Not so fly: Secret inspections by Which? reveal the best and worst airport lounges in the UK – and over HALF fail to impress

Not so fly: Secret inspections by Which? reveal the best and worst airport lounges in the UK – and over HALF fail to impress

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Few lounges at UK airports managed to impress Which? when it carried out secret inspections, with more than half scoring two and a half stars and below.

Which? researchers visited 20 UK airport lounges and assigned them a rating of between one and five stars in its latest report. To establish a star rating, reviewers took into account facilities on offer, such as toilets and showers, whether the lounges offered a runway view, whether there were designated quiet areas and spaces for families, as well as the variety of food and drinks available.

Which? says that out of all the lounges they reviewed none of them achieved higher than three stars out of five – and the majority scored much lower – suggesting that in many cases, travellers may be better off saving their money next time they pass through an airport.

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, while 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.

Edinburgh Aspire was one of the higher-rated lounges, with a Which? three-star rating

Prices have also risen steeply, Which? said. The Aspire Lounges Which? looked at were an inflation-busting 40 per cent more expensive on average than when it last checked in 2020. Prices at Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Heathrow and Luton Aspires ranged between £34 and £40, with most around £38. In 2020 the Aspires Which? visited were between £21 and £35 – with most around £22.

Southend’s Skylife lounge drew the worst review with an overall rating of just one star. It was also the cheapest lounge reviewers visited, with an advance booking price of £28. Currently occupying a temporary space in a roped off area of the airport’s Pilot bar, Which?’s reviewer arrived to find the area ‘appeared closed’, and after a series of miscommunications, was ultimately advised by staff to request a refund.

Gatwick North’s Plaza Premium, Manchester Terminal 1’s Escape and Birmingham’s No1 Lounge also failed to impress, all achieving an overall rating of just one and a half 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. Though it did have some plus points, including views over the airfield and a children’s zone well-stocked with toys, the issues seemed hard to justify at the price point – a family of four would pay £122 for access.

Which? described the windowless Manchester Terminal 1’s Escape as similarly underwhelming, calling it dull and gloomy, with stained seats and toilets ill-equipped for the lounge’s capacity – with queues for both the men and women’s facilities.

Manchester Terminal 1 Aspire also lived up to expectations. In particular, reviewers appreciated the floor-to-ceiling windows which offered guests excellent runway views

Birmingham’s No1 Lounge meanwhile was packed, with even the ‘quiet zone’ overwhelmed by chatter. The food looked so poor that Which?’s reviewers decided to buy sandwiches elsewhere instead – and tables were left dirty. Though a waiter apologised for the uncleaned tables, noting that several staff were off sick, he also explained that he too was unwell – something reviewers found concerning.

Stansted’s Escape, Luton’s Aspire, Bristol’s Aspire, Bristol’s 1903, Birmingham’s Aspire and Glasgow’s Upper Deck meanwhile were all rated two stars.

At the other end of the table, six lounges scored a three-star rating, including Gatwick No1 North, Gatwick No1 South, Manchester Terminal 1 Aspire, Heathrow Plaza Premium Terminal 2, Inverness Aspire, Manchester Terminal 1 Aspire, and Edinburgh Aspire.

For an advance rate of £40, three-star-rated Gatwick No1 North costs just £4 more than its poorly performing rival Gatwick North Plaza Premium, but offers much more for the money.

Reviewers found a generous choice of drinks on offer at Gatwick No1 North – including sparkling wine – as well as a plentiful and tasty food offering, including an English breakfast buffet. Despite being busy there was plenty of seating available, and the space even included an over-12’s library area. The lounge’s sister lounge, Gatwick No1 South was similarly well-reviewed and also received a three-star rating.

