Should you get a Priority Pass?

Anyone who’s ever had to spend more than half an hour in an airport departure lounge, you know, it can be…uncomfortable.

My earliest memory of an airport layover was going to The Netherlands with my mom and cousin when I was around 7 years old.

We made our home on the floor of London’s Heathrow Airport, waiting overnight for our connecting flight. There was a bookstore nearby where we bought a bunch of crossword puzzles and that was the entertainment for the night.

So since my earliest memory of airports, I’ve associated them with discomfort and “roughing it”.

Because of this sheer unpleasantness, booking flights with connections has always been a delicate art for me – balancing enough time to make my connections in case of any minor delay, but also so I don’t have to suffer for any unnecessary amount of time in an airport.

And obviously I always knew airport lounges existed but I always assumed they required a specific airline membership or a particular credit card (and many of them do) in order to use them.

Then one day I saw a travel blogger post about Priority Pass to her Instagram Story.

What’s this? A way to get access to airport lounges without having to be a business class passenger or sell my soul to an airline alliance?

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Half of the drinks set up at Blossom Lounge, Terminal 4, Changi Airport, Singapore. The other half was a fridge of canned soft drinks. Most lounges I visited had at least a coffee machine offering a variety of hot beverages, tea and a fridge with canned drinks.

Interesting…but you know what I really learned that day that changed my entire mind about airport lounges? Most, if not all of them offer you free food and beverages for the duration of your stay! Whaaaat?

Now I normally don’t eat a WHOLE lot in the airport but that’s largely because airport food is expensive and usually gross. So if you’re telling me that there’s a place in an airport I can eat “good” food for “free” (cause really I just paid upfront for it) then I am definitely listening.

If you haven’t figured it out by now – Priority Pass is essentially an airport lounge membership programme.

I checked out the Priority Pass website and it seemed their network of lounges was pretty extensive – over 1200 lounges in 143 countries.

The Standard membership costs $99 USD per year and entitles the member to pay just $32 USD per person per lounge visit for you and your guests.

The Standard Plus membership costs $299 USD per year and entitles the member to 10 free lounge visits and $32 USD per person per visit for your guests.

The Prestige membership costs $429 USD per year and entitles the member to unlimited free lounge visits and $32 USD per person per visit for your guests.

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This Premium Plaza Lounge at klia2, Malaysia, was actually landside (meaning before you go through security). Make sure you check the app to see where lounges are located in your respective terminal.

After I dropped some VERY unsubtle hints throughout the year, my boyfriend ended up getting me a Priority Pass Standard Plus membership for Christmas. Wooohooo!

I knew then I would be traversing at least four major airports in April so I was pretty excited to plan my Priority Pass usage during this trip.

Now the trip has come and gone and I used four out of my ten lounge visits for the year. It’s important to note that for this to be worth the dinero you really should be in a position to utilise all your free lounge visits in a year on this tier.

So what did I think of the Priority Pass? Would I recommend anyone put down the money for one?

Here’s why you should definitely get a Priority Pass:

1. You essentially get Lounge access at a discounted rate. The typical lounge experience (I’m using the Plaza Premium Lounge chain as an example) will set you back $42 USD for a 2 hour stay. Some will be even more expensive. Priority Pass Standard Plus Membership typically gets you a maximum of three hours in the Lounge (though I stayed for over three hours in one lounge and nobody checked me, boo) at $30 USD per visit (if you count your 10 visits for the year) and the $32 USD for guests or beyond your ‘free’ visits is still a $10 discount.

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The spread at Premium Plaza Lounge in klia2, Malaysia – a selection of salad, pastries, desserts, soup, rice, noodles, vegetables and chicken.

2. Unlimited fooooooood. I ate quite a few times in each of the lounges I went to out of pure bad mind. I kept thinking about what $30 USD of food looked like in my head and tried to eat and drink that or more. Of course you’re not just paying for the food but I admit, if I didn’t eat as much as I did I might find it hard to justify the cost. The food was pretty good as well. All the lounges I went to had a buffet style spread, and some also had an a la carte order service. All offered coffee and tea, soft drinks like soda water (yas) and juices. Beer was also included in all the lounges’ complimentary offering and one lounge also had wine and liquor. Different lounges will have different policies regarding alcohol so just check the app to confirm what you’ll get.

