Review: Qatar First Class Check-In and the Al Safwa First Lounge in Doha (DOH)
Ever since Doha's new Hamad International Airport (DOH) opened in 2014, the Qatar Airways first-class experience there has established itself as one of the most luxurious airport experiences in the world. I recently got to experience it for just 18,000 British Airways Avios — valued at $270 based on TPG's latest valuations — and got a first-class flight to boot!
Part of what makes the experience so special is the exclusivity — only passengers flying in Qatar Airways' first class are eligible to use this check-in area and enter the Al Safwa First Class Lounge. Generally, Oneworld Emerald top-tier elites (i.e. American Airlines Executive Platinum members) are able to use an airline's first-class check-in desk and lounge, but Qatar Airways gets around this rule by having another "first class" check-in for Oneworld elites — as well as uninformed Qatar first-class passengers — to use.
Flying Qatar first class isn't that easy either. On long-haul flights, the airline only offers first class on its A340s, A380s and some of its A330s. You'll find spectacular business-class products on its other long-haul aircraft, too, but booking one of these flights isn't going to get you into the swanky first-class check-in area or lounge.
Luckily, there's another option: Qatar Airways considers the front cabin on many of its short-haul flights to be first class, which is a real bummer if you're looking to redeem miles for one of these flights since you'll often be paying a far greater cost than the value you'll be getting from these flights. Thanks to British Airways' distance-based award chart, you can redeem just 18,000 Avios for Qatar Airways' first-class cabin on flights under 650 miles. So that's what I did and booked myself a one-way first-class flight from Doha (DOH) to Muscat, Oman (MCT). Normally, this flight would've cost around $1,000 if I was going to pay for it with cash, so I ended up getting a value of around 5.56 cents per Avios on this redemption.
As an airport with many more connecting passengers than those actually originating in Doha, there are only four main entrance areas:
- Door 1: Qatar First and Business Class
- Doors 2 and 3: Qatar Economy Class
- Door 4: All Other Airlines
When you pull up to the first and business-class entrance, there are numerous Qatar Airways bellhops eagerly waiting to assist you — that is, unless you pull up in an aging UberGO and pull a hiking backpack out of the trunk like I did. In that case, they'll point you toward the economy entrance. I turned into the first and business-class door anyway and inside, two Qatar agents were standing by to greet me and take me to the right side of the premium check-in area.
I approached the first-class agent and she greeted me warmly, leading me toward the first-class check-in desks. And by "desks," I mean actual desks. Qatar has a few dozen individual desks arranged in a gentle curve, as you can see below.
At the check-in desk, I was invited to sit across from a Qatar agent. Then, once seated, another agent approached with a basket of packaged dates and asked if I would care for Arabic coffee. Meanwhile, the original check-in agent went through the process of checking me in, weighing and tagging my checked bag. He noted that I was early for my flight — indeed, it was a good seven hours until departure — but didn't let that impact my check-in experience.
I managed to snag a photo of an unmanned desk on my way out of the area.
Once I was checked in, the agent escorted me down the hall and past a couple of bathrooms to the first-class immigration and security area. Although there had been a couple of other first-class passengers in the check-in area, I was the only one in the immigration and security area and it took me under five minutes to pass through both areas.
The Al Safwa First Lounge
Just after clearing security, you'll see an escalator that'll take you to the first-class lounge — in fact, it's so conveniently-located and close to the security screening area that I was asked not to take a photo of it.
Instead of taking this escalator, I continued through the back end of the business-class security checkpoint and down to the main terminal — on my way over to cover the situation at the US departure gates. A few hours later, I returned to the lounge, taking the escalator from the main terminal to the connecting check-in desk.
Wanting to pick-up where I left off, I passed through the lounge to the first-class check-in desk for originating passengers, which was noticeably less-crowded than the transfer check-in desk.
From there, you just need to turn the corner to reach the grand lounge entrance. A gigantic hall — ordained with a couple of pieces of artwork, some simple trees and various water features — leads you into the lounge, with split off points for all of the its various sections.
The lounge also doubles as a museum, with historic artifacts on display down the length of the entrance hall.
On the left, shortly after entering the main entrance, you'll find the family area, where you'll find fresh fruits, pastries, sodas and still and sparkling water. Opposite this counter is a mini-bakery area with breads, sandwiches and other food items up for grabs.
As you travel farther back into the family area, you'll find a maze containing about a dozen semi-private individual living rooms.
Inside each of these is a sofa, television, a chair (or two), an ottoman (or two), a table (or two) and some extra areas to store your luggage. While there's no door to close your room off from the rest of the hall, its separation from the main lounge makes this part of the lounge feel more private.
I enjoyed sitting in one room and catching up on work for about an hour — it seemed like I was the only guest in the family area the whole time I was there. Lounge agents passed through the hall about every 15 minutes to clear dishes.
The back of the family area has a few rooms designed especially for kids, ranging from infant areas to those for young kids (like the space shown below) and teenagers. None of these areas were marked (i.e. "Teenager Room") or restricted to kids or families.
The Playstation video game consoles, foosball table, real-size F1 car simulator and other games could be enjoyed by kids of all ages.
