty good.

  14. I love the restaurant and business center at The Pier in HKG but goodness the private rooms are FREEZING. They really blast the a/c. Could only bear it for about twenty minutes. Shame because otherwise it’s a nice space.

  15. A minor but yet unmentioned amenity that is nice to have in a first class lounge is a shoe-shine service like in the JAL NRT first class lounges.

    A good restaurant in a lounge is always appreciated. Yet it is usually somewhat superfluous, unless there is a really long layover, since every first class flight offers an abundance of food. That goes double when there is a connecting flight involved.

    Imperator is right regarding having workout facilities in a lounge. I enjoy using the facilities in the AA DFW club (C concourse I believe).

  16. You missed a few key things that any lounge should have – wifi, charging stations, coffee.

  17. Who cares? First class — international anyway — is a vanishing breed. NOBODY flies first class anymore. Speaking for those of us ‘in the back’ and who occasionally fly in business class. You braggart!

  18. @John SQ’s Private Room might have been top 5 years ago, but the other lounges have leapfrogged it.

  19. LX new F lounge at ZRH E, whiskeybar and bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms over the alps, even has an outdoor patio!

  20. I think I’m like most typical high end travellers (who I define as those who fly at least reasonably regularly, and >95% in the premium clasess), in that I want a First experience (including Lounge) that offers a seamless, hassle free, relaxing experience that surprises and delights (only a very small percentage of people would want a gym – hence the low utilisation of the Dallas Admirals Club gym).

    Re: the earlier comment on OneWorld First lounges and how their is too much non-First passengers. Often there are simply not enough First passengers to justify even having a proper First lounge – even Lufthansa’s luxury First Terminal would be under-utilised if Miles and More HON Circle members weren’t there. However I think there is some logic in perhaps directing those travelling in Y to the Business Class lounge instead (so top tier status members have to at least be in PY to access the First Lounge, which would keep things from getting too busy).

    My priorities would be:
    1. Hassle-free responsive intuitive service: Make the experience effortless and seamless for me (in other words, don’t make it hard or frustrating) – rather than make me fit the preferences of airline employees constantly, consider what my needs and wants are.
    2. Expedited Check-In, Security, Immigration, Boarding, Exit: I don’t want to waste time standing in line or being in a scrum. I want to glide through, preferably away from the scrum. Thoughtful things like a Club Cart to/from the aircraft are welcome, if it’s more than a short stroll (I prefer to stay in the airport than drive across the tarmac, unless the aircraft is at a remote stand).
    3. Comfortable Ergonomic Seating (and set out so you are never left feeling crowded): Can’t stress the importance of this. Far too many lounges and aircraft sacrifice function for style/look (I’m looking at you Qantas First SYD/MEL Lounges – your chairs are just uncomfortable).
    4. Food: I want to eat quality superior restaurant grade food (not cateen or cafe grade food). And I want decent choice and the freedom to eat when I want.
    5. Drink: I don’t expect the earth, or endless choice, but select your beverage choices wisely (no nasty stuff) with at least one or two top choices (Krug, Tattinger Comtes de Champagne, that sort of level). Some great cocktails will also be much appreciated (as will Mango Juice)
    6. Entertainment: Give me high quality IFE (aircraft) and additional relaxing things to do in the lounge, such a high quality spa (although an hour is too long – 15-30 minutes is about right), or a TV to watch, etc (but not a gym lol). Also included in this is wi-fi, which must be decent. Also plenty of power-points to charge my own devices.
    7. Showers & Nap Areas. Can’t say this enough – no poorly ventilated shower/bath areas that turn into sweat boxes, and make sure I can have cold water (ME3, I’m looking at you). A full size bath like BA offers in its Arrival Lounge at T5 LHR is welcome. Ideally a private hotel style room like that Qatar offers in it’s First lounge.

    I also appreciate airlines that try to offer a similar high standard at more than just their hub.

  21. Just curious, since you’ve said Air France First Class lounge is comparable to s top restaurant, would you mind sharing your reference points, I,e, what are the top couple of restaurants you’ve been to?


  22. It’s interesting the commentators that don’t like the lounges being open to those beneath them, I mean, non-first class passengers. If the same people had the same ticket as you would you be unhappy still? I don’t understand how in your minds your experience is diminished because others are getting the same thing. You want to be a a special unique snow flake……that’s fine, but remember you’re as unique as every other snow flake.

  23. Yes I agree with the posters above, you’ve totally missed the new LX First lounge E off the list. I can only assume you haven’t been, but this post also relates back to a lounge (new EY F) which you also haven’t been to 🙂

    Views and private security also much more important than a gym. Same with other things like private baggage check, tax free services etc.

    You could almost do two posts; one for First Class lounges exclusive to a First Class pax, and another for OWE or *G (or similar).

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