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Which? slams the state of independent UK airport lounges

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Which? magazine, which regularly tests and scores consumer goods, has turned its focus to airport lounges. It has released a league table for the best and worst independent airport lounges in the UK.

You can see the full article on the Which? website here.

We don’t agree with the conclusions, but I think most of us would agree with the sentiment of their report – that things are not what they used to be.

Which? slams the state of independent UK airport lounges

We’re no novices to this topic: Rob and I have visited and reviewed virtually every airport lounge in the UK, but it was interesting to read the perspective of an ‘outside’ source.

Whilst Which? calls the list ‘Best UK Airport Lounges’ it would be fairer to call it the ‘Worst UK Airport Lounges’.

None of the 20 lounges reviewed scored more than 3 out of 5 stars; the vast majority scored 2.5 and below.

Unlike Which?‘s recent attempt to rank hotel chains, this is not based on reader feedback but individual feedback from their team of inspectors.

To establish a star rating, reviewers looked at various categories as well as the price of entry if you book direct. Points were given based on the availability of, and quality of:

  • internal toilets
  • showers
  • whether the lounge had runway views
  • quiet zones (or lack thereof)
  • children and family zones
  • what alcohol was available, including sparkling wine

It’s not clear how the results were weighted or whether they took more of a ‘finger in the air’ approach to the star ratings.

The results were not good, with Which? concluding that:

“Not only did many lounges fail to deliver on expectations, but Which? found that many of the benefits once offered by lounges have been cut back since the pandemic. For example, many lounges no longer offer spa facilities, lounge chain No1 Lounges has stopped offering made to order lunches in many of its properties, and private sleeping pods, or ‘snoozepods,’ have been cleared at Luton to make room for extra seating.”

They also noted huge hyper-inflationary price increases with the on-the-door costs of Aspire lounges increasing by 40% since covid. Here is the table of results (click to enlarge):

Which? slams the state of independent UK airport lounges

Which independent UK airport lounges did Which? like?

Six of the twenty lounges visited scored 3 out of 5 stars, which was the highest rating given this year. No lounges achieved four or five stars.

The six highest rated lounges are (the links go to our reviews):

It’s not clear which Edinburgh Aspire lounge Which? visited, since there are two. The Luton Aspire lounge, meanwhile, is closing next week and is being converted into a My Lounge.

Looking at the results above, it’s clear that of the three major lounge providers (Aspire, No1 and Plaza Premium), all are seen by Which? as roughly equal in terms of quality.

Both the Edinburgh Aspire lounges are quality lounges so I would agree with Which? there. However, they appear to have missed the new Plaza Premium Edinburgh (review here) which is now my favourite lounge at the airport and (in my opinion) one of the best independent lounges in the UK.

Also missing from the list are some of the new lounges in Manchester’s Terminal 2. The 1903 lounge is excellent whilst the Escape Lounge next door is decent too.

Which? slams the state of independent UK airport lounges
Plaza Premium Gatwick North

And the worst UK airport lounges ….?

I imagine a big part of the Which? star ratings are based on just a single visit, which can have a huge impact on the overall impression of a lounge.

For example, on a recent trip from Gatwick North I popped into the allegedly 3-star No1 Lounge to find an overcrowded, chaotic and messy lounge heaving with families and lads on stag dos. The Which? inspector clearly visited at a quieter time.

The Southend SkyLife Lounge ranks the worst and is the only lounge to receive 1 star. However, when you read the small print you’ll find that this is because the lounge remains closed and qualifying passengers are sent to a corner of an airport cafe.

More disappointingly, the Plaza Premium Gatwick North lounge gets just 1.5 stars:

“When reviewers visited Gatwick North’s Plaza Premium towards the end of the day, they found food that ‘looked past its best’, crumbs on the tables, stains on the seats and workmen busy fixing a TV.”

This is not entirely fair, I think. The hard product of the Plaza Premium lounge in Gatwick North is good – as you would expect, given it is an ex-Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse. It is let down by a poor selection of food and drink as well as poor cleaning standards, but I’m not sure I’d give it 1.5 out of 5.

Plaza Premium Lounge Edinburgh VIP room
Plaza Premium Edinburgh

Is paying on the door good value?

Perhaps one of the reasons that the lounges score so badly across the board is that Which? is factoring in the cost of entry.

Their analysis notes that the cost of lounges has increased substantially. The majority of lounges are now charging in the high £30s or low £40s compared to £20-£30 pre-covid. That is, I am happy to admit, not good value.

