I still remember the last time I flew on Virgin Atlantic. About ten years ago, on the third long-haul flight ever in my life, I learned about this crazy Richard Branson guy on my way from Hong Kong to Sydney. I was in awe of everything – the crazy colors, the incredibly hip and cool flight attendants, a PTV that actually works (again, this was 2007)…
I’ve looked for opportunities to re-experience that Branson magic again, but I couldn’t find myself an excuse to bring myself to London. That is, until this Summer 2017, where I got to spend 2 weeks in Europe with my family.
This epic journey begins with one of the best business class experiences I’ve ever been on…
Virgin Atlantic flight VS142
– Route: LAX – LHR
– Aircraft: Boeing 787-900
– Seat: 1A (Upper Class)
– Departure: 6:30pm, July 9, 2017
– Arrival: 12:25pm, July 10, 2017
– Flight time: 9h 55m
LAX Check-in and the Clubhouse
I’ve heard a lot of good things about the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse – the airline’s promotional video for the Upper Class is one of the few business class promo videos out there that extensively features the clubhouse.
In light of that, I decided to get to the airport early to make sure I enjoy the lounge to the fullest. I budgeted for 4 hours to spend at the lounge, but, nothing ever happens your way when it comes to LA traffic. My journey from Hollywood to LAX ended up taking more than an hour and half because of unannounced road closures on La Cienega.
I still ended up in LAX with plenty of time. Check-in agents look like they’re just getting ready, and nobody in line yet. I’ve never been to T2 before, which is shared with Delta, but I was expecting that Virgin would spend a little more effort in pimping out the check-in decor. After all, in comparison Virgin America goes all out in their half of T3 (before the Alaska merger) and in SFO T2. Instead, there was no mood lighting to be seen, and the screens behind the check in desks are the standard LAX boilerplate with a Virgin Atlantic logo slapped on. The boilerplate LAX blue color (or is it Delta’s?) has a sharp contrast to Virgin’s red, but in a pretty bad way.
The check-in agent in the Upper Class line (queue?) was a very courteous, older Asian gentleman. He saw my Hong Kong passport and started talking about politics in Hong Kong and relationship with the UK. I was a little caught by surprise – was not expecting this kind of talk at an airport check-in counter at all. I am usually more than happy to talk about HK politics, but my mind was set on visiting the Clubhouse. I hastily replied a little, and he sent me on my way to security with directions to the Clubhouse.
I soon realized, his directions of “walk up the stairs on the right” were actually quite necessary. The Clubhouse was located on the mezzanine above the terminal concourse, but there were not many signage to be found past security. Arriving at the clubhouse, an agent checked my boarding pass against a list of Upper Class passengers and welcomed me in.
The lounge had a color scheme of white and gold – not the red and purple I was expecting (like the one Virgin America Loft at LAX) – and my first impression was very much “wow”. It is minimalistic and simple, elegant but yet “young” at the same time.
Going with a lighter color palette, I feel, fits very well with the Southern California vibe, and I give Virgin mad kudos for recognizing the local culture. The colorful chairs in the lounge were an amazing finish to the decor – unique and quirky, posh but without pretentiousness. Overall, the lounge made me feel very comfortable.
The whole lounge is filled with natural light, albeit doesn’t offer too much to look at in an empty section of the tarmac. While it is not big, it does offer plenty of seats in an open lounge area. In addition, there is also a dedicated dining area with proper dinner setting for those that prefer a more formal dining experience.
As soon as I took a seat, a waiter came and introduced himself as “Marcus”. He explained the menu to me, and asked if I wanted “still or sparkling water”. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to Europe, so I initially thought it was just a quirky thing that the lounge does. I soon found out that this is a common thing for European restaurants to do, and that got me even more impressed – they really put in the work in making sure guests from everywhere feel at home.
The menu was long, and every single item looked appetizing. I wanted to try literally everything. Good thing I have at least 2.5 hours here.
So I decided to start with a “Sunset” cold-pressed juice. The menu’s first page advertised Virgin’s unique partnership with this local juice place, so I thought it would be a good starter. I also ordered some BBQ ribs and miso salmon, per Marcus’s suggestion.
The food didn’t take long to arrive, and both the ribs and salmon perfect tapas portion size. Which meant, for guests that are hungry like me, I could try out many different things; for others, they’re a perfect appetizer to just relax with.
