Here’s why I skip the airport lounge and head straight to the gate
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I used to get to the airport extra early to spend time relaxing in the lounge before boarding. Nowadays, I find myself doing the exact opposite. For run-of-the-mill domestic segments, I'll practically cut it as close as possible -- and almost always skip the club.
Airport lounges were once an oasis from the crowded airport terminals, but I'm now finding (most of) them just as crowded as the terminals themselves. With the surge in popularity of Priority Pass memberships and premium travel credit cards, there are lots more travelers eligible for lounge access these days.
On a recent trip through Hong Kong, the Plaza Premium Lounge had a line of over thirty people just to enter! Once I finally got inside, it was so crowded that I couldn't even find a place to sit.
The same story held true for the American Express Centurion Lounge in HKG. When I got there at 5:30 a.m., it was empty. By 8:30 a.m., there was a waitlist for entry. At 9 a.m., it was simply too crowded for me to enjoy my time there.
There was certainly no space for people to sit, and the buffet was running out of food. At that point, I decided that there was simply no reason for me to stay in the overcrowded space.
For a while, lounge overcrowding didn't bother me. I'd sit in a corner and pretend like no one else was around me. However, I've recently struggled to find power outlets in packed lounges. Additionally, I've been quoted wait times of excess of an hour to use a lounge's shower, so there's essentially no real difference between sitting in an overcrowded lounge and the airport terminal.
Amex has certainly tried to combat Centurion lounge overcrowding. By establishing time-based restrictions for Platinum card holders, as well as tightening the guest policy, I've definitely seen some Centurion lounges less crowded than they once were. It's not perfect, but it's definitely helping. Plus, Amex is committed to expanding its footprint where it can, like in Miami and Seattle.
Lounge overcrowding isn't limited to these two lounges at HKG. In fact, it's a key reason why I now minimize my time spent in domestic airport clubs.
While the "demand" for access has grown exponentially, the "supply" hasn't caught up nearly as quickly. Sure, there are new airport lounges opening with some frequency, but there's only so much space available in the world's busiest airports.
Aside from the overcrowding, I've found that, on average, the quality of the membership and business-class lounges in the U.S. has gone downhill. Lots of lounges are in desperate need of renovations, and the food quality at many of them is pretty lackluster. There are certainly some gems across the country (like the brand-new Primeclass Lounge at JFK), but that's the exception, not the norm.
While I'll typically avoid most domestic airport lounges, there's one reason why I'm still a member of the United Club, keep the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® to access the Admirals Club and use the The Platinum Card® from American Express to access Delta SkyClubs: irregular flight operations.
I've found that club agents are more helpful than those in the terminal. In my experience, they are willing to go the extra mile when your flight is delayed or canceled. Not only are the agents more competent, but there's often a much shorter line in the lounge than in the terminal.
I still make time to visit some of my favorite lounges, including the Lufthansa First Class Terminal, Cathay Pacific's The Wing and Qantas' First lounges across the world. There are even some amazing business-class lounges across the U.S., like the Delta SkyClub in Seattle, United's Polaris lounges and American's Flagship Lounges. These are the oases that the basic domestic lounges once were.
Now, before you cancel your credit card that gives you a Priority Pass membership, consider the fact that Priority Pass has grown to include airport restaurants. Instead of spending time in an overcrowded club, I've recently been enjoying my time at Priority Pass restaurants.
The food quality is almost always better than what you'll find in the lounge, and I've had success getting seated at corner tables that are far away from other passengers and have convenient access to power outlets.
The average domestic airport lounge no longer entices me. They've become so crowded that I've had trouble finding places to sit or empty power outlets. Instead of spending time in most lounges, I now prefer relaxing at a Priority Pass restaurant with access to good food and a power outlet.