In the recent film Up in the Air, George Clooney's character, Ryan Bingham, is a travelling businessman with a singular focus - amass 10 million air miles and enjoy the airline perks of a lifetime. "I'd be the seventh person to do it; more people have walked on the moon," he boasts to his colleague, played by Anna Kendrick. When travelling, airline staff greet Clooney's character by his first name, as if they are close friends, and he enjoys the best services they have to offer, including free rental cars and hotel suites.
Fortunately, you don't need to spend your entire life on an aeroplane to make your experience a bit more tolerable. For travellers in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, long layovers and delayed flights are commonplace. But airport lounges, with comfortable furniture, televisions, access to the internet, showers, food and drink, and in some cases, childcare, can provide much-needed luxury and reprieve. The question is - how can you gain access to this airport palace without breaking the bank?
Besides first-class and business-class passengers, who receive a free pass, the most common way to get into many airlines' lounges is to garner elite status through their frequent flyer programmes. For Etihad Airways, for example, you need a Silver Pass, which requires 25,000 air miles, and gets you into the business-class lounge at Abu Dhabi airport. Emirates Airline has a very similar programme called Skywards Silver, which requires 25,000 air miles, and gets you into Dubai airport lounges. On British Airways, it takes about 25 return trips to achieve the Silver Level of the Executive Club, the airline's loyalty programme, but you get in to about 250 airlines worldwide.
But the price you pay over time, by passing over cheaper options to fly your trusted airline, outweighs the benefits offered by loyalty programmes, says Chris Regan, a sales executive at Holborn Assets, a personal wealth management firm in Dubai. "Ultimately, all marketing costs hit the underlying profit of a company, and that in turn is paid for in the price of its products," he explains. "There is little benefit to customers in loyalty cards, but plenty of benefit to the company."
Assuming you don't have a seat with the elite at the front of the aeroplane, you have two smarter ways of getting into a lounge: buy your way in on the day rate, or purchase an annual pass from a third party that reduces the price, or makes it free. For a surprisingly large number of travellers, paying the day rate at the door or through a website is the most economical option, assuming you can get in.
If you're embarking on an especially long voyage involving long connection times, paying the cover charge may be a wise investment. It costs Dh100 to plop down in Abu Dhabi airport's most basic lounge, Al Ghazal Lounge, but in return you get drinks, a food buffet, comfy seating, showers and Wi-Fi. But the much nicer Etihad business-class lounge, with a spa, better food and childcare, is accessible only with an Etihad business-class ticket or with a Silver Pass in their rewards programme.
In Dubai International Airport, a few very basic quiet lounges are free, but they offer little more than decent seating. You can pay Dh200 to get into the Dubai International's business- class lounge, which has showers, computers, and complimentary food and drinks. The Emirates Airline lounges require business or first-class tickets, or a Skywards Silver level of membership in the airline's loyalty programme.
You can also reserve a spot, and occasionally find discounts, at www.loungepass.com or www.gosimply.com. But be sure to shop around, and check both the standard rate and what's offered on the website. At New York's JFK airport, for example, the official day rate at Terminal 4's main lounge is US$40 (Dh147), while the loungepass.com gets you in for $34. But at Abu Dhabi's Ghazal Lounge, the website charges £19 (Dh104), more than the Dh100 you would pay at the door.
But many lounges don't accept walk-in customers, and if you are like many UAE residents, taking to the skies once or even twice a month, there are ways of getting a better rate and ensuring a comfortable wait. One option is Priority Pass, a card that gives you access to airport lounges across the world. With more than 1 million members, the company behind Priority Pass has now placed new emphasis on luring passengers who have given up the expense of a business-class ticket in the economic downturn but still want some form of luxury in air travel, said Soukalin Ghosh, the business manager for Priority Pass in the Middle East and North Africa.
"Corporates have decided people who would be flying business will be flying coach," he said. "With Priority Pass it is irrelevant which airline you're flying or which class you're flying." That's not entirely true, unfortunately. The pass will not grant entrance to the top-class lounges, such as Doha's famed terminal for first- and business-class passengers, or Etihad's Diamond First Class lounge. While it should get you into most spots, it's best to call beforehand if there's any doubt.
The pass can be purchased online through one of three plans based on travel volume, but be sure to weigh the cost of the plans against the single-visit options on www.loungepass.com, which range from $28 to $39. The Priority Pass website, www.prioritypass.com, lists the thee membership plans. The lowest level costs $99, which is for an annual fee that gives you a slightly discounted entrance fee of $27 on each visit to an affiliated airport lounge.
With the mid-level plan for Priority Pass, for which you pay an annual fee of $249 to get 10 free visits and pay $27 per visit after that, the cost of the average visit does not fall below $28 until the ninth visit. The economics for the third plan, for which you pay $399 for unlimited visits, are worse, unless you use airport lounges at least 14 times per year. A better option for travellers who are less certain of their annual travel plans is to get a Priority Pass membership as a bonus for signing up for a bank account or credit card.
"For frequent flyers, it's definitely worth checking with banks to see if they offer this service as part of their card perks," Mr Regan says. "This would be the smarter way." Again, you have to carefully weigh the many costs and benefits hidden in the small print. For example, HSBC's Etihad card, which includes Priority Pass, costs Dh350 more in annual fees than the bank's basic Etihad option about the same as buying Priority Pass's basic programme directly but includes additional benefits such as a lower monthly financing charge. Citibank's cards that come with Priority Pass membership cost at least Dh600 more, but include a laundry list of other perks, including free golf and hotel stays.