And oh my gosh, they were simply amazing. The ribs were very well seasoned and tender, and the salmon was fresh and cooked to perfection. The juice was certainly refreshing and enjoyable, but nothing about it particularly stood out.
I couldn’t stop there. I found Marcus again and followed up with an order for more food. I was scared of being judged for a little bit, but Marcus was nothing but polite taking my order. My second order soon came in: potted salmon and lemon posset. Along with it, I also got a cocktail that comes in two parts: some rum-based cocktail and a beer along with it. (I can’t believe I didn’t take a picture of the Cocktails menu. There were so many cool things on it)
The second round appetizer round and the dessert were just as impressive. The potted salmon was very unique and incredibly fresh, and the lemon posset was just a great way to finish the whole meal with.
Time actually flew pretty fast in the lounge. Before I knew it, an agent announced on the PA that my flight will begin boarding soon, adding “the gate for this flight is actually fairly close to the lounge,” and that we can take our time in heading to the gate. I really appreciated the personal touch.
I started heading towards the gate, where a crowd of passengers had already started lining (queueing?) up. The Upper Class sign was a tad bit hard to find in midst of the crowd as there were no clear separation of boarding groups. Everybody kind of weirdly merged right before the boarding agent.
Boarding and Welcome
The 787-9 is waiting for us at Gate 26, which is conveniently right next to the staircase to the lounge. What is slightly frustrating, however, was that there is also no good spots to get a good picture of the plane (and this actually seems to be the theme of my entire Europe journey).
I was welcomed by a myriad of purple lights as I walked towards and into the plane. The interior mood lighting is set to a combination of purple and blood orange. I find it to be a little bit more professional than the Virgin America cabin, which goes all out in pretending the cabin to be a nightclub with straight purple.
Seats in the Upper Class cabin is organized in a 1-1-1 fashion, with a rather classy looking leather barrier separating the A and the D row, so the A seats feel fairly private. A menu (“Hello there”) and an amenity kit was waiting for me on the ottoman. Inside the menu was an breakfast order form insert, which I was supposed to fill out before I go to sleep.
A flight attendant walked by and offered me a glass of a departure drink. Nothing could beat Cathay Delight, my favorite departure drink, but I’d happily take a glass of champagne. I find that alcohol really helps me sleep in flights.
Boarding was efficient – before I got too comfortable in my seat, the captain came on the PA and announced that we are on our way to London.
As the plane left the jetbridge and onto the runway, the safety video started playing from the screens. Since the monitors had to be stowed during taxing, it actually took some effort to watch it. Nevertheless, it was actually interesting enough to capture my attention. I love discovering the different strategies that airlines use to try to stand out and show off personality – Virgin America has that really catchy tune (Tonight, we’re gonna fly / ‘cause we’re gonna live it up in the sky), British Airways has that British humor, and Air New Zealand brings a whole scene from Lord of the Rings… Some might say they’re overly cheesy, but hey, they’re successfully getting me to pay attention, so there’s that.
Virgin Atlantic chooses to bring a bit of everything – a cowboy explaining seatbelts, a superhero pointing out emergency exits, and a secret agent talking about oxygen masks. If there was a rating system for safety videos, I’d probably give this a solid 8.
The amenity kit is rather lacking. The bag itself is a leather-made Herschel-branded pencil-bag looking pouch that seemed a tad bit too big for the contents that was inside. Inside was a Rituals branded stick of lotion and chap stick , an eye mask, an optional n95 mask for sale, some earplugs… nothing out of ordinary.
While preparing for take-off, I overheard this conversation from the seat behind me.
FA: Would you like a sleepsuit, sir?
Passenger: (in an American accent) a what?
FA: A pajama set?
P: Ah, sure, yes please.
And I’m really glad I overheard it, because the uncultured me probably would not have understood what a “sleepsuit” is either. When the FA did finally come to my seat and offered it, I of course am “familiar” with the lingo already, and gladly accepted it.
The “suit” is really nothing to write home about, though – it was really just a t-shirt and a pair of thin sweatpants. Still, Virgin Atlantic is one of the few airlines that gives out pajamas in Business Class, and I appreciate it. Along with the pajama was a small taster-size bottle of “sleep oil”, similar to what is usually found on a Westin hotel bedside, which supposed helps with the sleep onboard. Didn’t end up using it on the flight, but I gladly took it home.
After takeoff, flight attendants distributed a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. They were unbranded and can’t be compared to the QC25’s that some other airlines give out, but I certainly can’t complain about them – they did their job fine.
