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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

  • BP says:

    The Lomond Lounge at Glasgow Airport wasn’t included but actually looks decent for a third party lounge.

    • Numpty says:

      Lomond isn’t on PP, they actually want the £40 to get in! So it might be decent.

    • tw33ty says:

      I’ve been in the lomond lounge with priority pass, it’s a fiver surcharge, it’s just not listed, but you can get in.

      Tbh great looking place, very spacious, but the food quality is absolutely terrible.

      Poor malt whisky selection, but I won’t judge them on that 😂

      • His Holyness says:

        How recent was this?

      • Numpty says:

        I’d be happy to use it just as it’s in a better location, more central than the other lounge.

      • JoshB says:

        I’ve had some decent food there (and not hard to beat the Upper Deck grub tbh) – main issue is its early closing at 6pm so not usually an option for most of my flights out of GLA.

  • Jay-Marc says:

    Maybe the period when some independent lounges were of a decent quality rather than pitched at the lowest level they could get away with was the aberration. The Servisair lounge at Heathrow T1 for example is not a pleasant memory.

    I think in general they probably oversold capacity in bulk to the likes of On the Beach post Covid; whether they can or want to reduce this remains to be seen. There can’t be many paying the walk-up price?

    • The real Swiss Tony says:

      On The Beach released financials this morning, citing the success of the lounge program. Now arguably they have made a rod for their own backs with that as the lounges will be looking to up the price point, but the concept has legs. And OTB can hide an extra £5 pp a lot easier than PP can by all accounts, especially as the free lounge is only on their more expensive holidays.

  • Mark says:

    To me this just shows again the value of paying 9k avios more (c£90) plus a smidge more in taxes to use the BA lounges. While not perfect they are much better than what is presented above, and you also get fast track and a somewhat better experience on the plane. Given people are clearly happy to pay nearly half this for a rubbish lounge ‘experience’ 9k Avios seems like a reasonable deal

  • CJ says:

    Unfortunately IMO the Plaza Premium lounge in Edinburgh has gone downhill very swiftly since first opening. The last time I visited they had run out of red wine and prosecco, had no draft beer and could only offer warm bottles of beer. The time before that wasn’t much better.

    Stained carpets and unkempt tables and one particularly rude member of staff. In its initial year the service and standard was impeccable but now I’d rather go to the Aspire lounge.

    • astra19 says:

      I have tried to go a few times to PP but gave up because the check-in process is achingly slow. Probably by design. I ended up going to Aspire next door which is decent, as Which says.

    • tw33ty says:

      I’m the opposite, I fly out of edi weekly, and I’d rather go to WH Smith than go to aspire, there is one jumped up member of staff who floats between the two and speaks to folk like they are something he’s scraped of his shoe.

      The aspire beside ba lounge doesn’t even have toilets in it.

      While the food and drink isn’t what it used to be at plaza, it’s still better and less cramped than aspire.

    • Bervios says:

      Agree, Visited all the EDI lounges yesterday – Aspire by gate 4 the worst (however free champagne with a BA boarding pass as its the replacement BA lounge for a few weeks) – Plaza premium ok, but the food poor (pea/mint soup – caulliflower cheese) , basic drink selection , i vacated and went to the aspire next door which had better food .

  • KJones says:

    I have read the comments on reviews regarding Which? and HfP and understand the points made from both sides. I do think that the staging of reviews is poor practice as ultimately it is not representative. If the lounge is filthy, show pictures of the filth and don’t worry about staging pictures. We used a review company called Guestx to undertake competitor analysis for us as well as analysis on our properties (I think they review anything involving guests, passengers etc). They covered over a thousand or so elements on each review which in my mind was thorough, representative and accurate, all backed up by video, photos and sampling. I would believe these reviews much more than Which? As a hotel GM, what interests me is the methodology used to review. Reviews should be used by lounge operators to improve their offering, or cleanliness at a minimum. It costs very little to clean upholstery, train staff on how to clear tables and be customer focussed etc etc. If we ran our hotels like lounges are run, we would be out of business in a matter of days and Trip Advisor ratings would be 1*. Bottom line, please provide honest reviews, regardless of how good or bad they are as this ultimately drives up standards.

    • Rhys says:

      We don’t stage our photos, we take photos of the lounge as we find it!

      • KJones says:

        Where you won’t take pictures if there is anyone in the lounge, per previous comment, then it is staged per se.

        • Bodkins says:

          That doesn’t make any sense

          • KJones says:

            Rob’s previous comment was: ‘The subtlety you miss is that, due to the need to get photos without people in them, we only review independent lounges when they are empty.’ So if photos / reviews are only performed in an empty lounge (which is probably only representative of a small percentage of the time), then the review is staged, otherwise we would see reviews with pictures of no food, plates piled high, dirty toilets, food on the floor, no seats. This may not be staged (in its truest form) but highly selective and misrepresentative based on what 99% of users would experience first hand.

          • Rhys says:

            ‘Staged’ implies that we are artificially altering the operation, condition or layout of the lounge, which we’re not. We just don’t review a lounge if it’s so busy that any photos we would take would simply be of people and not of the furniture.

            If you’ve read our reviews you’ll see that most of them have some people in them, although we do try to take photos that minimise the number of people that are photographed.

