On Airlines: Virgin Atlantic

The following is a guest post from Mr. Kate:

A recent quick trip to the States led to a new experience: flying Virgin Atlantic. 20 days ahead of travel, the price was hard to beat. For this short trip, the chance to minimize jet lag with the  non-stop flight from Gatwick to Orlando sealed the deal.  The airline cultivates an image of a maverick challenger, with affordable swankiness. You’ll find mixed online reviews, but my unscientific sense is that most of the negatives use the word “disappointed,” so the marketing is at least working to set up expectations.

Gatwick to Orlando

Virgin Atlantic’s cool factor is certainly helped by the airplanes’ livery – their Scarlet Lady and the jets’ names.  I would fly from Gatwick to Orlando on the “Jersey Girl.”

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The airplane was only about half-full: only other person with an assigned seat in my row was six seats away.

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Of course people shuffled into those glorious empty rows once the seat belt sign went off. But I still had my mini-row to myself. Smarter travelers probably looked into one of those detailed seat selection sites to find out that Row 34 has no window.

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That was okay by me, though. Empty row meant that the standard-sized seat was perfectly comfortable for the eight hour flight. If this had been the overnight leg, I am confident I would have gotten ample rest. Instead my personal jet-lag rules (upon boarding set your watch to destination time and eat/sleep/exercise accordingly) told me to take advantage of the entertainment system. Even in economy, every seat had the personal screen, with an above average selection of entertainment. Over fifty movies to choose from with quality in a range of genres. TV shows, both British and American, offering several episodes of almost all.

The service was very good as well. A round of complimentary drinks preceded a dinner that offered tasty choices. I went with the chicken coq au vin.

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Although the portions were small, the food was very good. Not OMG-Best-Ever, but very good. Apparently, the Gu Pud dessert is a hallmark of Virgin Atlantic. Again, very good, but not necessarily to-die-for.

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The service was very good. Friendly and responsive throughout, for instance meeting requests for drink refills at various times. Of note, when I requested my coq au vin with a “S’il vous plait” the result was a quick conversation with flight attendant Pierre establishing the limits of my French. Not a big deal, but he also bid “Au revoir” when we were disembarking; in my mind that speaks well to the culture and training of customer service. In their post-flight announcement, the crew chief indicated that they were short-handed, so I will give them full credit for good service, even if all the empty seats made the job easier. My return trip would test a few different aspects of the experience.

Orlando to Gatwick

Plan A had been to purchase an upgrade to Premium Economy for the overnight flight back across the Atlantic. Wider seats with more legroom, upgraded menus and drink service…of course I would do it all in order to review it for you, dear readers, not out of selfishness. I mean I stopped short of even considering Upper Class, with its actual bar in the 747’s upper deck.

Unfortunately, I missed the window to do that online. Virgin Atlantic will sell you an upgrade, or allow you to bid and trust the market, but that opportunity closes out 72 hours before the flight. There’s an argument against flexibility/procrastination. I noted, though, that my seat assignment had moved – from the aisle I had selected to an exit row window. Due to my newly achieved Flying Club membership? Don’t know, but interesting.

Things evolved from interesting to frustrating when I could not access online check-in. You know, get your boarding pass and go straight to Bag Drop skipping at least one airport line. Not available. Hmmmm…Luckily I had the flexibility to arrive at the airport ahead of the two-hours-prior time. Approaching the check-in lines, I told the triage workers that I had every intention of purchasing the upgrade to Premium Economy, so they let me walk right up to that attendant at the check-in counter. “No, sorry, no seats are available in Premium Economy or Upper Class. And you currently don’t have an assigned seat. I can sell you an exit row/extra legroom aisle seat for $50.” Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute. 24 hours ago, I had an exit row seat assigned, and before that I had an aisle seat assigned, and now that I could not access check-in online, you are graciously willing to sell me what I previously had? For money that I was ready to spend on Premium Economy?

The inability to check in online raised an eyebrow, and probably led to the ultimate answer – exit row, middle seat, no extra cost on this chock-full flight on “English Rose.”

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That probably ended up being about a wash. Freedom to get up without climbing over anyone, and ample legroom, but still occasionally brushing elbows/shoulders with my two new friends. Sleep was possible, even adequate, but not luxurious slumber. The service still held up, even on the full flight. For starters, even economy got the overnight kit with earplugs, eye mask, and socks – a nice touch. The crew were still responsive and friendly, even if they were obviousy busier and therefore less available. The menu was different, and again very good – I went with the beef stew this time.

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Flying Club

One final note. I joined the Flying Club at the outset. Even at the introductory tier, Red, I would have been able to access a third-party lounge/club at Gatwick for around 20 pounds. I didn’t have the excess time to make that worthwhile. This round trip earned four of the fifteen tier points necessary to move up to Silver – so four transatlantic round trips to move up to Silver and ten to get to Gold.  Reward flights look to take about five round trips to earn, and upgrade mileage appears comparable to other airlines’ frequent flyer programs. In all, time will tell how good the Flying Club is; it doesn’t look compelling enough to be a driving factor in selecting a travel airline.

The Final Verdict

In all, I enjoyed my first experience with Virgin Atlantic. Overall acceptable service on line and in the airport, and very good service, food, and entertainment in flight. We will certainly keep Virgin Atlantic in mind, but it won’t sway us from the reason they got the nod this time – the right itinerary at the best price.