There was a business center located farther down the main hall from the family area for those interested in a quieter, business-like atmosphere. Individual work spaces were separated by semi-frosted glass walls and stocked with a couple of chairs, a large wooden table and an Apple computer to use.
At the entrance to the business center, there were a variety of magazines to choose from.
At the far end of the main hall are open seating areas, ranging from sets of four chairs arranged for more of a business vibe...
...to more comfortable lounge chairs and some semi-private pods.
Just past these seating areas was a dining area with a gorgeous bar — one that's hard to do justice to in a photo — which offered mid-tier liquors. Although Qatar is a mostly-but-not-completely-dry country, Qatar Airways doesn't let this impact its ability to service non-dry passengers at the airport.
While the liquor wasn't anything special, the Champagne option certainly wasn't ordinary. The Pommery 2002 Cuvée Louise Brut the bartender opened and expertly served runs about $150 per bottle and earned a 95 point rating by Wine Enthusiast. I limited myself to half a bottle, although it was hard to turn down additional refills.
I was given the chance to order from an a la carte menu for breakfast as well. Guests could choose from:
- Breakfast breads: muffins, croissants, pineapple danish, pain au chocolat and a choice of toasted breads
- Assorted rolls: olive, soft white, brown sesame, white sesame, multi-grain and gluten-free
- Breakfast cereal: cornflakes, weetabix, bran flakes or museli with full fat or skim milk
- Traditional breakfast: ful medames served with traditional accompaniments and Arabic bread
- Eggs: scrambled, poached, omelette-style, Eggs Benedict, all freshly prepared to your liking and served with your choice of baked beans, sautéed mushrooms, chicken sausage, turkey bacon and hash brown potatoes
- Waffles, served with maple syrup, chocolate sauce or whipped cream and berries
- Fresh seasonal fruits served with crème fraîche
I had spent most of my time in Qatar at the InterContinental Doha — which was in a resort area isolated from local culture — so I was excited to see what the traditional breakfast was like. It didn't disappoint. A soup of cooked beans was accompanied with cumin, chopped onions, chopped red bell peppers and lemon.
It had already been a long morning, so after breakfast, I went to the spa check-in desk to see if I could take a shower. The agent needed to consult with a supervisor first and asked me to take a seat, which I found to be strange. Once she returned, the agent happily noted that since my flight wasn't for a few hours, she could reserve a private room for me. She indicated that these rooms had showers, so I'd be able to use it and rest for a few hours. After getting a key, she showed me through the wooden door, which you can see on the right in the photo below.
This door led to a hall with a series of several wooden doors snaking away from the spa check-in desk. I was shown to Room #5 and handed the key.
Inside was a single bed with a small desk.
The bed faced a TV. Behind the door was a clothing rack and a small area to store your bags.
Sure enough, fulfilling my original request, this room had a private shower and bathroom, which was fully stocked with most of the items you'd need: shampoo, conditioner, hand soap, hand lotion, a shaving kit, toothbrush, toothpaste, cotton swabs and cotton wipes.
After a shower and catching up on some more work in my private room, I headed out to catch my flight. As I checked out at the spa check-in desk, I was "regretfully" informed that my flight had just been delayed. DOH had seen delays much of the day due to bad weather (read: it actually rained in the desert). Honestly, I was kind of hoping for a delay so I could enjoy the lounge a little longer.
The agent asked if I'd like to return to my room, where she'd come tell me when it was time to board. Instead, I opted to visit another dining room for lunch. As you can see, it wasn't very crowded.
There was a sushi bar with prepared and cut sushi pieces, with tasteful ornamentation like a bird carved out of carrots. There was also a salad bar with attendants on hand to select and mix your ingredients. Farther down was the bakery area with a selection of fresh breads and made-to-order sandwiches.
Intrigued by the thought of having sushi in the Middle East, I requested a plate and it may have been the single biggest disappointment of my entire lounge experience. That's to say the sushi was merely "good" — the rolls weren't particularly fresh or the rice up to Japanese standards, which is obviously understandable. A classy touch: the disposable wooden chopsticks featured a Qatar Airways logo.
Eventually, a lounge manager approached me to inquire about how I found my stay and to inform me that it was time to board. Stopping by a desk on the way to show me toward my gate, she asked the desk agent to call ahead to the gate to inform them that I was on my way and to ensure that the flight wouldn't leave without me.
The following 1:40 hour flight was simply over-the-top. Although the seats and in-flight entertainment screens weren't especially grand, the service was phenomenal. From a London-themed amenity kit to seemingly constant beverage offerings and a light hot meal, the flight wowed, but still wasn't even half the level of luxury I'd just experienced on the ground.
The Doha First Class Lounge experience could possibly be the best use of 18,000 Avios. If you ever find yourself in Doha — perhaps thanks to excellent Qatar award availability — it's worth the points to book a short hop from DOH to another airport within 650 miles. The good news is that range includes major hubs like Dubai (DXB), Abu Dhabi (AUH), Kuwait City (KWI) and Muscat (MCT), as well as some smaller destinations. Just make sure you book your flight late enough in the day if you want to spend the most time at the incredible Al Safwa Lounge.
Have you ever visited the Al Safwa Lounge in Doha? Tell us about your experience, below.
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