How many people actually pay full price, however? Certainly amongst Head for Points readers I imagine the vast majority are getting into lounges for ‘free’ or at heavily discounted rates thanks to the lounge offers attached to many premium credit cards including:

You also have Barclaycard Avios Plus credit card holders who also have Barclays Premier Banking, who get four free DragonPass lounge passes per year as a reward for holding both products.

If you’re paying £18.50 then arguably the value proposition increases sharply. If you’re not paying at all ….

Cathay Pacific Business lounge Heathrow plants
Cathay Pacific’s Business Class Lounge, Heathrow

The best lounges are not independent lounges

Of course, the best lounges are always going to be airline-run and not independent lounges. When a business class ticket can cost thousands of pounds there is a much greater incentive for airlines to make sure their lounges are up to scratch

Heathrow has one of the highest concentrations of airline-run lounges in the world, including top offerings from Cathay Pacific, Qantas, Qatar Airways and more. I’ve personally ranked my favourites at two of the terminals (I’m still working on Terminal 4!):

The real pressure on independent airport lounges to improve needs to come from the airlines. Many airlines closed (or chose not to build) their own lounges at key airports because the quality of independent lounges went up. This situation has gone into reverse since the pandemic, and only the risk of losing large chunks of guaranteed business from airline customers is likely to change things.


Getting airport lounge access for free from a credit card

How to get FREE airport lounge access via UK credit cards (April 2024)

Here are the four options to get FREE airport lounge access via a UK credit card.

The Platinum Card from American Express comes with two free Priority Pass cards, one for you and one for a supplementary cardholder. Each card admits two so a family of four gets in free. You get access to all 1,300 lounges in the Priority Pass network – search it here.

You also get access to Eurostar, Lufthansa and Delta Air Lines lounges.  Our American Express Platinum review is here. You can apply here.

The Platinum Card from American Express

40,000 bonus points and a huge range of valuable benefits – for a fee Read our full review

If you have a small business, consider American Express Business Platinum instead.

American Express Business Platinum

40,000 points sign-up bonus and an annual £200 Amex Travel credit Read our full review

American Express Preferred Rewards Gold is FREE for the first year. It comes with a Priority Pass card loaded with four free visits to any Priority Pass lounge – see the list here.

Additional lounge visits are charged at £24.  You get four more free visits for every year you keep the card.  

There is no annual fee for Amex Gold in Year 1 and you get a 20,000 points sign-up bonus.  Full details are in our American Express Preferred Rewards Gold review here.

American Express Preferred Rewards Gold

Your best beginner’s card – 20,000 points, FREE for a year & four airport lounge passes Read our full review

HSBC Premier World Elite Mastercard gets you get a free Priority Pass card, allowing you access to the Priority Pass network.  Guests are charged at £24 although it may be cheaper to pay £60 for a supplementary credit card for your partner.

The card has a fee of £195 and there are strict financial requirements to become a HSBC Premier customer.  Full details are in my HSBC Premier World Elite Mastercard review.

HSBC Premier World Elite Mastercard

A huge bonus, but only available to HSBC Premier clients Read our full review

PS. You can find all of HfP’s UK airport lounge reviews – and we’ve been to most of them – indexed here.

Comments (171)

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

  • BA Flyer IHG Stayer says:

    “… and workmen busy fixing a TV.”

    They’d have complained if they’d just found a broken TV. At least the lounge were fixing it.

    As to no runway views sometimes these just aren’t possible. So would Which? rather there were no lounges just because there isn’t a view?

    And no review of the LGW clubrooms?

    Pretty poor Which? article. Did they just pull it together if their staff just happened to be visiting since the visit period lasted nine months!

  • Fraser says:

    Bizarre scoring system which gives no points to the food offering, despite criticising No.1 for the removal of freshly prepared items.

    And despite Luton having toilets and showers, Edinburgh scores higher, which may be fair but has no logic according to their criteria.

    • Oliver says:

      Yes! Which? seems to think the presence of a Quiet Zone is more important than the food offering… Says quite a lot about their review and scoring system!

  • zapato1060 says:

    *Spat my tea out* Club Aspire T5 on the door price £45.

    • Mark says:

      Couldn’t believe it too! You could get a half decent meal made to order in the terminal with a couple of drinks for that!

  • Charlie says:

    I’d agree broadly with Which’s conclusions. Having been excited to get a Priority Pass from Amex, I’ve been disappointed with pretty much all the UK lounges I’ve visited. One of the reasons I’ll be getting rid of the Platinum card before the fee increase next year.

