This past Fall, I flew Virgin Atlantic for the first time — and now I’m hooked.
I needed to book a round trip from Los Angeles to Johannesburg, with a stop in London each way; because of the across-the-board prices I was encountering for such a long trip on most carriers, I found I couldn’t afford to splash out on anything above Economy. So, I came to Virgin Atlantic through Seatguru, the site that evaluates all major airlines for their best seats and on-board amenities.
Concerned largely with seat width and pitch, I was pleased to find a width of 17.5″ and a seat pitch of 32″ on VA, the most comfortable long-haul Economy seats of any major carrier. In addition, window-adjacent seats come in pairs, rather than threes; this means that you and a traveling companion can have a bit of space to yourselves. With personal TVs and remote controls built into each Economy seat, you can also watch a wide range of shows and movies from Britain, North America and beyond for your entire flight time (e.g., L.A. to London direct >11 hours).
Your personal entertainment programming will be periodically interrupted for (unfortunately loud but necessary) announcements about weather, the approach of the duty-free cart, etc.; as soon as you see the interruption message flash on your screen, be sure to quickly remove your headphones to avoid potential discomfort in your eardrums.
On-board service is friendly and efficient, and it’s a joy to see staff dolled up in their bright purple-and-red uniforms; in quiet moments, stewards are more than happy to share their favorite experiences in London. In VA Economy, you’ll be served alcohol at no extra charge, as well as creative, tasty British cuisine; you might get a mildly spicy chicken korma for dinner, and for dessert, a delicious dark chocolate-raspberry pudding.
If you’re traveling with children, know that I saw some brilliant Economy amenities for kids: wall-mounted cots for babies (who actually slept), little sacks full of distracting activities for older kids, and specifically-tailored kids’ meals and in-flight entertainment.
Be aware that you can pay extra at airport check-in for exit row seats (generally $80-120 per seat) or seats with extra leg room (about $45); while the latter isn’t a bad idea, know that the open areas around exit row seats are where groups tend to gather to chat, stretch their legs, get a little water, or merely line up for the bathroom.
I opted to extend my return stop in London for a few days (for a fee which will vary from about $275-500 with the type of ticket you book), and was pleasantly upgraded to a seat in Premium Economy. At a price that averages $600 higher than Economy and $2500 less than Upper Class, you might find its perks a fully worthwhile expense. With much more room (seat width of 21″ and pitch of 38″), dining service that approaches Upper Class levels, and a power outlet at each seat, a Premium Economy seat to London feels similar to a first-class domestic flight on a North American carrier.
If you’d like to treat yourself (or can snag one of VA’s frequent sale fares), know that Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class Suite is both fun and ultra-swanky. With soft purple lighting, cozy beds that lie perfectly flat and a dedicated Snooze Zone, you could easily be off to sleep for your entire flight; however, you’d miss the full, free-standing bar and a wide, “anytime” menu of dining choices — including an elaborately British tea service.
However, the greatest perk of VA’s Upper Class to and from London is the Heathrow Clubhouse. It’s not that Heathrow’s international Terminal 3 is so slouchy (with its full array of high-end, UK-specific shops and quality restaurants, including a seafood-and-champagne bar), it’s just not, well, the Clubhouse. Outside of booking an Upper Class ticket, you can’t buy your way into this exclusive lounge (or its Gatwick sister), but the good news is, life is long.
Between all-day dining that features selections from across the Commonwealth; a choice of restaurant or living room-style seating; a full, shiny bar that stretches a third of the updated-1960s-style Clubhouse itself; cozy theater seating in front of a cinema screen; a sunny and supervised children’s play area; a snooker table; a huge library of books, newspapers and magazines, with computer bays, Samsung Tabs to play with, and room to spread out your work; a lofty VIP area with outdoor deck access, if, say, you stop by with your pal Madonna; cushy lounge chairs perfect for watching planes or taking a nap (alone or with a friend); and a salon and spa, you might consider missing your flight just to stay a while longer.
The Clubhouse’s spa, an outpost of London’s popular Cowshed chain, offers a few, short complimentary treatments to help revive you; a large menu of facials, nail care and body treatments; and/or a chance to relax in a co-ed whirlpool/steam/sauna area.
When booking with Virgin Atlantic, be sure to sign up for their mileage program, the Flying Club. With one four-part journey back and forth to Africa, I’ve already earned a bit more than a free round-trip in Premium Economy to London; it would have taken only two trips from L.A. to London to earn me the same. You can either spend or save your miles and move up to silver and gold levels, bringing you ever closer to the Clubhouse door.
For me, though, Premium Economy is a lot more than fine, and my new favorite way to fly back and forth to London.
If you’re coming to London from North America, make sure to check the Virgin Atlantic Flight Deals. They offer excellent rates for flights to the UK from across the Pond, and their Virgin flight tracker allows your friends and family to keep tabs on you as you travel.