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Airport lounges invariably promise free food and a respite from crowds, but let’s be real: These days, a lot of lounges feel every bit as busy as the terminal, and depending on when you visit, you may be jostling with your fellow frequent flyers for cookie crumbs.
You'll have no such first-world problems at Qatar Airways’ enormous first class lounge at its hub in Doha, which is best described as museum-like — both in its aesthetics and in its hush-hush noise factor. (In my entire six hours there, I saw a grand total of one other passenger.) As overnight layovers in the Middle East go, there are worse places you could spend your time.
How I got in
As a business class passenger transiting through Doha on an award ticket, I was able to purchase "upgraded" access to the first class lounge for roughly the equivalent of $170. (NerdWallet comped my payment for the purposes of this review.) I had flown in from the Maldives that evening and was looking to take advantage of one of the lounge's private bedrooms to get a few hours of rest before my morning flight to Los Angeles.
All Qatar Airways business class passengers are entitled to free access to the similarly massive but much more crowded Al Mourjan business class lounge, which offers some of the same perks as this lounge but has no dedicated sleeping rooms.
» Lounge review: Etihad Airways first class lounge, Abu Dhabi
The Al Safwa lounge is on the top level of the terminal, accessed via a soaring escalator. If you’re on a layover in Doha, once you exit transit security follow signs across the main terminal entry hall to access the lounge (it’s about a five-minute walk).
If you’re originating in Doha, you can enter the lounge directly from the separate first class security area.
I presented my business class ticket and was told I could pay 600 Qatari riyals — roughly $170 — for six hours of access to the first class lounge. It was 9:15 p.m. when I entered; the attendant said she’d come get me at 3:30 a.m. My onward flight boarded at 7 a.m., so while I would have liked to stay a bit longer, I was grateful for even a bonus 15 minutes.
The “spine” of the lounge is its cavernous main hall, from which the various sections branched out on either the left or the right-hand side.
Though the lounge takes up a lot of square footage, it’s incredibly easy to navigate, with wayfinding signs all along the main hall.
Scattered along the main hall are various art installations; according to Qatar’s website, these pieces are on loan from the Museum of Islamic Art.
Water is a prevalent theme here, with a floor-to-ceiling waterfall built into the side of the main hall as well as this central water installation:
Tucked off along the sides of the main hall are the seating areas. There are separate screens at each seat that allow you to keep tabs on when your flight is boarding, which is useful since there are no announcements in the lounge.
Seats generally come equipped with power outlets that are capable of handling U.S. plugs (no adapter needed).
There’s an area of the lounge set aside specifically for families, with several playrooms and a handful of adjacent private rooms where adults can relax while the kids are at play.
If none of the lounge's dedicated sleep rooms are available (hard to imagine!), the “adult” rooms adjacent to the play areas wouldn’t be a bad place to come doze for a bit. They're plenty dark enough for it.
As is typical with Middle Eastern lounges, there’s a separate “smoking room” for those who wish to partake …
… along with a prayer room.
Several mini-newsstands are scattered throughout the lounge, with English- and Arabic-language papers.
A large bank of his-and-hers restrooms are stocked with fresh washcloths, along with fully enclosed stalls for maximum privacy.
You know you’re in a fancy lounge when they keep the toilet paper folded.
One of the larger areas of the lounge in terms of square footage is the spa area. It includes several private treatment rooms …
… and even a hot tub, with room enough for two.
Business, shopping and entertainment
For more productive pursuits, a small business center is provided, with several workstations all separated into small private offices. A Mac or a PC is available at each station.
There’s a small media room off the main hall, with comfy chairs and CNN playing on a big-screen TV.
The lounge even has its own duty-free shop, the first time I’ve seen such an arrangement inside a lounge.
There are two dining areas in the lounge. One was stocked with sushi and various snacks.
This area has a fair amount of seating, though not as much as in the main dining room.
Behind the counter is a small station with tea, coffee and alcohol.
The second dining area, the main restaurant, was the only place in the whole lounge where I saw another passenger — and it was just that. One other person. The restaurant has an enormous main bar as its center showpiece …
… along with several “mini”-dining areas separated by walls and an open kitchen, creating a more intimate feeling.
Although the clock was ticking on my six hours with access to a bed, I had to give the restaurant a try, as once you're in the lounge, all food is free. This was the menu on offer at roughly 10 p.m. (Given the lack of customers, I was surprised to get such a well-worn menu, though I also managed to take the world's blurriest photo.)
I ordered the seafood bisque to start, which was delivered with a tasty amuse-bouche.
Following my usual routine of ordering the thing I’m least knowledgeable about on a menu when I’m in a foreign country, I ordered the beef sambusak as an appetizer, followed by the chicken machboos as a main course. Neither was terribly photo-worthy, but both were tasty.
For dessert, I tried both of the Arabic offerings.
I’d requested a relatively fast pacing and was grateful to receive it. The food, while consistently good, was roughly on par with what I was served in business class on the flights themselves — which perhaps speaks more to the quality of Qatar Airways’ onboard catering than anything else.
The sleep pods
About 30 minutes after I sat down to eat, it was time to head to my sleep pod.
There looked to be at least a dozen rooms, each with its own private door, en suite restroom and shower.
The room came stocked with water and a handy bedside panel from which you can control the lighting and room temperature.
The bed itself was incredibly comfortable, owing in part to the large mattress pad included. I fell asleep more or less immediately.
Though I had been hoping the staff would “forget” about my six-hour limit, that was not to be: At 3:30 a.m. on the dot, an attendant knocked softly on the door to wake me, and it was time to go. (I was able to take an extra 10 minutes or so to freshen up, so they weren’t too draconian about the time limit, at least.)
I was grateful to have even had a few hours with this level of comfort. Other lounges have rest areas, but these hotel-style sleep pods are truly in a league of their own.
From here, I headed to the much more crowded Al Mourjan business class lounge for the final three hours or so before my flight to Los Angeles boarded. (Speaking of that flight: You could do a lot worse with 70,000 American Airlines miles than use them to fly 16 hours in Qatar's revolutionary Qsuites business class.)
» Learn more: American Airlines AAdvantage program: The complete guide
The bottom line
Thanks to the popularity of credit cards that confer Priority Pass access, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, plenty of lounges offer only a modest respite from airport crowds. This lounge, however, is true luxury — and if you feel like the only passenger in the whole lounge, it might be because you are.
If you're a first class passenger on Qatar Airways, congratulations: You're in for free. Otherwise, you'll have to decide whether it's worth ponying up $170 for a meal and a bed for a few hours. Given that the airport hotel could cost quite a bit more without free food and drink, this might be a bargain in comparison.
Photos by Brad Walters.
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