Which? commented that Heathrow Plaza Premium T2 was windowless, but this was made up for with its beautiful dark wood interiors and soft lighting and luxurious feel

TIPS TO SAVE ON AIRPORT LOUNGES

  • If you’re planning to visit more than five lounges a year a basic Priority Pass (£62 for first year) might make sense. It includes most, but not all, lounges reviewed by Which?. Lounge access with the pass costs a flat £24 per person.
  • An Amex Gold card gives you free lounge entry four times a year.
  • Barclaycard Avios Plus gets you into most lounges for £18.50.
  • On The Beach offers free lounges with four or five star holidays.
  • Which? also recommends you shop around. Gatwick North’s Plaza Premium was £8 cheaper on Gatwick’s website (£36) than Plaza Premium (£44). Check Holiday Extras and Lounge Pass, too. Though rarely cheaper, it’s still worth a look.

Source: Which? Travel

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Manchester Terminal 1 Aspire also lived up to expectations. In particular, reviewers appreciated the floor-to-ceiling windows, which offered guests excellent runway views and found the environment to be very clean – something that many lounges failed to guarantee.

Meanwhile, Which? commented that Heathrow Plaza Premium T2 was windowless, but this was made up for with its beautiful dark wood interiors and soft lighting, which lent it a high-end feel. The food selection impressed, with meal options on offer including chicken curry or vegan meatballs with quinoa salad. Plus, despite being busy, staff kept on top of keeping tables cleared and cleaned. However, while wine and beer were included in the price, there were extra charges for premium drinks like whisky and champagne – although these were still competitive compared to prices in many airport bars.

Rory Boland, Editor of Which? Travel, said: ‘Using an airport lounge was once synonymous with luxury, but now that’s rarely the case. At the very least though they should guarantee you a hassle-free start to your holiday, with a pleasant environment to enjoy a nice meal and some drinks while you wait for your flight, away from the crowds.

‘Too often our reviewers found lounges failed to deliver even on this basic premise, with many overcrowded, unkempt, and unclean. The food offering was so poor at some lounges, that reviewers went elsewhere to eat.’

A spokesperson for London Southend Airport said: ‘We are extremely sorry that this passenger had such a disappointing experience on this occasion. As a result, we have fully compensated the passenger and acknowledge clear learnings for the team. Our temporary Skylife Lounge @ The Pilot has garnered a 96 per cent satisfaction rate this year – our first year-round return to a commercial operation. We are committed to providing a bespoke, passenger-focused experience and we are confident all passengers will continue to enjoy the airport and its facilities.’

A spokesperson for Aspire lounges said: ‘We welcome more than a million travellers to our UK lounges every year, and we work hard to ensure each and every one of them has a great start to their journey. The direct feedback we get from our guests (including the high satisfaction ratings they give us) help us to continually improve that service, which is why we are investing heavily in refurbishment programmes at airports such as Edinburgh and Newcastle, and building entirely new lounges at Luton, Manchester and Belfast. We have been able to do this while keeping our pricing competitive, protecting our customers from the cost rises faced by the sector as a whole.’

A spokesperson for No1 Lounge Birmingham said: ‘We’re unable to provide any specific context around this visit, as we have not been made aware of the visit date or details. However, we’re very sorry the experience of [the Which?] reviewer was not a good one and fell short of expectations. [The] feedback raises some areas of focus, and we will look into how standards, processes and training for staff at our Birmingham lounge might need to be improved beyond the extensive measures that we have already implemented and continue to develop.’

Gatwick North’s Plaza Premium did not supply a comment prior to publication.

A spokesperson for Manchester Airport said: ‘Every year, more than 800,000 people use our Escape and 1903 lounges in all three of our terminals. We are committed to the highest service standards, which is why we carry out rigorous and extensive research all year round to help us understand what our customers want and how we can improve the facilities and experience we provide to them.

‘We constantly monitor meaningful and robust sources of feedback and an aggregate of more than 1,300 reviews from Google, Tripadvisor, Yelp and others over the past six months gives our lounges a rating of 4.2 out of 5.

‘The most recent independent mystery shopper score for Escape in Terminal 1 was 87 per cent and the score for Terminal 3 was 95 per cent, both of which are market-leading ratings.

‘This contrasts to the findings of this latest flawed and limited research from Which?, which is based on the testimony of a single journalist who visited two out of our four lounges on one occasion.’ 

For the original report visit www.which.co.uk/reviews/airports/article/best-and-worst-uk-airport-lounges. 

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Lydia Swinscoe

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