3. The lounge WiFi is usually superior to whatever the airport is offering at a public level, and the access doesn’t require your Facebook password or the blood of your firstborn child, so that’s cool too.

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My little cubby in Blossom Lounge, Terminal 4, Changi Airport, Singapore. Not clearly pictured is a footrest and an electrical outlet.

4. Comfort and maybe even some privacy. It goes without saying that the seating arrangements in most standard departure lounges are sheer hell, so it’s nice to have a comfortable, soft place to rest your tush, most likely with an electrical outlet within arm’s reach. God knows how my heart drops at the sight of people laying on the ground next to the cluster of electrical outlets in the airport, desperate for a socket to free up. In at least one of the lounges I visited, there were also these more private cubbies where you could probably take a nap if you were so inclined. Actually, people nap everywhere in lounges, you really don’t need any privacy to do that.

5. Even if there’s no participating lounge in your terminal of choice, there may still be a restaurant or two that allows you to apply up to $28 USD credit to the bill, along with a heap of terms and conditions. You can also benefit from offers from vendors in the airport like XpresSpa and those folks who wrap your luggage. More glamorous airports may have better deals but that’s what JFK is giving us to work with.

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The first course of my breakfast at Blossom Lounge, Terminal 4, Changi Airport Singapore.

6. Fantastic app. The Priority Pass app is an actually useful app. It contains a comprehensive list of all the participating lounges – you just need to know 1) the airport you’ll be in 2) the terminal you’ll be in and you can find out if there’s a lounge you can use. It lets you know what you can expect from the various lounges as well as any rules or guidelines you should be aware of. You can also track your lounge visits on the app.

And after all those compelling reasons, here’s why, maybe, you should think twice before you purchase a membership:

1. It’s a luxury, not a necessity. Remember all the crap I just wrote about departure lounges? The basic ones? Yeah, if $299 isn’t something you should be spending on the frivolity of a Priority Pass, forget I said any of it! This is a nice-to-have, it is in no way a need-to-have and honestly, unless you travel a whole lot, it doesn’t make sense to spend that coin.

2. Not every airport or terminal has a participating lounge. It would be wise to check out the airports and terminals within those airports you frequent to see if they contain participating lounges. For example, JetBlue departs from Terminal 5 in JFK and that terminal has no participating lounges in the Priority Pass programme. So if you know you fly JetBlue often to and from New York, Priority Pass may not be worth the money.

3. This is less a con of Priority Pass and more one of Premium Plaza Lounge, which seems to be one of the more popular lounges on the Priority Pass roster – it can get sticky. There was a queue to get into the Premium Plaza Lounge in Hong Kong and once inside, it was tough to get the prime seating options (though there was ample seating otherwise). It should be noted that access to any lounge isn’t a guarantee if they reach their capacity.

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More swanky seating options at Blossom Lounge, Terminal 4, Changi Airport, Singapore.

4. If you have the Standard Plus membership you can’t roll over any unused visits into the next year. You also cannot transfer lounge visits to anyone else or lend anyone your Pass for them to utilise since they match your boarding pass to your membership card at the entrance to the Lounge.

In summary, I think the Priority Pass is a great buy if you are going to be travelling enough times in the year to max out your included visits. Even if you just take the Standard membership, which doesn’t include any ‘free’ visits, you’d have to ensure you can visit enough lounges for the $99 USD price tag to make sense (what’s that…5 lounge visits maybe to recoup your money?). If you travel a WHOLE lot, the Prestige membership tier absolutely is definitely something to consider.

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Opted for a lighter second course for breakfast at Blossom Lounge, Terminal 4, Changi Airport, Singapore.

Honestly, like I said, it’s not at all a necessity but if you travel enough to be disillusioned by the airport experience and are looking for a way to ease the pain just a little bit, Priority Pass may be the answer. 

I would also consider flights with a longer layover when booking since I know I have somewhere to pass the time. This might save me some bucks in the long run since the flights with longer layovers can sometimes be cheaper.

I’m not positive yet if I’ll be renewing my membership for next year as I have to plan my travel, but once it looks like I’ll be taking ten or more flights it’s very likely I will be a Priority Pass member again in 2020.

You can check out the Frequently Asked Questions on the Priority Pass website for more information. 

