Lots of things about business/first-class travel are overrated, including that no matter what cabin you are seated in, you are still sitting in a tin can for hours on hours, with recycled air and cramped surroundings. But business/first class travel can provide a bit more space – and for me, far more interesting is exploring the upper class lounges that the different airlines offer.
During a recent busy travel month, I had a chance to check out the business/first class lounge for (1) British Airways at Terminal 5 at Heathrow, (2) the Al Italia business class lounge in Rome, (3) the United first class lounge in Chicago O’Hare, (4) the United first class lounge in London Heathrow, and (5) the Cathay Pacific business “Bridge” lounge in Hong Kong. Before exploring any of these, I would have guessed that the Cathay Pacific lounge would have come up trumps over the rest, but that United’s first class lounge in Chicago (the airline’s home base) would have been a close second. In truth, however, my experience was completely different than expectations. A few thoughts below, in order of worst to best lounges:
Al Italia business class lounge in Rome – Chris and I enjoyed a long weekend in Rome, and while the city is notorious for being busy and chaotic (a distinction that was well founded, as we noted from our trip), we had hoped that the AI lounge would be a welcome respite before we headed home. Instead, it was a disappointment – cramped, dirty, and in need of some serious renovations, the place was pretty awful. One upside was that the wine flowed freely – nice prosecco, white and red – plus excellent coffee and beer. But a basic diet Coke or even a regular Coke? – nowhere to be found. AI apparently eschews soda – and vacuuming. And decent food – there were a few middling bowls of over-mayonnaised pasta and some pathetic sandwiches, but nothing to write home about. Plus the décor was something out of Austin Powers but with not much pizzazz and a fair amount of wear and tear. Not to mention the garish orange and green color scheme, punctuated by a dreary grey tinge.
British Airways business class lounge at London Heathrow – Terminal 5. I may be biased as someone who has felt that Terminal 5 has been overrated since it opened (see, e.g. Gordon Ramsay’s “Plane Food”), but BA’s upper class lounge is just, well, okay, to me. It’s vast and huge, and filled with people. But nothing feels personalized and overall the food is British cafeteria-like. If that makes you shudder, you have the right impression. The lounge décor is nice, and there is plenty of space despite the enormous capacity of the venue. But the food is pretty atrocious, and leaves you wishing for a Pret-a-Manger.
United first class lounge in Chicago – I know, you’d expect it to be reflective of United’s flagship status at O’Hare, and it was nice and fine but nothing special. The upsides are it is small – you don’t feel like you are fighting for a seat and an electrical plug as you do at many lounges – and very clean and new. It’s also hidden away in the C concourse area of Terminal 1; so hidden in fact that you have to hunt it down, but you also get the feeling that some people just give up looking for it, and so chances are you may have the place pretty much to yourself. Indeed, there is NO sign or any indication of where it is. It’s tucked behind a customer service counter, and you need a map and breadcrumbs to find it. The food is decent; the alcohol and sodas are plentiful, and it’s very quiet too (a rarity in the airline lounge world). But all that just makes for a great business lounge, not a great first class lounge. There is no staff to take your order or offer you an a la carte menu. You’re on your own here, and while that’s fine, it just seems that United could do better (and indeed it does – read on).
Cathay Pacific business class lounge – a/k/a “The Bridge” – in Hong Kong – I confess, I may be a loyal United customer but I do love Cathay Pacific. There isn’t any comparison with US airlines when it comes to the service of those ex-US ones that do it well (Emirates, Etihad, Cathay Pacific, Qantas, etc.). And Cathay Pacific’s upper class lounge in Hong Kong didn’t disappoint in general. It’s a lot like the BA upper class lounge in Terminal 5 at Heathrow – beautiful décor, and well appointed. Plenty of food and drink. But again it’s huge and there is no personalized service or attendance on you. More positively, though, the food – particularly the Asian cuisine – is pretty good – and a nice perk are miniature Haagen-Dazs ice creams at the bar (just ask – you’ll see other people getting them, and yeah, you’ll want one, too).
United first class lounge at London Heathrow-Terminal 2 – And the winner is . . . surprisingly United at LHR. Maybe it’s because United is going all out since relocating to the newly-opened Queen’s Terminal (a/k/a Terminal 2) last year, and if that’s the case, fine with me! The arrival lounge where you can get a shower and breakfast after taking the overnight flight from the US is great. But the first class lounge for departures is pretty much the bomb. Small, nicely decorated, and with staff that can’t wait to wait on you, plus food that rivals a lot of what you’ll eat even in nice London restaurants (take that Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay), this is a little gem I almost hope not too many people find out about. The real highlight is a small dining area, complete with fully laid tables, white tablecloths, wine glasses, a tower of wine, and a serving staff eager to please you with a wonderful a la carte, made to order menu. The regular food buffet is great, but go for the a la carte dining room. I had the artichoke pasta ravioli, and it was so good I thought about hanging out for dinner and taking a later flight. The wine selection is good, and you can enjoy it all with a nice selection of magazines and newspapers – Country Life, anyone? I don’t know what got into United or why this lounge is so great, but I can’t wait to go back . . . Now if United would just start flying the 787 to London too . . . Pictures below to whet your appetite.
– Laura Flippin