Last week, I discussed the weird, in-between-style campaigns that are all the rage in flying right now: Premium Economy. Often viewed as an overpriced version of economy with few of the frills of first class, it's often situated in the odd space of "yeah I guess I have the points/cash to do this." That was the exact situation I was in when my wife and I booked our trips to London a few months ago. However, we got lucky.
When booking our flights, we managed to snag two seats in Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class, which is Branson for "first class." A first class flight across the Atlantic for 10 hours of luxury, fine dining and lie flat upper class seats? Sign us up!
Booking Virgin Atlantic Upper Class
I mostly covered this in last week's piece, so I won't dive into it too much here. Suffice to say that it's not overly common to find wide-open award space for Virgin Atlantic Upper Class seats, so we hopped on them as quickly as we could. I transferred my points from American Express at a 1:1 valuation and booked the flight. All that was left to do was to pay the eyewatering $3,200 in taxes due to U.K fuel surcharges, of which I paid with my Platinum Card by American Express to score 5x points on the unexpected cash quickly leaving my pocket.
The Ground Experience - Welcome to the Clubhouse
My wife and I were up early for our 11am flight on the day of our travel for a key reason: the ground experience. Booking Upper Class in London has a very, very specific perk: The Upper Class Wing.
The Upper Class Wing is an exclusive pull-through at London Heathrow airport that is the true epitome of first class flying. It's a private check-in area only available to Upper Class passengers, and they take it very seriously. Taking a sharp left turn prior to reaching the departure road at Terminal 3, you arrive at a callbox and gate. Here, your limo driver/Uber can confirm your flight details to the Upper Class Wing agent, and you're then presented with a beautiful modern art project in a covered roundabout.
We were greeted by two Virgin Atlantic agents who grabbed our bags for us, as well as our passports, and whipped us through our own private check-in (a stark contrast to our departure check-in process which involved begrudging meditation sessions).
After our own private check-in, we were presented with our own security line in which our bags were scanned and we were directed to Lounge H, otherwise known as the Virgin Clubhouse.
The Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse
As a standard domestic business flyer, I'm use to the mundanity of the Delta SkyClubs. It's a nice place to sit, get a free coffee and a quick bite before being rushed into your middle seat. So let me tell you - when we walked up the mirrored steps of the Virgin Clubhouse, I was transported. A check-in agent took our boarding passes to confirm we were able to enter, and we were given the lay of the land prior to taking a seat in their restaurant.
Their restaurant offers table-service with incredibly friendly staff who are ready to take your order as many times as you can give it to them. We were presented with physical menus, though they were the same as the digital menus you receive when you scan the QR code on the placard of each table. Our waitress recommended the eggs benedict and the fruit smoothie, both of which were a bit smaller than we were prepared for...
It's here I want to quickly note the incredible staff that Virgin employs at the Clubhouse. I noticed looking around some solo passengers that were a bit older. Each of these passengers were attended to immediately by the staff, as well as the staff would sit with them and have a conversation to keep them company. I thought it was a brilliant touch by each one of the lounge employees, and certainly not something you'd find on the American carriers.
Following breakfast, we relocated to a cozy seat by the window to watch planes taxi while we waited to board our flight. In the 90 minutes we were in the Clubhouse, we each drank two coffees, a smoothie, breakfast, and took advantage of their excellent pastry cabinet. However, our flight was called and we were off to board.
Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Cabin
After speed walking to the gate on what felt like the other end of the earth, we were rushed through our Heathrow terminal and into the Virgin Atlantic Upper Class cabin. This is the only time during this entire experience in which I can say I felt a twinge of disappointment, as I realized that they changed planes on me.
I originally booked their A330-900, the new cabin with the beautiful new Upper Class suites, including the coveted Retreat Suite. What we got instead as their much more dated Boeing 787, set in a reverse herringbone seats pattern. It's also a more dated cabin, with a drab colour scheme of grey and silver rather than Virgin's new shift to purple mood lighting. However, the disappointment quickly vanished as I was shown to my seat by the wonderful flight attendant, who offered me a glass of berry-infused champagne or orange juice while we sat on the runway.
The seat on the 787 is an older style "coffin" style seat in which you're seated in a longer corridor with high walls either side to provide privacy. In front of you is a small seat that acts as a footrest when you're by yourself, or can act as a second seat if you choose to dine with someone (seatbelt included!). Each seat has direct aisle access, as you might expect at this point for most business class products. As I mentioned earlier, the cabin is set in a herringbone pattern for the middle seats and right-side rows, but the left row faces the back wall of the middle row. This means, if you're traveling with someone, you likely don't want to make the same mistake I did and put them in the middle with you on the left so you're staring at the back of their head. Thankfully, someone else made the same mistake I did which allowed us to rejoin our respective partners.
The wall on my left of my seat contained the in-flight entertainment screen that swings out to telescope around as needed, complete with USB charging port and headphone jack. Also included in this wall was the tray table, food menu and over-ear headphones to keep you busy for the transatlantic trek.
On the footrest/seat thing sat the Upper Class amenity kit (a.k.a "Goodie Bag"), which had a similar look to the Premium Economy amenity kit we received in the last leg. However, this one had a black color scheme, rather than the brown in the rest of the plane. It also contained a nice eye mask, lip balm, compression socks and ear plugs, none of which were in the other kit. If you fly this product overnight, you'll actually also receive pajamas which were unfortunately not part of our kit.
