I moved to London with airline status two years ago, but once I saw the regular, ridiculous sale fares offered by low cost carriers (like £10 to Copenhagen, possibly my favourite European city), I couldn’t always justify the additional cost (often more than 5x) to fly an alliance airline and enjoy the status benefits like lounge access.
So I invested in a Priority Pass membership, which turned out to be a very wise investment as I use it at least 30 times a year, bringing the cost of a lounge visit down to about $10 per visit. I’ve visited some excellent Priority Pass lounges that could pass as (and sometimes are) a full-service business class lounge, and I’ve also visited some so awful I’ve gasped and walked straight out again. If you’re based in the US, the number of Priority Pass members has increased greatly the past couple of years, since now there are quite a few credit cards with lounge access.
So what do I look for in a Priority Pass lounge that may be different to an airline-run business class lounge?
The ‘Sala VIP’ Priority Pass lounge in Catania, Italy was about the same size as my living room. Every one of the approximately 8 seats was taken meaning you either stood, or sat on the floor. Plentiful seating in the terminal was a smarter option.
If there’s nowhere to sit or store your luggage/jackets, it’s really not worth a visit.
Similarly, the only Priority Pass lounge in Heathrow Terminal 5, The Aspire Lounge, is crammed into a small, narrow space with all food options in a narrow corridor. This means passengers are climbing over each other to try and serve themselves food while other passengers push past to try and find somewhere to sit.
It’s awkward, frustrating and uncomfortable.
Not ‘luxurious and relaxing,’ like the brochure promotes.
Where there is only one Priority Pass lounge in a large and busy terminal its obvious the lounge will fill up at times. Seattle and London Gatwick have been notorious for this. It’s very frustrating to skip breakfast at home and arrive at the airport an hour before you needed to because you had planned to eat in the lounge only to be denied access.
You are then faced with a choice to either hang around, pestering the staff every 15 minutes trying to get in, or give up and pay for an overpriced, low quality airport meal at a cafe.
Luckily at some locations Priority Pass has now negotiated with airport restaurants to accept Priority Pass as payment for a set amount of food and drinks. Now I don’t even bother with the lounge at Gatwick South anymore, as the Grain Store provides better food with no access risks.
Priority Pass proudly promote how you can ‘unwind and relax’ in their lounges. And for sure, at some of their more obscure lounges like Bratislava, Grand Canaria, or Malta, I’ve been about the only person there, so it has been very relaxing and peaceful.
But at major airports at peak periods, like London Gatwick and KLIA 2, if you’re even granted access (see above) you enter a noisy, chaotic area of bodies everywhere, screaming children, passengers watching videos or Skyping without headphones, and tables piled high with dirty plates and glasses. Some people put up with this just so that they can feel ‘exclusive’ that they are in a ‘lounge,’ even though it is not remotely enjoyable, or peaceful. I’ve never understood this, but it’s a mindset airlines and airports make a lot of money from.
I’d rather an uncluttered and (relatively) quiet gate area.
All Priority Pass lounges feature at least some food, and usually have an even better selection of drinks (I’ve never visited a Priority Pass lounge without a wide selection of alcohol). But the food can often be limited to pre-packaged, junky cr*p like ‘those croissants that last for 6 months,’ trail mix stored in ‘snack towers of sadness’ and dry, dense cake.
If this is all that’s on offer for a meal I buy real food elsewhere.
Showers and Bathrooms
This seems obvious for an international airport lounge but you’d be surprised how many Priority Pass lounges don’t even have bathrooms, let alone showers. The showers are unlikely to be spotless, modern facilities with dedicated attendants wiping them down between uses.
But they’re better than nothing, and many Priority Pass lounges actually have better shower facilities than the grim hospital washrooms in British Airways’ flagship Concorde Room.
Warning: if you’re a germophobe like Ben, you’re not going to want to have a shower in a Priority Pass lounge.
Unless space is at an absolute premium, it beggars belief a lounge would not install bathrooms, although Singapore Airlines didn’t bother in their KrisFlyer Gold lounge for their status passengers.
The X Factor: Hot Food
This seems to be the biggest difference between a Priority Pass lounge and a proper business class lounge. Most Priority Pass lounges I’ve been to don’t have any hot food, while you’d be shocked if a Lufthansa or SilverKris lounge didn’t have several options. At best there will be a few options of different types of meat and vegetarian dishes and curries seem to be the norm for this given how cheap and easy they are to make. They’re certainly not gourmet, and feel like something to fill you up rather than something to linger and enjoy, but at least they’re offered.
More than one hot option (that you would actually like to eat) is usually the sign of a really good Priority Pass lounge.
Some lounges allow a la carte ordering of one item from a (very) limited menu but these items are often, at best, low quality food in very small portions, made by someone who doesn’t care much about food. And this is definitely the exception, not the norm.
My best and worst
The best Priority Pass lounges I’ve visited:
- Aspire Lounge, Calgary, Canada — huge, new, spotlessly clean, great hot food and wonderful, proud staff
- The Grain Store, London Gatwick South, UK — not a lounge but excellent (real) food and drinks with fast service
- La Valette Club, Malta — operated by Air Malta as their flagship business class lounge, this had an impressive buffet of hot and cold food options and comfortable (albeit dated) furniture
The worst Priority Pass lounges I’ve visited:
- Plaza Premium Lounge – KLIA2, Malaysia — less like a lounge and more like a small roped-off area on one side of a noisy, chaotic corridor; packed to the gills, dark, dirty, loud, sweaty, with a non-ventilated kitchen flooding the lounge with smoke and cooking steam
- Sala VIP Lounge, Catania, Italy — nowhere to sit, no food and my living room is bigger
- Plaza Premium Arrivals Lounge, London Heathrow Terminal 2, UK — I’m not one to turn down a free meal but watching the ‘chef’ take a giant plastic tub out of the fridge, slop some god-knows-how-old curry into a bowl and microwave it to a lukewarm level, all right in front of you, wasn’t appetising; sometimes its better not to see how your food is prepared
What are the best and worst Priority Pass lounges you’ve visited?