Is Virgin Atlantic's Premium Economy Worth the Upgrade? A Comprehensive Review
My Review of Virgin Atlantic's Premium Economy from Atlanta to London Heathrow
The pandemic, for all the truly awful circumstances we found ourselves in, did happen to have some personal silver linings. I started this website (hey!), sorted out my finances and figured out the credit card game deeper than I ever had before thanks to some serious free time and nowhere to go. So the pandemic turned out to be a little bit of a boon for future-Nick and the travel game.
Where as I was using my American Express Delta Platinum card for every purchase prior to lockdown, in it I discovered the magic of American Express Membership Rewards points, and the beauty of points multipliers. As our spend on things like groceries and Uber Eats stayed level, my points balance began to explode. So, when we eventually came out of lockdown, the travel bug hit my wife and I harder than Mark Wahlberg taking out his frustrations on the mean streets of Boston, and we had the points banked to make it happen.
I already covered the big trip we took last year to Rome that was 100% funded by the points and miles I amassed thanks to Resy's secret credit card offer, but this year we decided to mix it up. When my sister announced in May that she was moving to London to "Eat, Pray, Love" it up, my wife and I hit the web to book the trip. Quickly into our search, we found a unique way to get to London and back, using mixed-use cabins on a codeshare that allowed us to experience the unique charm of Virgin Atlantic's Premium Economy cabin using Virgin Points. Let me explain.
Booking Virgin Premium Economy
As I've covered ad nauseum on this site, living in Atlanta essentially gives you one option of airline: Delta. Being the global hub of the American giant, Delta is the be-all and end-all of flight options into, and out of, the city. However, the international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson gets a little bit spicier.
Thanks to a well-flown path from Atlanta to England, Virgin Atlantic is right next to Delta on the runway, with multiple flights to both London and Manchester daily. With this, Virgin's site was the first place we checked.
Thanks to Virgin's adherence to a fixed-value pricing model for Flying Club members (a now rarity in the skies), we knew we could score great seats on Virgin for much lower rates than Delta was offering. Virgin offered us their Premium Economy cabin on the ATL to LHR route for only 22,500 points per person, plus a heavy $447 in taxes (thanks UK fuel taxes!). If you want to go the same route on Delta in the same cabin, you're looking at an eye-watering 125,000 Delta Skymiles per person. Easy choice.
We hopped on the deal (with a special surprise on the way home), and ponied up the points and cash to make it happen. To cover the taxes, I used my Platinum Card by American Express to earn 5x points on the what would become $3,200 in taxes, netting me 16,000 American Express Membership Rewards points to use for future travel.
The Ground Experience
Hartsfield-Jackson's international terminal is actually exceptional. It's a small, separate terminal that removes you from the absolute insanity of the main airport, making it a more serene, tidy experience.
This all seemed for nought, however, when we reached the check-in desks and were (not) greeted by the unfriendliest check-in attendant I have ever seen. She refused to talk to us other than mumbling "passports" when she was ready to check our documents, and she paused our check-in process to do a full minute of meditation guided by her Apple Watch. After checking our bags (of which you get two free checked bags flying in premium class), we headed to security. Strangely, this wasn't even the worst part of check-in as our KTN numbers had failed to make it to our boarding passes.
For the unfortunately uninitiated, a KTN number is what you get when you register for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, and it allows you to breeze through security where available. Well, our KTN's didn't transfer and we were thrown into the standard security line. Normally, this isn't an issue at this terminal. However, TSA decided it was time to stop working and cut down to one line for every international passenger coming through the terminal, which led us to standing in line for over an hour in security. This torched out plans to relax in the Delta SkyClub with a glass of champagne, which you do qualify for entry with your international Premium Economy ticket (as of 2023). However, lounge access seems to be an ever-changing target these days, so confirm with the carrier before your flight.
What started as a frustrating experience at security turned into a bewildering experience at the gate. When it came time to board, rather than the gate agents using the microphone and loudspeaker system to announce boarding groups, the gate agent decided to take matters into her own hands. She walked over to groups of seated passengers at the gatehouse and performed her own 5-7 standup comedy routine to prepare passengers for the flight. And it turned out to be interactive! There were lots of "I can't hear you" and "come on people, you have to be louder than that!" yelled at us when she was briefing us about things like not forgetting your luggage. It was a mystifying experience that took so long, it actually delayed boarding and departure. I know Virgin is all about the cool, edgy feel, but this is something to cut out immediately.
The Premium Economy Seat
Virgin Atlantic's Premium Economy cabin is organized in a 2-4-2 configuration on the Airbus A350-1000 we were seated in. We had two seats near the window, perfectly situated for a couple traveling together. The seats were a comfortable 21 inches wide with 38 inches of seat pitch, giving you a good 8 inches of recline on the seat. Is it a lie-flat bed? No, but with a high-quality leather seat, it is pretty comfortable and much easier to sleep on than a seat in Main Economy. You also get a fair amount of personal space, giving the premium seats a luxury feel, one of the little touches that makes Virgin such a popular carrier.