Seat and Inflight Entertainment System
I was a little worried about the seat coming in. The 1-1-1 herringbone layout meant that there is a little less storage space than reverse herringbones found in many other Business Class cabins. However, somewhat to my surprise, the seat is sufficiently wide and it doesn’t feel nearly as cramped as it looked like on pictures. The seat itself is in a high-quality elegant leather cover, and provided ample lumbar support. It was quite a comfortable seat.
As expected, the one major downside of the herringbone layout is the lack of storage, although I think it was evident they recognize this problem and try to find creative solutions for it. To the left of the seat they managed to fit a small tray table and a small pouch that is maybe slightly smaller than a typical setback pocket in a coach seat.
Both the IFE screen and the tray table are hidden very well in the left wall panel. It might be a little awkward to get the screen out from the stowed position, especially when the dining table is out – but it does become very flexible in positioning and angle adjustment once fully extended. The tray table is even more magical. At the push of a button, a compartment hidden in the left wall pops out, revealing a slot where the tray table slides out from.
The IFE system contained a decent selection of movies and TV shows to choose from, laid out in a stylish interface. (That is to say, the inner front-end software engineer in me approves of the design) Movies and TV shows are laid out in a neat carousel that was smooth to navigate, and it was very easy to discover shows.
What’s more interesting, perhaps, is the built-in rating system. The system showed me, for example, that “98% like [Hidden Figures]” when I was browsing through it. I was doubting the accuracy of this number until after I finished watching the movie, and the system asked me if I’d give the movie a thumbs up. To be fair, I have no idea if the data is actually accurate, but it at least looks like a useful feature to have. Too many times have I been stuck in mid-air not sure which movie to waste 2 hours on because I couldn’t access Rotten Tomatoes. This at least solves part of the problem.
In addition to the touchscreen main monitor, there is also a wired controller attached to the seat for slightly easier access. It can also double as a flight map while the main monitor is off or playing a movie. I find it particularly useful when waking up in the middle of a night to check where we are and how much more sleep can I get without missing breakfast.
It is a surprise to me that I still had room to eat after smothering myself with the Clubhouse food just an hour before, but I couldn’t turn food down.
Soon after take off, a round of chips (or crisps?) were passed out. A flight attendant then came up and introduced to me as “Drew, or D”, asked for my first drink order, and described tonight’s menu. The order of service made it felt like a sit-down restaurant.
I asked for a Moscow Mule, and chose “Melon and prosciutto” for an appetizer and “Asian braised short ribs” for the main course. Honestly, the short ribs wouldn’t have been my first choice, but nothing else on the menu sounded much better.
Service was excellent throughout. D perhaps saw that I was not too well-versed in alcohol pairings, so he recommended a Rose for me to go with the short ribs.
A drink cart comes around with a bread plate, some utensils and a tablecloth. And let’s not forget the iconic airplane-shaped salt and pepper shaker. I love the pattern on the tablecloth – it adds a personality but does not lose the elegance. A choice of sparkling and still water was offered, and it was constantly refilled. Shortly after, the appetizer was served, along with a basket of warm bread for me to choose from. I picked a “pumpernickel round”.
The appetizer was unmemorable. It was rather plain as an appetizer, and I wasn’t at all impressed by it. There wasn’t anything inherently wrong about the dish per se, but I wish I had chosen something else.
The flight attendants kept a close eye on me throughout the whole service and promptly brought out the main course right as I completed the appetizer.
I was getting excited for the main course until I took my first bite – it was way too salty. It was a shame because I thought that everything else about it was perfect – the texture of the beef was excellent, and the garlic mashed potatoes was a good accompaniment. Unfortunately the hoisin sauce on the ribs were quite heavy and completely drowned out the rest of the dish. (Although, I’ve learned from my week’s worth of experience in London that British cuisine is typically saltier than American cuisine – so that might be why.)
D saw that I had finished the main course, and a round of desserts, or “pudding” I should say, was offered after the main course. Between the choices of “lemon pudding” and “flourless chocolate cake” I went for the former.
There must have been some kerfuffle when the actual dessert was served – it was quite chocolate-y looking. I thought it was just an interesting rendition of “lemon pudding” at first, but D came out shortly after and apologized for the mistake. I was surprised, but was actually quite pleased with the end results regardless.