Or if you have any questions about my specific Priority Pass or lounge experience, hit me up below.

My not-so-obvious travel check list

So you’re getting ready for a trip! Maybe it’s solo, maybe it’s with a group, but regardless there are a few things you need to check before you go, especially if you’re going somewhere that lies off the beaten path of the US or Europe.

I got the idea for this blog after my friend Val randomly decided he was going to India and wanted some tips. I mean India requires a different level of preparation than most destinations but the idea is the same:

1. Visa and passport

Do you need a visa? If yes, what’s the processing time? Do you need to show proof of any immunisations (another point) in order to apply?
If you don’t require a visa, how long are you allowed to stay in the country without a visa? Do you require a minimum number of months validity on your passport to enter the country?

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2. Immunisations and medication

Check the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) website to see if there are any mandatory immunisations you need to get and what’s the timeframe within which you need them and any subsequent boosters. If there are no mandatory immunisations, consult your doctor to see if there are any recommended immunisations.
Depending on the part of the world you’re headed to you may also want to consider taking your own medication for illnesses commonly experienced when travelling (travellers diarrhoea for example) or illnesses unique to your destination. Consult your doctor or your pharmacist for recommendations.

3. Travel insurance

Travel insurance is probably pretty easy to overlook until you need it. Luckily I’ve never had to use mine ever (knock on wood) but I always feel better about having it.
I use a really great provider called World Nomads which is underwritten by BUPA (my dad says they’re solid) and covers all manners of sin.
There is a basic package that is well…pretty basic…and an ‘explorer’ option that covers more extreme activities as well as compensation in the event of a potential hijacking, so this is obviously the one I take.
They also give you the option to donate $2 to various charities when you check out.

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4. Embassies, consulates etc

If you’re travelling somewhere new and far away, it’s a good idea to do some research as to whether there’s an embassy/consulate of your country in that country, and if not, locate the closest one. Record the address and number in case you may need it.
Also worth asking around to see if anyone has any contacts in the country, official or otherwise.
So if something really bad happens you at least have a number to call that’s closer than your mom (or another responsible parental figure) halfway across the world.

5. Offline maps and languages

There are two map apps I use when travelling, the ubiquitous Google Maps and Here. Both allow you to download offline maps of specific areas. Here allows you to download an entire country while Google Maps lets you get very granular with the area you download.
Google Translate allows you to download languages offline. For languages with other alphabets, you can use the image scanner to decipher the alphabet and give you a visual translation. I should mention though when I used this in Japan it wasn’t perfect by any stretch.

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6. Currency

Time to do some research on the currency situation in your destination of choice. What’s the recommended mode of getting local money? Are you converting USD (good luck with finding any USD in this Forex desert)? If yes, then you need to research the availability of cambios or money exchanges in the cities you’re visiting. One highly recommended mode is ATM withdrawals. No USD required and you pay a one-off fee per transaction, so my recommendation is to withdraw as much as possible, or necessary, in one go. Don’t take it for granted that the town you’re headed to has an abundance of ATMs though – one town I visited in Chile had all of three. Make sure you call your bank and let them know you’re travelling so they put a travel notice on your account. This will avoid any embarrassing and inconvenient blocking of your cards while abroad.

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So there you have it – the foundation for a successful, relatively stress-free trip. Whatever comes after this is just icing on the cake. I’ll get into gadgets, gear and apparel in another post and maybe show you what I take with me on different types of trips (aim high Ceola…)

Hope I gave you some homework to do for your next trip!

 

 

Thoughts in Transit // Go Alone 

Current location: Gate A6, Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok, en route to Chiang Mai. 

  

I figure the only time I may have to write on this trip is while I’m in transit.

My days have been packed to capacity with tours, dinner outings and roaming the streets. 

Since I began planning this vacation, people have expressed a healthy mix of concern and admiration for the fact that I was coming here alone. 

I won’t pretend it’s an easy decision to make. Going anywhere alone can be intimidating.

Halfway across the world? To a country where you know neither a soul nor the language? 

Well that…is straight up terrifying. 

Or it should have been. But for me it was easier done than said. I don’t know why. Maybe I was fed up. Fed up of saying I wanted to go places and never going. Fed up of saying ‘Oh that’s on my bucket list’ while ignoring the fact that my time could be up any hour of any day and my bucket list remained unchecked.  

