Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Notes for the Frequent Traveler, Part 1: Lounge Hopping for Our Spain Trip

The frequent traveler lives by airline lounges and what amenities each offers: showers after a long international flight, perhaps? Free snacks and booze? Which has the best views of the comings and goings out on the tarmac?  Where is the best place to check e-mail, unwind, or catch a couple of hours of shut-eye before the next flight?  Is there even a reason to trek over to the lounge instead of just sitting at the gate?  No doubt the infrequent air traveler won't find much of interest in this blog post, but for those of us who love to travel, these are weighty matters indeed!

Beth and I put these issues to the test during our recent trip to Spain, which involved flights from our nation's capital; Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany; Barcelona, Spain; Málaga, Spain; and Brussels, Belgium.  So how did the lounges stack up?

IAD: Lufthansa Senator Lounge

  • Decent selection of hot foods
  • Free beer (Shock Top and Beck's) and other alcohol
  • Showers available downstairs in the Business Lounge
  • Light, airy, and modern design
  • Located in B Concourse
  • No free wifi (other than airport's)
  • Alcohol isn't self-service and attendants are sometimes hard to find
First off, we paid a visit to the Lufthansa Senator Lounge at Dulles (IAD) on our day of departure, despite the fact we were flying United across the pond.  A somewhat little-known yet open secret is that the IAD Lufthansa Lounge is a Star Alliance Gold lounge, meaning that any traveler who holds gold status with a Star Alliance member airline can visit it in connection with a Star Alliance flight (for a real shocker: domestic flights, too; I've had no problems visiting when flying United to St. Louis or Seattle, for example)--not just those flying Lufthansa.  The lounge is over in the B Concourse, but it's almost right across from the train station, making it an easy trip from check-in at the main terminal.

Beth enjoys a Beck's in the IAD LH Senator Lounge
The Lufthansa Senator lounge is a welcome alternative to the United Red Carpet Clubs as it is generally far less crowded (excepting the times around the morning ANA flight to Tokyo or the later Germany flights) and offers food--and no, the RCC's selection of cheese cubes, crackers, and celery sticks does not count as food.  It's also much brighter, cleaner, and more more modern.  Really, the only downsides are the hours--it opens around 8:30am (the RCC opens at 6:00), the Germans uncharacteristically take a siesta around lunchtime, and the lounge closes earlier than the RCC--and the trek over to your United flight in the A, C, or D Concourse, which means leaving the lounge at least 45 minutes prior to scheduled boarding.  The wifi isn't free, either, and although IAD offers airport-wide free wifi now, the signal quality inside the lounge was so poor I found it nearly worthless.

Just be sure to allow yourself plenty of time to catch the train loop back to the main terminal, A, then the train to C or shuttle to D (or to walk to the shuttle station at A or the far end of B): I'd leave the lounge no later than 45 minutes before your flight boards, earlier if flying internationally (as you'll have to do a document check at your gate).

There are showers downstairs in the Business Lounge--which Star Alliance Gold passengers should be allowed to access regardless of their class of travel, as the Senator Lounge is technically the more "prestigious" of the two.  I've never had the chance to try them out, though, since Washington is my home airport and there's really no need for me to shower given I could have at home.

Unfortunately, due to ABC laws in Virginia, the Lufthansa lounge isn't self-serve when it comes to bier, wein, schnapps and the like--which may come as a surprise to the seasoned international traveler used to pouring their own.  Attendants can be hard to find; I've noticed they will occasionally open the mirror behind the bar and glance out quickly, so you can either catch their eyes then or go over and knock at the kitchen door.

Finally, over the past couple of years, the Senator Lounge's food selection has fallen off a bit in quality, and it can be more crowded than it used to be.  Still, it's leagues ahead of the Red Carpet Clubs, as you'll soon see.

IAD: United Red Carpet Club

Locations: Near gates C7, C17, and D8
  • Three locations
  • Free house wines, beers, and bottom-shelf liquors
  • Free wifi via T-Mobile
  • Dingy and outdated
  • Very crowded
  • Food options almost non-existent
Beth and I left the Lufthansa Senator Lounge about an hour before our flight, and the train (B to Main Terminal to A to C) followed by the long walk from the  station (you see, C/D Concourse is "temporary," and has been for 20+ years--and the train station is where the MWAA eventually plans the real C/D concourse to go) took us a good 15 minutes.  That still gave us time to visit the United Red Carpet Club closest to our flight: the C7 location.

Anyone who's visited the IAD Red Carpet Clubs knows why the lounges play second fiddle to the LH Senator Lounge.  They're all poorly-lit (located at tarmac level, e.g. in the basement) and are typically too hot and are ridiculously crowded--the past few trips to Europe, I haven't been able to find a seat anywhere in the lounge!  Nor do they offer any real food: mornings mean bananas and toast (maybe), with the rest of the day offering cheese cubes straight off a 1970s party tray coupled with crackers and celery and carrot slices.  At least the Red Carpet Club went to free booze about a year ago (dispensing with the often-argued "chit" system where international travelers were supposed to receive two drink coupons)... but the gratis selection is limited to a couple of cheap beers on tap, house wines, and bottom-shelf liquors.  Still, the house wines are usually okay.

The lounge does offer free wifi--members automatically get it, and Star Alliance Gold or international  first or business passengers can request a one-time T-Mobile voucher card--and it typically works far better than the free wifi in the airport (though when the lounge is busy, performance predictably drops).  You can also talk to flight agents (Beth and I did our EU-bound document check at the club, for example, instead of waiting at the counter at the gate).