Overall, I think the dining experience is about on-par with my expectations. I like that the only “assembly line” feeling part of the service was when the drink cart was initially brought out and my table was being set up. The flight attendants kept on a close eye on everybody throughout, plates were brought out directly from the galley just like in a restaurant, and I never had to wait long for the next course of dinner. The entire service took about two hours, and the personal touches made me feel very comfortable. I’d have to take off points for the saltiness, but honestly, I was quite satisfied from the Clubhouse still and I wasn’t gonna complain too loudly.
After finishing Hidden Figures, I flagged down a flight attendant for help in converting my seat into a bed. She flipped the seat in the other direction, and grabbed a mattress pad, a duvet and a full-size pillow from behind the seat. I also filled out a “Wakey Wakey” card, letting the flight attendants know my breakfast preferences, and asked them to wake me up in the morning.
As a regular-sized Asian dude at 5’10, I found the bed to be perfect in size. Echoing the same comments I had about the seat, the bed actually felt wider than it looked, even wider than the Reverse Herringbone seats from Cathay Pacific. Travel bloggers usually complain about footwell space – it’s nice that in this configuration, footwell crampedness is a non-issue. I wouldn’t have minded either way, but I guess a taller person would appreciate it. However, the same complaint remains – there was little storage for the random things I had – phone, camera, Switch, and others.
The bedding was perfect. The full-size pillow was fluffy and comfortable much like what is usually found in a hotel, and the duvet is thick and warm. I found the mattress pad, which a lot of travel bloggers tend to rave about, rather mediocre; that is to say, I don’t think I found it impact the quality of my sleep that much.
I was able to get a comfortable 5 hour sleep. That is, until the flight attendants started preparing breakfast. Sitting in 1A meant that it was the easiest to be woken up from the sound of utensils moving and what not. Honestly, I was pretty annoyed; but on the bright side, that gave me some time to explore the cabin.
Cabin and In-flight Bar
One highlight of the unique Virgin Atlantic cabin is the in-flight bar that is located behind row 9 of the center aisle. There are a couple seats that are directly adjacent to the bar – rows 10 and 11 I believe. When I woke up at around 3 hours left of the flight, or 2am LAX time, there were nobody there. (Although curiously, there was a Macbook just sitting on the table)
The bar was fully stocked with snacks, wine, and champagne. I wonder if this would be a more popular spot on daytime flights. If I was a little bit more awake, I guess I wouldn’t mind chilling on one of the bar stools for a while instead of being stuck to my seat.
Directly behind the bar was a giant touch-screen monitor that has a rotating flight map, as well as an interactive guide of the destination. Super cool feature, but I have to be skeptical of how much use it actually gets used.
The galley behind the Upper Class cabin was unstaffed, but was stocked with additional small snacks and a fridge with drinks, and I hear Premium Economy passengers are allowed access as well. They aren’t necessarily presented in the neatest way, nor is the selection the most extensive, though. I think I’m a tad bit spoiled by the Asian carriers that offer hot appetizer dishes mid-flight.
The rest of the passengers were woken up by a bright red wake-up light with an hour and a half left of the flight. While I was looking for the next show to watch. D came by, set up my table and served all the breakfast items I ordered at once.
I really appreciated the presentation. There table wasn’t covered by a full tablecloth, but instead had a small, cute piece of decorative cloth in the center.
Food items were served on separate plates instead of one big tray, on which there were some fruits, scrambled eggs, sausage bacon, and a croissant, as per what I requested on my breakfast card. I was most impressed by the croissant. It didn’t look great, but it was surprisingly crispy and buttery. If there was anything to complain, I find the portion size was a little bit smaller than expected.
Overall, breakfast service was efficient. The breakfast order card system loses a bit of a personal touch in the service, but it did allow for maximized sleep time.
Landing and Arrival Lounge
Right as I finished breakfast, the in-flight map showed that we were about 45 minutes away from arriving in London. Flight attendants handed out shiny bright pink Fast Track immigration passes right before the smooth and uneventful landing.
After about 10 minutes of taxing in LHR’s massive tarmac, we reach our gate at T3. I forget which gate it was, but wow was it a long walk to the immigration area.
Or perhaps I just remembered the walk was long because I was counting down every second I have to enjoy the “Revivals” arrival lounge, which closes at 12:30pm. (I guess Virgin didn’t think passengers arriving in the afternoon need to “revive” after their flights) With a touchdown time of 11:30am, I was cutting it close.
