I am deep undercover at Vancouver International Airport. I've paid my $29 (after discount coupon) and am sitting furtively in a corner of the Plaza Premium Lounge (plaza-network.com). While I narrow my eyes and scrutinize the room, the other passengers pretend to ignore me and drink their G&Ts.
Swanky lounges used to be the exclusive preserve of top-class passengers and high-flying points accumulators. Now, as airlines offer day passes and a new breed of independent pay-in facilities emerges, they have become a tempting add-on available to everyone.
But with one-use fees of up to $75, are they worth it?
My experience with the Plaza in YVR's international departures – cheese cubes, fried rice and ice-cold white-bread sandwiches in a windowless room – says no. But there is a caveat: This is a temporary lounge, open while Plaza builds a potentially much more inviting facility nearby, complete with baristas, showers and nap rooms.
For now, though, it's not worth it – especially since this is a comfortable enough airport with free WiFi. And for $29 (or $35 without the coupon) you can get a decent meal at Milestones or a lifetime supply of food-court Timbits.
But great lounges can certainly be a restorative refuge. I've reluctantly left private showers, cocktail counters and made-to-order noodle bars in Tokyo, Reykjavik and London (where I was mistakenly admitted to a first-class lounge and spent my time hoarding canapés while waiting to be collared by security).
It's not all caviar and cognac, though. I've experienced lame lounges where soup and crackers substituted for decadent dining and the only entertainment was yesterday's dog-eared Der Spiegel. From United Club to Air Canada Maple Leaf, not all lounges are created equal.
"Overall, my favourite business lounge is the Virgin Atlantic Heathrow Clubhouse," says frequent flier John Walton, director of data at flight-search website Routehappy (routehappy.com). "It's stylish, smart and fun, with a salon, spa, full-service bars and a restaurant." (His other faves are the JFK Virgin Clubhouse and Finnair's Helsinki lounge.)
Walton recommends doing your homework before cracking open your wallet.
"Head onto Foursquare or Facebook to find if people are complaining about the facilities. If it's part of a longer trip, make sure there are showers. And look for recent pictures of the place on a Google image search," he says. I'd also add loungeexpert.com and the Lounge Buddy app (loungebuddy.com) to your research.
Lounge access is typically a perk of frequent-flyer status or specific credit cards, but Walton has also looked at buying annual memberships. "I've never made the maths add up, though. If you're flying enough to get value from it, you're probably flying enough to earn status and get free lounge entry anyway."
If you are tempted, one-year Maple Leaf Lounge membership starts at $365. Priority Pass packages (prioritypass.com) include more than 600 lounges around the world from just $99 (U.S.). Alternatively, you can pick up one-day passes at loungepass.com.
You can also clip coupons. Donna McSherry runs the popular Sleeping in Airports website (sleepinginairports.net), which has lounge listings plus some printable discounts. "I like the idea of paid lounges," she says, "It means economy-class travellers now have the option when they especially need some quiet and comfort."
But McSherry agrees that research is essential. "There are definitely different standards of airline lounges and independent, paid-access lounges. For both, you can find luxurious options with buffets and showers or simple lounges offering only nice seats and light snacks."
Back in my Vancouver lounge, it's time to hit the gate. But since I've paid $29 to be here, I guzzle a final Merlot for the road. Now, where are those cheese cubes again?
OUR READERS WRITE
- If you live in area of the country where almost all flights more than two hours or outside Canada require a connection through a hub airport, airline lounge access is definitely worth the expense. Patrick Kinnear
- I’m an AC million-mile flier. One of my perks is lifetime access to Star Alliance lounges and, at my age (74), this is a perk worth paying for – believe me. My wife and I fly from YVR to YYZ often; we always book an early morning flight, arriving well ahead of departure time, so we can have a leisurely breakfast and a long read of the G&M. By the time we board we are well rested, composed and ready for the five-hour flight. Tony Gardiner
- It doesn’t get any better than the Lufthansa first class terminal in Frankfurt! @HolidayBakerMan
- Virgin Atlantic’s flagship lounge at Heathrow. Included spa treatment and jacuzzi, anyone? @TripStyler
- They make life easier on five-hour transit stops. I like the BA, VA and QF lounges because they feed you well. JAL/Skyteam suck @misstravels
- I read about YVR’s distinguished visitor’s lounge the other day – seems like a genius idea for family/friends travelling together @nikkibayley
- The Wing – Cathay Pacific’s flagship lounge in Hong Kong – is unparalleled. @candicebest
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