    • Qrfan says:

      On what basis were you excited? There’s so much evidence out there that these lounges are anything but exciting.

    • Grumpy Chicken 81 says:

      Similar sentiments here, I find most of the PP lounges rather underwhelming. I also have sympathies with Which’s view on Plaza Premium Gatwick North – yes, the lounge furniture and runway views are great, but the food is grim (we don’t all want something spicy before getting on a plane) and the toilets need a deep clean.

    • Errol says:

      I agree. I basically assign no value to Priority Pass. Outside Europe you very occasionally find an OK lounge. Normally I find the terminal more pleasant than a Priority Pass lounge. Fortunately my airline status normally gets me into something better than Priority Pass…

  • Steve says:

    Although I haven’t read the which? article, I recently visited few of the lounges and yes, it goes downhill rapidly. For example terminal 5 plaza premium is waaay past its prime time. It used to be a nice place.

    Well, it’s the state of everything and everywhere at the moment really. Everything cost more, is ovwrcrowded, outdated and slowly falling apart.

    • Anthony says:

      *not everywhere. Predominantly in the UK. And perhaps selectively in a few other big cities in Europe and North America

  • Phil says:

    I’m inclined to side with Which reviews. Any reviewer that accepts press trips or funded access to review a service or product should not be taken seriously IMO.

    • Rob says:

      You wouldn’t get any reviews on that basis though 🙂

      You also have no clue about how business works. If we have an advertiser spending £50,000 per year with us do you not think this would have more impact than whether I personally paid £250 (or even £25,000) for a hotel? You also have no idea who we may have just pitched a £50k ad campaign to even if they do not currently advertise, or even who bought us a posh lunch last month.

      Even if we pay, what I would happily accept for £1000 per night (given HMRC covers 50% and I am a high earner) is unlikely to match what you would want for £1000, in the same way that Tom Callahan is dropping £10k per night (see his Good, Bad, Luxurious blog) which I would never contemplate.

      You need to have faith in the process. We can’t do dodgy reviews because whatever we cover at least 100 readers will have been there and will be piling in to criticise if we are soft.

    • Blindman67 says:

      +1

      • Blindman67 says:

        Just to be clear that +1 was for PHIL

        Rob-stick to credit card bonus tips, how to amass Airline points easily\cheaply
        all reviews are obviously slanted so not worth the time reading nor taking note of how “fantastic” everything is.
        Leave it to Tripadvisor\FT or someone else.

        • Rhys says:

          What are you on about? 99% of the time we use our own Priority Passes to get into independent lounges! I can’t remember the last time I used the word ‘fantastic’ in a lounge review!

        • Londonsteve says:

          I find the vast majority of HfP reviews NOT slanted or obviously influenced by revenue. They’re fair and objective and call a spade a spade. Reading umpteen reviews from armchair geniuses on TA, FT or Google is all very well and if you read enough, you’ll certainly get the measure of the place, but there’s no substituting a good quality review from an experienced travel journalist.

  • Mohamed says:

    Well I am happy to see they only gave 2 stars for Plaza Premium T5 which you praised time after time, lounges in UK are not worth it, I have PP and Amex Plat. the only lounge I bother is Centurion T3 the rest I d rather visit the toilets.

    • Rob says:

      PP T5 was exceptional when it opened but has gone downhill according to reports. Issues started when NatWest joined DragonPass (Plaza wasn’t in Priority Pass then).

      • Grumpy Chicken 81 says:

        It certainly has, all the booth chairs down the end are literally peeling apart. It looks awful. I’m no upholstery expert, but would it be that diffcult to recover their chairs?

      • TGLoyalty says:

        It’s been poor for atleast 4 years. I think fantastic was just the fact there was a non oneworld option at T5.

        When did it open?

    • Fraser says:

      Interested to know what you deem “worth it” – given the choice of working for a couple of hours on a layover with a power supply, free food and drink or sitting in a crowded departure area or fast food outlet, there’s no contest for me.

      I guess it depends how many visits you make but if you use the restaurant and Harvey Nicks credit, value travel insurance at £100, and hotel status at nothing then PP element of the Amex is still only about £150 a year or less than £10 a visit for me.

  • Ken says:

    “Certainly amongst Head for Points readers I imagine the vast majority are getting into lounges for ‘free’ or at heavily discounted rates thanks to the lounge offers attached to many premium credit cards”.

    Insert your own joke here…

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