The leather seats were overall comfortable and didn't get too hot, my concern in a leather/fake leather interior. The footrest was also nice if you're short enough to use it, but unfortunately my 6'7" frame doesn't support using the footrest without my knees touching my eyes, so I was content with my aisle seat and leg generally sticking into the aisle until I got runover by the food cart.
Laying in our seat was an amenity kit for the overnight flight, which Virgin refers to as a "Goodie Bag," but what looked like a paper grocery bag that had been thrown out. The most important factor was that it was eco-conscious, but the presentation of these bags is awful. Within it, we found a toothbrush, eye mask, toothpaste and pen, which mostly came in handy during the flight. Underneath the amenity kit was a blanket and pillow, the same as which you find in Main Economy.
The seat also featured a beautiful 13.3 inch in-flight entertainment screen, but honestly it felt much bigger when in use. Under the screen featured USB ports to charge your devices, as well as a universal power socket for laptops and the like. Finally, it featured a cleverly designed tray table that popped out of the armrest when it was time for the meal.
Food and Drink
The food and drink in Premium tends to be one of the main gripes of detractors of this cabin as a whole. You're getting largely the same food as those in the back of the plane, but you're paying sometimes double for what is effectively a bigger seat. So let's talk meals.
After using our priority boarding to hop in front of the economy class flyers, our flight attendants walked around with a tray of pre-departure drinks for us to select from. After Upper Class had their selection, we were presented with stemless champagne flutes containing, well, champagne, orange juice or water. We went with the champagne and it was the perfect remedy to the gate agent's Matt Rife impression we had to slog through a few minutes earlier.
About two hours after takeoff, we had our first meal service. Generally this is served around an hour after takeoff, but bad weather caused some serious turbulence for the first 90 minutes of our flight, so the meal service was a bit delayed. Despite this, the flight crew was still able to keep everything warm (or cold) and on time.
Our three-course meal was actually pretty interesting for an in-flight meal. I ordered a main course of the southern barbeque pulled pork with mashed potatoes and green beans. My wife got the teriyaki chicken with vegetable fried rice, and she was the clear winner. Each meal was also served with a caprese salad of mozzarella pearls with tomato and pesto, as well as a bread roll, cheese plate and strawberry cheesecake for dessert. The meals were pretty tasty and filling enough to carry us to breakfast. My wife added after our trip that her meal in Premium Economy was actually better than the meal we got in the Upper Class cabins on the way home, which is about as high praise as you can get for one of these meals!
After a bit of a nap and a movie, we were presented with some breakfast options about 90 minutes prior to landing. I opted for the full-English breakfast with sausage, potatoes, egg, mushrooms and tomatoes (no baked beans unfortunately), while my wife went with the blueberry waffle. These meals paled in comparison to the dinner service, but were passable as "food" when you really just want a cup of coffee.
In between meal services, the plane also featured the "Wander Wall,'" a fun Virgin feature where you can walk up to the galley and grab a snack and a drink at any time during the flight. I really like this idea for premium cabins, and hope American carriers (*cough* Delta *cough*) adopt something like this for when you're getting a bit hungry at 1am.
In order to pass the time on our 6 hour and 59 minute flight from Atlanta to London, we had access to Virgin's in-flight entertainment system, Vera. They have a wide selection of movies and TV shows that....were pretty awful. The movie list was a niche selection of poorly reviewed newer movies and Bollywood hits. The TV library featured random episodes of TV shows like "Family Guy" and "Bob's Burgers." Unless you're really into catching random episodes of shows you don't watch, I'd suggest bringing your own entertainment.
On the plus side, they do provide you a nice set of on-ear headphones for you to use that do a good job of blocking out the screaming child behind you.
In summary, Premium Economy is an interesting seat to choose on a long-haul flight like this one. So rather than reiterate my thoughts here, I'll answer some user-submitted questions to help guide your decision-making:
Can you sleep in Virgin Atlantic Premium Economy?
Yes, sort of. The wider seat, cushier materials and better recline do give you a better chance to sleep than in Main Economy, but it's not like you're getting an Upper Class bed.
Is Virgin Atlantic Premium Economy better than the competition?
In some ways, yes. And in some ways, no. Last year, we flew Delta's Premium Select offering from Atlanta to Rome, and it was a bit of a mixed bag. I would put Delta's seat higher than Virgin's, as Delta's is a memory-foam seat that had a better feel to it. I would also score Delta's in-flight entertainment much higher than Virgin's. However, the food and service of the cabin crew on Virgin are much better than Delta's, so it's all about what's important to you.
Is Premium Economy worth it?
I absolutely think Premium Economy can be worth it, but in specific situations. If you have trouble sleeping on planes for overnight flights, or you find yourself sore after a long flight, I would pony up. I would also recommend this cabin if you're flush with points or miles, as that tends to be the much better deal. If you're buying up with cash, or you're booking this thinking it'll be akin to business class, then save your money. It likely won't live up to your expectations.