        • His Holyness says:

          Why don’t you take photos if there are people in the lounge?

          • Rob says:

            Privacy rules (and the general expectations of privacy that people now have) have changed dramatically in the 11 years we’ve been doing this.

            When Rhys wrote some reviews for the Priority Pass blog recently they refused to use his photographs because they had members of the public in them who had not given their written consent to appearing. HfP doesn’t go that far for our own content but we obviously want to reflect the spirit of the rules.

            People tend to spoil our nicely framed pictures too 🙂

          • His Holyness says:

            But it’s not based law, so who cares. But why not just blur faces? It’s the only way to publish in Germany based on the privacy *law*, click away as much as you want but you need to remove personal characteristics.

          • Rob says:

            Looks really naff ….

          • His Holyness says:

            Having to blur 50 faces and showing empty glasses and plates over all the tables is a more realistic review of lounges than empty and serene with the food piping hot fresh from the microwave at 04:30AM.

          • Rob says:

            Start flying earlier in the morning 🙂

          • Ziggy says:

            Here’s a suggestion: You try it and see how it works out for you. Walk into a crowded lounge and start taking photos of everyone and anyone and see how long it takes before life turns awkward (people asking questions of you) and before lounge staff are being asked to question what you’re up to.

            Unsurprisingly, most people don’t like some random person taking pictures of them regardless of whether or not their face will be blurred out on whatever website the photo finally appears on.

          • His Holyness says:

            Download an App called TikTok.

          • Damien says:

            I don’t understand HfP’s obsession with privacy and photos. I’m not interested in photos. I’m interested in what a lounge is like during the day when most users use them. Forget the photos – just review a lounge at a time when most people are likely to use them (which is usually not first thing in the morning or last thing at night). HfP must use lounges when photos are not possible because of privacy concerns (ie during the day) – what does HfP think of the lounges at those times?

  • His Holyness says:

    I agree with Which? on the whole and it’s pretty innovative to have a 0-5 scale and not feel the need to go above 3*.
    My biggest gripe is how Plaza wins silly awards which I assume are paid. Bottom shelf spirits (some lounges don’t have any for free), pretty crap food. They’re not good. As pointed out Aspire EDI has much better food than Plaza next door.
    BA lounges feature similar catering, some slop with a bit of protein, plus some more carbs and some cakes made with hydrogenated vegetable oil.
    AENA’s lounges are pretty good, I was surprised to see the range of food and drink

  • Danny says:

    I hoped they would have reviewed the lounge at Leeds. It gives a whole different meaning to basic LOL

    I guess it all boils down to airports trying to be as stingy as possible while still providing a ‘service’.

    • Rob says:

      I’m keen to visit the Leeds Bradford lounges but without the Heathrow flights now (and no direct train link) it’s not feasible.

      • flyforfun says:

        I visited the old BMI lounge many, many moons ago. I did a day trip from LCY to LBA to visit family between xmas and new year. From memory I was the only one flying business on the plane (At the back of the plane too! Cargo was in a section up front iirc!). There wasn’t much in the lounge bar dry snacks and sandwiches. I’m sure it’s all changed now of course. For one thing, it won’t be a BMI lounge!

      • mvcvz says:

        I have visited the Leeds Bradford lounges. I’m especially keen to never do so again.

  • flyforfun says:

    I’d be interested to know if the quality of lounges would increase if alcohol was either restricted to 1 include beverage or totally paid for. I’m probably in the minority of travellers that use a lounge that doesn’t drink often. Last time I recall having booze was in the BA First lounge decades ago and Johnny Walker Blue Label was available free pour. I came off my short flight to AMS feeling very light headed!

    It’s been a very, very long time since I used an AA lounge, but recall on the US side we’d be given a voucher for 1 free drink from the bar, and that was only because we were flying business long haul. Still had to tip and that included non-alcoholic drinks. Food was very basic in those days, as was the BA lounge. I think it was a big deal when a tray of sandwiches came round! Nothing like the lounges of today.

    For me, the lounge is somewhere to get a decent seat, not the utilitarian bucket seats in the main concourse. Somewhere were I can get a reasonable meal before a flight without having to queue for ages to either get in or wait to be served. When I transit longhaul I always have a shower between sectors so I want a clean and comfortable shower area. Premium Plaza Hong Kong by gate 40 is my favourite. Clean and comfortable with a bonus of great runway views. No other PP lounge I’ve been to comes close in the food stakes.

    So, if the structure changed and alcohol was either 1 included on entry or totally paid for, would you still use a lounge if that meant food and seating was improved? How many do you sink before a flight?

    • His Holyness says:

      Plenty of contract lounges give you just one drink as default as it is, 25ml of spirit or one 175ml glass or 330ml bottle beer.

    • ChrisBCN says:

      I don’t drink tea and coffee, so I think you should charge people for that. I don’t usually use the charging points, so why not charge people for that too, tiered charges for up to 30 minutes, up to 60 minutes, and unlimited.

      I also probably won’t eat the sandwiches, so let’s give out vouchers for those that want them, perhaps egg and cress is offered as free sample with upsell to ham and cheese.

      And I’m certainly not using the ladies toilets, so I don’t want to pay for those either.

      Do you see the road you are going down here?

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