I spend dumb money. All the time. I buy things that go to the back of my closet and never see daylight again until a year later when I decide to clear my closet to donate, and it gets thrown into the pile of ‘stuff I bought a long time ago but never wore and now it’s not my style anymore so bye’.

I figured it was time to start spending money on experiences and memories, rather than disposable things. 

 

except stocks…probably. and gold.

 
The next common excuse for me has been, even more so than finances, that unfortunately I don’t have a dedicated travel buddy. Not one in Trinidad anyway. There’s no friend I can message in the dead of the night and say “Hey, let’s go to Thailand nah.” and have them reply “Ok cool, will start looking at flights.” and mean it. 

That’s fine. Everyone is entitled to their priorities and interest. It just so happens that I don’t have one whose priorities and interests align with mine at the time I need it to. There are any number of limitations when seeking a travel companion – their finances, time, they were planning to go somewhere else, they don’t necessarily want to go where I want to go. 

Again, that’s ok. That’s no one’s fault. But what I could not keep doing was allowing that to prevent me from going. 

So I made the decision to get my shit together and book a flight. 

  
I plan to blog more about my actual trip but I figured a good place to start would be some of the things I learned while preparing for this journey. Hopefully this will help or motivate any one of you who’s been thinking about taking the plunge and buying the ticket to actually do it. 

1. Plan plan plan plan plan. As a solo traveler, and as a female no less, it was imperative that I have as much of this trip planned as I possibly could cater for. Now that’s not to say you can’t have spontaneous moments on your trip, but I spent a lot of time checking hotels, cross referencing reviews on TripAdvisor, checking the distance from said hotels to places of interest, evaluating public transportation options close to potential hotels, checking tours and comparing prices across different providers. One big challenge I encountered planning this trip was that many tours require two persons minimum. That, or you pay out of your eyeballs. For example, one tour increased to USD$130 from USD$50 because I am but one person. Eventually I found the same tour (and pretty much everyone offers the same tours) at a much more reasonable cost. I booked most of my tours on Viator and the balance on tour operators recommended on TripAdvisor forums. For hotels and flight I used Kayak and then checked reviews on TripAdvisor. For Thailand I originally reached out to one of those vacation concierge services. The price they quoted me was INSANE, especially since one of the reasons I chose Thailand was because I’ve often heard that it’s one of the most affordable places to visit. These people were recommending a budget of USD$300 a day! What?! I was going for 14 days. And that’s not even including airfare. So I decided to book everything myself. Sure it takes longer but my budget was half of their recommendation by the time I was done. So yeah, get ready for some serious leg work in the run up to your trip, if you want to save some coin.

2. Leave a trail. Again, top of mind for me in planning this trip was my security. Not that I’ve heard Thailand is an unsafe place per se, and my experience so far confirms that Thailand feels a lot safer than home. However, you can’t take for granted the fact that you’re out here alone and IF something happens to you…it shouldn’t be for lack of sense on your part. I printed off two copies of my hotel bookings and my flight confirmations and left a detailed itinerary with my parents, which said where I would be on each day – which tours I was taking, along with contact information for each tour provider. Let me put it this way (and of course this is morbid) if anything were to happen to me, God forbid, my loved ones should AT LEAST know where to find my body. Just saying. I also created a Google Sheet with the same itinerary and shared with a few responsible friends, just in case I had any changes to my schedule, I could update it there. 

3. Stay in touch. I check in with my dad everyday. I also have an app installed on my phone – bSafe. Highly recommend it for solo travellers. It basically allows you to send friends (who also have to download the app) updates with your location. If you’re in a crisis, there’s an alarm feature that will send them a push notification, and start the camera on your phone, record for an amount of time then send that recording to them. I gave said friends my parents’ contact information so they could reach them if they got an alarm from me. I would have installed it on my dad’s phone but I don’t know if he would have been as proficient at checking it as my more digitally inclined friends. Once I got to Thailand I got a local SIM card. Since Thailand is such a tourist destination, there were SIM cards marketed especially to tourists, offering 7-day data packages and access to wifi hotspots. It’s ESSENTIAL that you have data on your phone while abroad. And roaming makes no financial sense. Pop a SIM card in your phone, activate data and also have a way to contact hotels, tour operators, new friends (ew) on the cheap. It’s a no-brainer. 