Behind the seat housed the mattress pad, pillow and sheets to make up your bed when it was time for a nap. The cabin crew made special mention to get out of your seat completely before attempting to lay the bed down. I found out later in my own testing that it's because, rather than just sliding down, the seat folds completely over on itself to create the fully flat bed.
At the other end of the cabin, where we entered the plane, sat a bar! An actual, freestanding bar. It's meant to serve as a social space for premium flyers, as well as somewhere to stretch your legs. I also saw the flight attendants here offering mixology lessons to those in the Upper Class and Premium Economy cabins, which I thought was a really nice touch.
Upper Class Meal Service
Around 30 minutes after takeoff, our dedicated flight attendant came around to take meal orders and answer any questions about the menu. The food options we were presented with were certainly not what you'd expect to eat in the sky. They were elevated concept foods that presented some really interesting flavors. I personally enjoyed the meal service on the flight, but if you have a picky eater like my wife, it may not be a hit.
The starters consisted of a warm bread course like you might find at your local Cheesecake Factory, and it's accompanied by a selection of either a Serrano ham and squash creation or a carrot tartare and whipped ricotta dish. I opted for the ham while my wife went with the whipped ricotta as she doesn't eat pork. The ham was fantastic, while the ricotta dish got mixed reviews. They also offered us a nice selection of wines to go with the meal, with the flight attendants suggesting we go with an Italian white to compliment the meal.
Following the starter, the choices of a main meal were: a roast chicken breast with potatoes and Madeira sauce, roast trout or spinach and ricotta tortellini. We both opted for the tortellini main course and it was very good, if not great. This one was a little closer to what you might expect from an airline, so we likely made the wrong choice here.
Finally for dessert, we had the choice of a "millionaire's delice" which turned out to be essentially chocolate cake, or a cranberry and orange bread pudding. Both of these were the highlight of the meal, with the millionaire's delice being my clear winner. Dessert was followed by a cheese plate with a choice of port wine to pair. We opted for the cheese plate, but neither of us are refined enough to enjoy port, so we declined.
A nice touch by our flight attendant was a head's up about the second meal service, served about two hours prior to landing. First, he asked if we would be OK with him waking us up if we were sleeping in order to get the second meal service. He also took our orders early in the flight to ensure they didn't run out of what everyone wanted. The second meal service, noted as a "lite bite," was anything but. My wife and I both ordered the Beyond Burgers, served with pickled onion and coriander mango mayo, and it was fantastic. Of all the courses served on the flight, this one was my clear favorite.
Other "lite bite" options included a scone with tea and clotted cream, a bao bun with satay chicken and a spiced lamb flatbread, of which I wish I could have tried them all. Along with the meals, we also tried a few different drinks onboard. I went with a Dewars whiskey and ginger ale, as well as an excellent BrewDog lager. My wife opted for the Bombay Sapphire gin and tonic and a glass of white wine, but the drinks list was extensive, including a list of custom cocktails and a wide selection of soft drinks.
I talked about it last week, but it's garbage. Unless you're hip to the newest Bollywood has to offer, you won't find much here. I watched a few episodes of "Family Guy," caught the new "Indiana Jones" movie and then was thoroughly bummed out by "Knock At The Cabin," so I rolled over and took a 2 hour nap.
This is my second-ever experience with a first-class product, with the first being 15 years ago, so I'll admit that I don't have much to compare this to. However, compared to standard economy class, or even the Premium Economy we flew out on, Virgin Upper Class is a different ballgame. The flight crew just seems more attentive, the general feeling and vibe is much better, and obviously you get all of the added comfort and class that comes with the lie-flat bedding and the elevated meal service. For our flight time of 10 hours and 30 minutes from London to Tampa, we found this experience to be pretty incredible.
So now let's talk about cost. I scored this mixed-cabin trip for a total cost of 175,000 Virgin points plus $3,200 in taxes due to U.K regulation, which I achieved by transferring my American Express Membership Rewards points at a 1:1 ratio. If we parse out just this Upper Class leg, the total cost was somewhere around 115,000 points plus about $2,000 in taxes for two people. At that rate, that's extremely tough to beat. Is it the Emirates "Game Changer" or the Singapore Suite in terms of luxury and comfort? No, of course not. However, it beats the absolute hell out of American carriers.
For comparison's sake, I also looked up the cost of this route on Delta flying in their Delta One product. The result? 550,000 Delta SkyMiles per ticket. That's 1.1 million miles, or about 9x the cost of this flight, for the same route in what is a comparable product. That's why, when flying internationally, Virgin Atlantic is my new carrier of choice.
In totality, it wasn't perfect. I have to ding Virgin a bit for the equipment change that led to a radically different experience than the one I was expecting. Virgin and Delta also clearly do not have the whole "codeshare" thing down, as evidenced by our experience once we got to Tampa. The Virgin agent didn't know how to check us in, so he sent us to the Delta desk who then tried to send us back to the Virgin desk.
All in all, this is a huge improvement over standard flying, and you'll be the envy of your fellow passengers in your flat beds across the ocean. If you have the points to score a ticket like this, pull the trigger. You won't regret it.