One overlooked perk of high-end travel is airline lounges

The Practical Traveller Sometimes the best part of flying happens before you even take off.

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Why are most airport departure lounges terrible places to pass the time? The simple answer is because the airlines want to ensure that premium flyers receive better treatment than everyone else. If every passenger were allowed "amenities" like friendly staff and clean restrooms, then no one would want to pay more money to upgrade to a higher class of service.

Premium lounges offered on invitation to travellers in Business and First Class helpfully fill the gap for travellers who expect such luxuries—but in many cases, the lounges aren't that exciting. At most airline lounges in the US and Europe, mediocre filter coffee comes from a carafe, with no options for cappuccino or espresso of any kind. The ever-present Starbucks is often right outside the lounge, but you can't bring your latte inside because the lounge allows no outside food or drink.

Knowing this in advance, I smuggled a café au lait into the Continental club in New Jersey's Newark airport recently, but then I felt like I had somehow cheated myself instead of Continental. If they could just make decent coffee, I wouldn't have to spend US$4 (Dh14) outside and then feel like a reverse shoplifter trying to bring in my Styrofoam cup.

The model of punishing Economy travellers so that Premium travellers will feel slightly better is probably not the best or most ethical way to do business, but it's worked for a lot of airlines for a long time. Is there a better way? Indeed there is, and you just need to look to the busiest airport in the United Kingdom to find it.

I'm writing these notes from Terminal 3 in Heathrow Airport, waiting to fly to Washington, DC. A few years ago, I was in the same location, waiting to fly to Tokyo. Both times, I spent about four hours hanging out in Richard Branson's US$21 million (Dh77.1mn) Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Clubhouse thanks to a one-way Frequent Flyer ticket I acquired through transferring rewards points from American Express. The cost for my ticket to Tokyo was US$212 (Dh779) in airport taxes and 50,000 Frequent Flyer Miles that I didn't even have before transferring AmEx points. Today's flight was much the same: 45,000 miles and US$325 (Dh1,194) in taxes—not bad for flights that are at least eight hours long.

At the airline's flagship clubhouse in Heathrow, passengers can take advantage of complimentary spa services, get a haircut, warm up in a sauna or cool down in a whirlpool, get some work done in a comfortable office space, enjoy cooked-to-order food from a complimentary restaurant, have a drink or a speciality coffee at the full bar, play billiards or retro video games, visit the rooftop garden, and probably some other things that I didn't have time to notice in my two four hour visits.

Yes, I deliberately arrived at the airport four hours early, and you should too if you get the opportunity. Virgin Atlantic's premium service, and the clientele it attracts, is markedly different from the average airline in Europe or North America. Consider these four important characteristics of Virgin's Clubhouse and visitors.

1. You can't buy your way in. I would easily pay US$50-100 (Dh184-367) for a day pass to the Virgin Clubhouse, and so would plenty of other people … but I can't. The only way inside is with an Upper Class ticket, or the highest elite level in their Frequent Flyer programme. Meanwhile, many independent lounges around the world sell day passes to their clubs for US$25-40 (Dh92-147) which is usually US$20-35 (Dh73-128) too much.

2. The dress code is super-casual. On both of my visits, a high percentage of people in the US$21 million (Dh77.1mn) Heathrow lounge were wearing jeans, T-shirts, and other casual clothes. Looking around as I sipped a mineral water, I realised that some of the people had paid US$5,000 (Dh18,370) or more for their plane ticket, and yet there they were wearing a T-shirt and casual shoes. They had nothing to prove, and no one to impress.

3. Life-work balance. During my visit, I noticed that the office area was one of the least-used sections of the Clubhouse. Sure, a few people were working for most of the morning, and a lot of others like me stopped in for an hour to review documents and clear emails, but most people were more interested in having breakfast, catching up on the news, or visiting the spa.

4. No one talks on the phone continuously. As far as I could tell, there weren't many salespeople hanging out in the lounge, and certainly no one spent their time on the phone trying to close deals. Far more common were people like the two gentlemen sitting at the breakfast table near me. One of them was flipping through the Wall Street Journal. "Here it is," he said casually. "At least they spelt my name right this time." The other guy nodded. "Yeah, the fact checker kept calling me after the BBC interview."

I know someone who is not fabulously wealthy (he is just beginning a business career and earns about US$60,000 [Dh220,440] a year), but he always travels First Class. He says it helps him to meet influential people and maintain a high-achieving mindset. I used to be sceptical of that idea, but after spending four hours in the Heathrow lounge, I was convinced that the road to success does not rest in making sales calls all day and hoping to make the numbers before the end of the quarter.

You're better off finding your own way, like paying US$325 (Dh1,194) for a US$5,000 (Dh18,370) ticket. If you get the chance to visit the world's ultimate airline lounge before a long-haul flight, I suspect you'll appreciate the difference between fighting for space among the huddled masses outside and visiting a sauna before your preflight spa treatment.

Chris Guillebeau, 33, is the author of The Art of Non-Conformity, published by Penguin. He is on a five-year mission to visit every country in the world, and is currently on number 178. Next week: a surfeit of miles and a smile is not always enough.