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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.

  • Patrick Purcell says:

    Some random observations​:
    ​The snooze pods at Luton ​were fantastic​. Other lounges should get them!
    Probably the best ​UK non airline run ​lounge is the ​Plaza ​Premium at Heathrow Terminal 2​.
    ​As a regular visitor to the ​Plaza ​Premium Gatwick ​North​, there is no way ​that it ​is a 1.5 star Lounge on average​. (Pity they took out the pool table)
    Manchester has some good lounges​.
    I live near London​, but the European country with the most impressive lounges​, on average​, is Spain​. The average UK (non airline) offering is a long way behind.
    I​ am teetotal so can​n​ot comment on the alcohol ​offerings​.

    • LittleNick says:

      Whilst I agree the Plaza Premium T2 is furnished well and has nice decor, I once again didn’t find the food offering anything to write home about, pretty average stuff but was a nice place to sit based on my only visit on a Friday evening in October 22. Can’t comment on Spanish Lounges but my gold standard 3rd party Lounge I’ve been too is the Vienna Lounge, June 22 visit, better food than LHR BA Galleries imho.

      • LittleNick says:

        Actually having said that the SIN T4 Blossom/Plaza Premium lounge was also very good, but they are of a different standard in Asia.

        • HampshireHog says:

          I found the Singapore T1 Plaza Premium lounge to be very poor in terms of size,comfort and quality and range of food and beverages. The Airport owned SATS lounge was far better

  • Colin_Thames says:

    I like the idea of a star rating, so long as the criteria on which the rating is based is clear and broken down, so if you want toilets, or runway views, or hot food you know what’s there.
    Yes, we should have airline lounges included, even if they’re one world etc. But we should also know which lounges are used by which airlines. On a recent BA CE flight from Lisbon BA gave access to an overcrowded private lounge, entailing a 10 minute queue. Mind you, PO and Priority Pass holders couldn’t get in at all.
    The trouble seems to that some airports don’t allow or don’t seem to have any lounge operators. Corfu comes to mind. Nothing there at all, but at least the public areas and food offering are reasonable. But travelling CE would be a bit pointless.
    LCY not having any lounges is mad, especially given the awful public areas. But at least security is the slickest operation I’ve ever seen.

  • Aston100 says:

    I thought the Clubrooms at BHX was fairly decent, like maybe 4 out of 5.
    Don’t think Which reviewed it.
    Have HfP ever reviewed it?

    • Rob says:

      I was there for the Qatar Airways Birmingham relaunch event in June but, because it had been exclusively reserved, it wasn’t really feasible to do a proper review. The last proper review we did is very out of date.

      • GM says:

        I’m not sure I’d pay the extra for it. It’s pleasant enough, but when I was there for a Qatar flight I was seated near a group who were quite loud (not partyers, just elderly who all seemed to be shouting) and it didn’t feel particularly restful. It’s quite a small space and there was no quiet zone option – the didn’t even have a smaller table for me when I arrived. Put at the big conference table. Menu fine (had sausage and mash) but not that different to what No 1 used to offer before they changed to buffet. Nothing much to grab from the self serve section. I suppose it’s a bonus that it has toilets, unlike Aspire and No 1 at BHX, but a bit whiffy.

  • r* says:

    The standard of UK lounges seemed to especially drop around the same time that the offers for free lounge access on delayed flights and free lounge access on bucket and space packages started to appear.

    Away when the bottles of mineral water, replaced with those horrid filtered water dispensers (tho BA should be especially ashamed of doing this!), the standard of food dropped, things like packets of crisps vanished and the qualify of drinks offered got worse (special mention for Plaza T5 here that used to be great, then went bad then managed to a beer thats almost undrinkable lol).

    • LittleNick says:

      Surely doing away with bottles of water with all that plastic is a good thing? What’s wrong with the water filter dispensers? I noticed CX lounges also have the same in T3 when I was last there

      • NorthernLass says:

        They were always glass bottles in the BA lounges, so presumably could be recycled but I’m happy enough with the dispensers, I don’t really go in the lounge to drink water anyway!

      • John says:

        Then they just give out more bottles on board

  • KS says:

    I’m happy to actually read a review, especially if it’s a lounge I may be visiting one day. Pictures will always help, but not essential. I’d rather have some guidance than none. I’d say take the pictures you can take and cover the rest in the written article. I agree with previous posters, if it’s a dump with terrible food and a pile of dirty plates, give us a picture, no need for people to be in that at all. As they say, it is what it is.

  • Alex says:

    I broadly agree with the Which analysis. If a lounge has poor food, poor drink and poor cleanliness (as per Plaza Gatwick North for instance) then 1.5/5 seems somewhere between appropriate and generous.

    Where I think Which fall short is that they seem to have omitted the good lounges – Clubrooms at Gatwick and Birmingham and the MAN T2 lounges are probably the obvious ones. I also have a soft spot for Aspire at Liverpool.

    Some oddities in the table, too – the MAN T1 Aspire and Escape lounges are next to each other and use exactly the same dreadful toilets.

  • AL says:

    The airline/non-airline comparison I go back to is the VS Clubhouse at JFK. When it was outsourced to Plaza Premium, standards dropped. When it came back in house (or, rather, came back to Sodexo), it went back up again.

    How the MAN T3 lounges are still open is beyond me. The place needs dropping. And I don’t find MAN T2’s 1903 to be good enough for the clientele it wants to market to. If only Premiair came back, or we had more news on the MAN Clubhouse.

  • tw33ty says:

    If they think the uk lounges are bad, they should visit the lounges at Geneva airport that are on priority pass.

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