Stranded by an ash cloud or some other act of nature? If the flight is overseas, the ticket is first-class or you're a "status" flier whose business an airline covets, then lucky you! Your fantasy airport waiting room awaits. International lounges - especially in heavily trafficked or airline hubs - handily out-glam domestic ones, experts say. And for every unloved terminal corner brimming with travellers and offering little more than bar mix and machine-dispensed espresso, there's an over-the-top testament to VIP privilege. Here are the best for waiting out ash clouds in comfort and style:
FRANKFURT: Lufthansa's First Class Terminal Frankfurt am Main, by Terminal 1
One of two dedicated VIP terminals in the world (the other is Qatar Airways' in Doha), first-class passengers here are treated to complimentary valet parking or rental-car return, a personal assistant to speed them though check-in and security, and later plenty of lounge space with pod-like "relax chairs" and daybeds, a cigar lounge, à la carte dining, and a bar serving 100 single malts. A chauffeured Porsche or Mercedes zips travellers around the airport.
SYDNEY: Qantas's First Lounge International Terminal
Australian designer Marc Newson patterned his first-class lounge after Qantas's sleek A380 airplane fleet, introducing lots of Poltrona Frau furniture and Carrara marble. There's a Payot Paris day spa, a 48-seat open-kitchen restaurant shepherded by Aussie uber-chef Neil Perry, an entertainment area with Sony PlayStations and movies, free Wi-Fi and conference facilities. The best features are the 180-degree views of Sydney, and an air-freshening tropical garden of 8,400 plants set into a 30-metre wall.
LONDON: British Airways's Concorde Room Heathrow, Terminal 5A
BA's formidable top-tier lounge is styled in posh velvet and herringbone, with chandeliers and floor-to-ceiling windows. It has individual shower suites (as opposed to less-private stalls), free booze (as you would expect) and, for passengers on overseas flights, a free treatment at the Elemis Travel Spa and a sit-down meal before night flights (so sleep won't be interrupted by food and beverage carts). The lounge used to be invitation-only, but now a Concorde Room Card also affords access to Gold Executive Club members with 5,000 Tier Points.
DOHA, QATAR: Qatar Airways's Premium Arrivals Lounge Doha International, Arrivals Terminal
The new lounge at the Doha Arrivals Terminal opened last December with chic decor and splashy amenities reminiscent of the airline's $90-million premium terminal (which has five bedrooms, Jacuzzis and gourmet dining). There are showers, all-day dining and an elaborate 24-hour breakfast - all features that should suit Canadians arriving on new three-times-weekly 13-plus-hour flights from Montreal, which start in June.
HONG KONG: Cathay Pacific's The Wing Hong Kong International, South Concourse, Levels 6 and 7
Quiet, vast and with a view of landing planes, this is the mother of all lounges: 3,994 square metres over two floors, with a 24-metre Long Bar of hot and cold buffet items, Japanese Noodle Bar, four restaurants (including one just for first-class passengers, called the Haven), 24 shower suites with soaking tubs, 26 IT workstations, lots of daybeds and comfy chairs, and a spa. Entry is for first- and business-class ticket holders, and select status program fliers. The main floor is looking refreshed after the first phase of a renovation due to stretch into 2012.
ABU DHABI: Etihad's Diamond First Class Lounge Abu Dhabi
Etihad's flagship lounge at its home hub of Abu Dhabi has an à la carte restaurant with a fancy chef's table in the kitchen, a Six Senses Spa with 15-minute treatments (from foot "detoxes" to facials), a champagne bar, a cigar and cognac lounge, a business centre with free Wi-Fi, and a library. But the best feature? Prim-looking nannies who will look after your children in a proper nursery overflowing with books and toys, and its own children's menu.
SINGAPORE: Singapore Airlines's SilverKris First Class lounge Singapore Changi, Terminal 2
SIA's 2,787-square-metre flagship has all that its first- and business-class fliers could want: showers with free toothbrushes and razors, low-lit "slumberettes" for napping, massage chairs, meeting rooms, a hot buffet, free phone service to Singapore from soundproofed booths, and a fully loaded business centre that even has infrared portals for swifter PDA downloading. Tropical plants and aquarium fish complete the feel of a tricked-out sanctuary.
SAN FRANCISCO: Virgin Atlantic's Clubhouse San Francisco International Airport, International Terminal
Passengers flying Virgin's Upper Class - its posher business class - are accustomed to the Clubhouse at Heathrow's Terminal 3. Here they'll find a similar setup. This $3.2-million, 8,000-square-foot lounge is not as rich as the London version (there, you can get a haircut at the Bumble & Bumble salon, have your pants mended and pressed, or have a spa treatment), but it does include locally sourced art and floor-to-ceiling views across the bay. And the lounge is convenient, with concierges taking care of check-in for flights, and pay-to-stay access.
MARRAKESH: La Mamounia's VIP Lounge Menara Airport
La Mamounia unveiled a VIP airport lounge last fall styled by French interior designer Jacques Garcia, who also created the hotel's traditional opulence. Although small at 560 square feet, it's a plush, soothing spot to await arriving or departing flights, staffed by hotel employees and continuously freshened by a custom Olivia Giacobetti fragrance of dates wafting over the air vents. Guests have access to free Wi-Fi and concierge service as they wait, are handed cocktails and gourmet nibbles, can be cleared through customs and checked into the hotel as soon their plane touches down. Later, they'll be chauffeured through the Red City in a bespoke garnet red Jaguar Daimler or Range Rover.
NEW YORK: American Airlines Admirals Club lounge John F. Kennedy International Airport, Concourse B, Terminal 8
Only United Airlines and American Airlines have first-class ticketing among U.S. carriers. Air Canada just offers business class, and Porter has an egalitarian premium economy class for all. So really, North American airline lounges can't compete on a level footing with the first-class behemoths of state-propped Asian and Middle Eastern airlines. But despite the competitors' arguably unfair advantage, AA's flagship lounge does a decent job of serving its highest-paying customers on domestic and international flights. The 650-square-metre lounge, which is pay-to-stay based on American AAdvantage membership levels, has a staffed business centre (e-mail your documents to be printed before your flight), complimentary Wi-Fi, a children's room, showers and free house wines. The big caveat: Premium alcohol isn't free.
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