4. Don’t overpack. This is a good rule even if you’re not travelling alone, but especially essential when you’re the only one available to tote luggage. I’ve been in some really horrible situations as a solo traveller before, in places like London, no less, so I wanted to be sure I could manage my baggage on this trip, both from a security perspective and a struggling to get up some steps perspective. 

5. Be realistic about your timeline. I knew there was no way I could see and do everything I wanted to do in the time I had. I had to prioritise. Jet lag is a bitch. I’m running on about four hours of sleep a night since I’ve been here because my body thinks I’m trying to take a day nap. Taking that exhaustion into consideration, as well as travel times, distance from sights, duration of tours, etc, you need to know what you can do in the time you have, and be willing to cut some things off your check list, where possible. 

6. Conquer public transport. This is a big thing for me no matter where I go. I’m not a big fan of buses but if there is a metro, I dey. Get acquainted with the various public transportation options, since you won’t be splitting the taxi fare with anyone and that cost can rack up. Luckily for me, Bangkok has about a bousand different ways to get around and I was able to learn the MRT (subway) and BTS (sky train) system pretty quickly. It’s so much cheaper and quicker than taking a cab. 

7. Make Google Maps your bestie. Any map service should work but Google Maps is my personal pick abroad. I use it to map out my journey regardless of mode of transportation. I also use it to get an idea of what taxi fares would be like, know how long I have to nap on a tour bus, and just generally a way to figure out where the f I’m going if I’m walking. It’s saved my butt more than a few times. You also have to stop and ask for directions less, which is important for me as a solo female traveler because I don’t necessarily want to give anyone the impression that I’m lost, ever, in life. This circles back to the importance of having data on your mobile. 

8. Get familiar with the culture. Before I left I looked up some of the cultural disparities between my home and my destination. You think “Oh I’m going on vacation, let me pack my shortest shorts and strappiest tops and get ready to skin out.” NAH. Thailand turned out to be a very conservative country. Most of the temples enforce a strict dress code for visitors – no bare shoulders or knees, and no tight fitting clothing. I can’t lie, getting dressed here has been challenging but I’m getting better. It’s also useful to know what’s generally frowned upon in a country so you can not do those things. Check your attitude once you board that plane because you are no longer on home turf and you are in people country with no contacts. No Visa face here people, only jail. 

9. Find contacts. Look up the embassy or consulate of your home country in your destination country. If there isn’t one, find the closest one to you. Ask around among friends to see if anyone has any friends or family where you’re headed, so at least you have a number and a name if anything goes awry. Trinis like salt, there must be a few where you’re headed. Ensure that they’re fine with you contacting them if need be and save that number. 

10. Keep your phone charged. Without a functional phone, most of the technological aides I described earlier, as well as the basic function of calling your hotel or taxi is null and void. Invest in a few battery packs, keep them fully charged and walk with extra charging cables. Don’t assume you will find a port or an outlet everywhere you go. Be sure to check the electric socket where you’re going too. Never know if you may need a converter. 

11. Invest in a monopod. A lot of people like to scorn selfie-sticks. I think that’s more ego and less sense to be honest, especially if you’re travelling alone abroad. If you don’t like the idea of using an extendable monopod, then make sure you’re cool with close, tightly-cropped pictures of yourself, no pictures of yourself at all, or constantly depending on a stranger to take a photo for you. About a month before I came I bought the new Go Pro Hero Session 4, which is a miniature, hardier version of the popular camera. I also bought an extendable monopod and a head mount. This is probably the best thing I’ve bought in a while. It not only captures video but time lapse photographs, and you can download the Go Pro app to your phone to control it remotely. Bear in mind this version of the Go Pro has no screen on the back so you’ll be flying blind unless you hook up to the app. 

Those are all the single traveler tips I can come up with at the moment. I think I covered the most essential bits. 

Sorry if this post doesn’t have much by way of pictures and whatnot, like I said, this is a rush job.

For prettier and more entertaining updates you can follow my trip on my social pages – @CeolaB (Instagram) and CeolaB (Snapchat). 

Hopefully this encourages you to take that vacation you’ve been meaning to take, and go to that place you’ve always dreamed of going, even if it means going alone.