Bridget Gleeson writer + illustrator

Sleeping pods & champagne: airport VIP lounges

Can you learn anything about a destination from inside the airport?

Yes. Next to the departure gates in Seoul’s airport, everyone’s eating spicy noodle soup at 7 o’clock in the morning. In La Paz, Bolivia, the flight attendants march through security with carefully coiffed beehive hairdos and glamorous red lipstick. In the arrivals hall in Chennai, India, there are candlelit mini-altars to Hindu goddesses.

During recent travels, I found myself on the other side of the velvet rope, so to speak, at some of the world’s busiest airports. That’s because my significant other has a fancy new credit card that allows him access to airport VIP lounges. I am his lucky ‘plus one.’

Ok, so I didn’t learn much about Spanish culture inside Barcelona airport’s ‘Red Carpet Club.’ But I did learn something about the local version of luxury travel amenities – or more specifically, what it is that Spanish executives want and need when they’re traveling for business. (These lounges are populated almost exclusively by well-dressed businessmen. They were probably wondering what we were doing there.)

We had some unspoken criteria that we used to judge each VIP lounge. Is the coffee strong? Is the wireless connection both free and fast? (in some European lounges, a fee was charged for wifi – unacceptable!) Are staff members friendly? What’s the food like? Is there an open bar? Do the restrooms stock fine lotions and soaps? Are there grand views of planes taking off? Is the seating area spacious enough for us to plop down our oversized carry-on luggage next to our own chairs?

And so, without further adieu, a countdown (moving from average to fantastic) of the VIP lounges we popped into this past month:

#6 – Madrid, Spain

Pros: Contemporary design. Fresh pastries in a glass case. An open bar. Cons: Cold reception. An exorbitant fee to use the wireless network.

#5 – a tie between Minneapolis, Minnesota and Newark, New Jersey

Pros: Minneapolis had free wireless and friendly folk. Newark had a spacious layout and a nice cheese selection. Cons: Minneapolis was ridiculously cramped. Newark had one million magazines that no one wants to read.

#4 – Buenos Aires, Argentina

Pros: Excellent options for either breakfast (medialunas, strong coffee) or happy hour (wines from Mendoza, cheese and crackers.) Cons: Shadowy, crowded space that needs renovations.

#3 – Dallas, Texas

Pros: Quiet, and roomy, with luggage storage, nice showers, free wifi, Walker’s shortbread cookies, an excellent selection of juices, champagne in ice buckets, and a variety of current travel publications (including Budget Travel, which was currently running an article by yours truly.) Cons: Closes at 6pm (huh?) Weak coffee. Sorry, but that’s a major con.

#2 – Lisbon, Portugal

Pros: Cool modern art. Amazing sandwiches and complimentary Portuguese wines. Cons: Wireless access cost an arm and a leg.

#1 – Barcelona, Spain

Pros: Super-comfortable leather armchairs, a fruit & granola bar, a bloody mary station, and – drum roll please – a sleek ‘resting area’ with private sleeping pods. Cons: Our layover was too short.