FRA: Lufthansa Business Lounge

  • Good selection of free bier, wein, and other beverages of choice
  • Decent food items, including an omelet station (mornings only?)
  • Light, airy, and modern design
  • Typically very crowded
  • Long waits for showers
  • No free wifi
  • Hot!
In Frankfurt, the Star Alliance traveler has plenty of options, as the airport is a hub for Lufthansa.  As we were connecting onward to a Schengen-zone destination (Barcelona), that meant first going through passport control (immigration) and then clearing security again, but we still had plenty of time even with as confusing a layout as FRA can be.  We ended up at the Lufthansa Business Lounge near gate A26, as we were departing via A29 for Barcelona.

Beth with an espresso in Frankfurt
The Lufthansa "lounge dragons" (a play on the fact that they, like most airline lounge attendants around the world, stand guard like dragons before a moat and often have less-than-sunny demeanors if you're trying to sneak by them) have the admittance process down to a science, using a barcode scanner on your boarding pass.  The downside is that you thus need an onward Star Alliance flight (switching to another alliance or terminating at FRA means no lounge for you).  If you're flying business--as Beth was--or first class, the lounge scanner sends you right in.  I, as a Star Alliance Gold member flying onward in economy class, had to also present my Star Alliance Gold membership card (United 1K or Continental Platinum for me) before the computers would allow Fraulein Lounge Dragon to let me pass.

The Schengen-zone Lufthansa Business Lounge, like many of the Frankfurt lounges, can be very crowded--feeling almost like a domestic Red Carpet Club in the US.  We did manage to find an open table, though, near the buffet area, and settled in for some much-needed espresso, juice, pastries, and, in my case (despite it being around 8:30am) a big, delicious witbier.  One other comment: like apparently so many European airports, Frankfurt (including its lounges) seems to be kept at sauna temperatures by management.

BCN: Star Alliance Lounge

  • Spacious and not too crowded
  • Okay selection of free alcohol
  • Poor food selection (particularly for an international lounge)
  • No free wifi
  • No arrivals facility
In Barcelona, there are two sets of lounges available in Terminal 1's Schengen area, where hub carrier Spanair operates: the Sala VIP Lounge, and right across from it, the shared Star Alliance Lounge.  (Spanair doesn't have its own flagship lounge for some reason.)

There was a lot of talk a couple of years ago when the new terminal (T1) opened--when Star Alliance passengers shared the Sala VIP Lounge--that the new Star lounge would be absolutely posh, with such things as Playstation 3s, massage tables, and a golf simulator.  Apparently, some contractor pocketed all the funds for those things (I'm joking, I hope), because they're either not well-marked or simply aren't there.  The lounge is pretty spacious, anyway--though granted we were there at 6:00am prior to our flight down to Málaga, so the time of day could have something to do with it.  Food selection wasn't great--certainly not on par with what I expect of international lounges--but the pastries and a café were fine to start the day since we left our hotel earlier than they had breakfast available.

I understand there's free wired Internet access, but the wifi is pay-only. We only had a few minutes in the lounge, anyway (with a 6:50am flight out!), so I didn't really worry that much about it.  A little food in our tummies and some caffeine to start the day is all we needed, and we avoided paying the ridiculous €2+ for vending machines at the airport.

AGP: Sala VIP Lounge

  • Not crowded
  • Spanair is too cheap to treat it as a Star Alliance lounge
We started to stop by the Sala VIP Lounge in Málaga on our way back to Barcelona, but it was a dark omen when there was no Star Alliance signage outside the lounge.

I presented my United 1K card and boarding pass and asked the agent at the counter if they honored Star Alliance status, and she explained that Spanair wasn't willing to pay the airport and lounge for passengers to use it.  She did say that they'd let me in (as a Star Gold flying Spanair), but that as it wasn't a Star Alliance lounge, I couldn't have a guest.  Beth was willing to see me on inside, but I demurred and thus we both bypassed said lounge.

BRU: Brussels Airlines Business Lounge

Beth enjoys some Trappist-brewed
 Leffe in  Brussels 
Beth and I finished up our trip with a connection in Brussels, Belgium, and we completed our lounge tour with a stop at the Brussels Airlines Business Lounge after shopping several chocolate vendors in duty-free.

  • Two varieties of Leffe (a Belgian abbey beer)
  • Temperature actually somewhat comfortable
  • Food options leave a bit to be desired
  • Espresso a bit weak--particularly by Euro standards!
  • No in-lounge bathrooms!

Belgium is known for both its chocolatiers and its brewers, and I certainly didn't let the morning hour dissuade me from sampling the Leffe ales (I had both a brown and a blonde to start my day--how's that?!) the lounge had on hand. Granted, InBev/Anheuser-Busch produces said beers and does so in quantity (InBev is headquartered in Belgium), which would typically preclude any kind of quality, but we're definitely not talking Bud Light, either! These "abbey beers" are very similar to some of the Trappist ales I've tasted and made for a good morning indeed.

I do have to say the espresso machine let me down a bit; the stuff it put out would be strong by coffee standards in the US, but we're talking Europe here. Judging by those more stringent specifications, the stuff was little more than muddy water. Food was only so-so, a bit above the Spanair lounge but still little more than a few croissants and a dish of snack mix (well, the lounge dragon's counter did have a bowl of gummi bears, too). Beth accidentally poured me a grapefruit juice, and I found that as an adult I found the stuff palatable--last time I tried it I was probably 10 and had triple the tastebuds I do today.

The biggest downside was that the lounge lacked its own bathrooms--or if any were in evidence, I couldn't find them. There were some shared facilities in the hall outside the lounge, shared apparently across the Star Alliance and OneWorld lounges--but which made the average US shopping mall bathroom look like something from a penthouse suite at the Four Seasons. I'm used to even the domestic Red Carpet Clubs having bathrooms a notch over the rest of the airport, if not full shower facilities to boot.

Still, the beer alone made the stop worth it.

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