Thankfully with the Fast Track card, I was able to get through immigration pretty effortlessly, and found the lounge with 30 minutes to spare. The host checked my boarding pass and welcomed me in, but noted that I might not have enough time to both take a shower and enjoy breakfast. Despite my plan to head straight to my hotel after arriving, I chose to use the shower.
The lounge itself is not terribly big, and has less snazzy decors than the Clubhouse. There is a Still plenty of red to go around in midst of the neutral tones though. There are maybe 4, 5 guests in total in the whole lounge. Needless to say, there were plenty of showers available.
The shower rooms were very clean, albeit not too big in size. Each came fully equipped with a full set of toiletries. After a shower, I realized I still have about 10 minutes before the closing time of the lounge. I smelled some British baked beans in the air and I couldn’t resist asking if it’s possible to sit down and get a quick bite.
A waitress (perhaps the sole waitress) in the dining area took my order, and also offered a mango smoothie to get me started without asking. That was a really nice touch.
The English Breakfast came out shortly after in its full glory. Nothing terribly unique or impressive like the menu in the Clubhouse, but I really can’t think of a nicer way to finish a long flight than this.
If I could sum up my first Virgin Atlantic Upper Class experience in one sentence, it’d probably be something like “Richard Branson take my money please.” Virgin Atlantic understands its target audience well, and caters specifically to those who were looking for something different than a traditional flight experience. The entire experience exudes a strong personality – one I’d describe as quirky, but not cheesy. If anything, I really applaud Virgin for having the guts to do things differently, and not just doing “things other airlines do”.
While many travel bloggers are quick to criticize the tightness of the hardware product, I would argue that it doesn’t quite deserve all the hate that it can get. Where it does feel short, Virgin Atlantic has surely compensated for it with attentive service in a beautifully decorated atmosphere.
I’m not quite ready to call it my favorite Business Class experience ever, as I still have a soft spot for Cathay Pacific with its “hometown advantage” and Japan Airlines with their Japanese hospitality and amazing on-board food. That said, looking at the competition of trans-atlantic flights, Virgin Atlantic has hands-down won my heart as my preferred method of traveling across the Pond.
- Seat: 7 / 10
- Bed: 10 / 10
- Food: 6 / 10
- Service: 8 / 10
- IFE: 10 / 10
- Lounge: 10 / 10
- Overall: 9 / 10
Appendix: Making the Award Redemption
I began searching for award flights back in December 2016, as soon as my family decided to take an extended summer vacation, I began searching for award flights. Although SEA-LHR on VS was already announced and set to start in March 2017, it didn’t seem like there were any availability for that yet. No big deal – I’m fine with taking a placement flight to LAX or SFO.
I first started searching with Virgin America Elevate points. I’ve been eyeing on this redemption for a long time – back when I decided to transfer 80,000 American Express Membership Rewards points to 50,000 Elevate points for the complimentary Gold membership, this was the redemption I had my eyes on. (The transfer-for-Gold deal turned out to be even better than I had thought, since the Alaska-Virgin acquisition extended the membership for free for another year. But that’s a story for another time.) If I remembered correctly, the reward for a round trip ticket from any west coast city to London goes for 50,000 points + $1100 in fees. The fees are indeed quite hefty, but at a round-trip price of $4500, the redemption still comes to about 6.8cpp. Really not bad at all.
So I started by calling the dedicated Elevate Gold reservations hotline, but the usually-excellent agents only transferred me to a dedicated partner awards agent. Unfortunately, though, the agent was not able to find any availability in Upper Class at all around the dates I wanted for either LAX or SFO. The agent offered some Premium Economy availability, but I wasn’t going to give up yet.
I then looked at Delta.com to see if I could use some Delta points. I had just enough for a one-way flight on Virgin Atlantic, most of them from when I had my Gold Delta Skymiles American Express card. Availability was a lot more open outbound than inbound, and I ended up choosing a Sunday night flight out from LAX, for 70,000 Skymiles and $5 in fees. Choosing to go one-way on the outbound flight means that I won’t get to enjoy the Upper Class check-in experience at LHR, but I think I’ll live – ex-LHR redemptions go a lot higher in fees because of dumb UK rules; not sure if that check-in experience is worth $200 more in fees.
Little did I know, this was one of the last chances to get this redemption at such a good value (~3.5cpp). A few months after making the reservation, Delta would raise the price to 90,000 – 105,000 points for the same redemption. On one hand the devaluation does hurt the redemption quite a bit; on the other hand, even with the price hike, I’m not sure if there are any other trips I’d save my Skypesos for.