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Flight Review: Virgin Atlantic Upper Class JFK-London Heathrow

by on July 3, 2014 · 14 comments

in Virgin Atlantic

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I’m a Virgin-virgin no more: I recently flew Virgin Atlantic for the first time, sitting in the British airline’s Upper Class from New York’s JFK to London’s Heathrow. For the most part, my first Virgin experience on their Airbus A340 was a good- but I’d have preferred to try the airline’s new Upper Class Suites, presently only available on its A330.

Booking the Award
Virgin Atlantic and Delta inked a partnership in 2013, which is awesome for those with SkyMiles, because you can redeem for Virgin Atlantic flights without the huge surcharges that Virgin Atlantic charges their own frequent flyers on awards. Plus, since Virgin is a partner, awards always price at the saver level, so you’re looking at 60,000 Skymiles and $214 for a JFK-LHR roundtrip in economy or 125,000 miles and $332 for Upper Class. Most of those fees are not levied by the airlines, but instead the pesky United Kingdom Passenger Service Charge ($76) and the United Kingdom Air Passenger Duty ($236).

Comparatively, using Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club for JFK-LHR roundtrip: economy awards are 35,000 and $472 ($258 of which is imposed by Virgin Atlantic), Premium Economy awards are 55,000 miles and $790 ($458 carrier charges) and Upper Class for 80,000 miles and $790 ($458 carrier charges).

You can also use Hawaiian Airlines miles to book Virgin Atlantic without huge fees, as outlined in this post.  Delta, Hawaiian and Virgin Atlantic are all 1:1 transfer partners of American Express Membership Rewards.

Virgin Atlantic/Delta SkyPriority check-in at Terminal 4

Virgin Atlantic/Delta SkyPriority check-in at Terminal 4

JFK Terminal 4
Virgin Atlantic operates out of Terminal 4, also home to Delta’s new terminal. If you’re flying Upper Class, you’ll want to get dropped off at the beginning of the terminal at the Delta SkyPriority check-in. Once there, there are several Virgin Atlantic dedicated check-in desks. My total check-in was less than 2 minutes and I was on my to security, sadly without TSA Pre-Check since Virgin Atlantic is not currently an eligible airline.

JFK Clubhouse

Virgin Atlantic refers to each of its airport lounges as a Clubhouse, and the JFK outpost is 10,000 square feet with a long, curving, bar, its own spa and a full-service restaurant. Opened in March 2012 above gate A5 in Terminal 4, the JFK Clubhouse Free still manages to have that new-lounge smell, with glamorous  lighting, lots of leather, and streamlined designer furniture that looks like a space-age mix of The Rat Pack, The Jetsons and Austin Powers.

Virgin Atlantic's swanky Clubhouse at JFK even has a pool table

Virgin Atlantic’s swanky Clubhouse at JFK even has a pool table

To gain access to the Clubhouse, you must either be:

· An Upper Class passenger on a Virgin Atlantic flight
· A Virgin Atlantic Flying Club Gold member
· A First or Suites Class passenger on a Singapore Airlines flight
· A Singapore Airlines Solitaire PPS card-holder
· A First or Business passenger on TAM

You’re also welcome here if you’re flying First or Main Cabin Select on Virgin America (or are an Elevate Gold member), but you’ll be charged an entrance fee of $75 per adult and $40 per child between the ages of 5-12.

Complimentary pre-flight facial at the Clubhouse Spa? Don't mind if I do!

Complimentary pre-flight facial at the Clubhouse Spa? Don’t mind if I do!

One you gain entry, just about everything here is free - including Wifi, full meals, alcohol and short spa and salon treatments that use Dr. Hauschka, Truefitt & Hill, and Bumble & Bumble products. (Longer spa treatments require a small fee, averaging less than $40.) In what turned out to be a genius way to kick off my journey, I indulged in a complimentary pre-flight facial administered by Ebony, a truly awesome aesthetician, on a very comfortable treatment bed that looked out onto the runway (and a Virgin America plane). Keep in mind that spa treatments won’t be available to you 50 minutes before your flight, so be sure to leave time to take advantage of this perk.

I just had time for a quick duck lettuce-wrap and a glass of champers in the Clubhouse

I just had time for a quick duck lettuce-wrap and a glass of champers in the Clubhouse

Sadly, I didn’t have enough time to use the pool table, try a signature “Virgin Rose” cocktail (a combination of tea-infused gin, lemon juice, rosewater simple syrup, blood orange juice and Pimm’s), sample the Clubhouse’s afternoon tea service or even have time for their full dinner spread. Instead, I quickly grabbed a duck lettuce-wrap and sipped a glass of champers, then got down to the business of boarding.

The Virgin Atlantic A340

The Virgin Atlantic A340

Boarding

To be frank, the boarding process was a bit of a cluster. I had to wait on the hot jet bridge for over 15 minutes, and there was no separate boarding door for Upper Class – oh, well! Once I finally arrived at the plane, the boarding process became more smooth, as evidenced by this video I took:

Service in Upper Class was both friendly and hip, and I felt welcomed from the start.
Taking off on my, um, virgin flight

Taking off on my, um, virgin flight

After takeoff, I was given a little bowl of crispy-salty potato chips and Lanson Black Label Champagne from France in an old-school glass. I was not unhappy about this.

A delicious take-off combo: salty potato chips and champers in an old-school glass

A delicious take-off combo: salty potato chips and champers in an old-school glass

Within a few minutes, the lights dimmed throughout the cabin, and I was (theoretically) on my way to a relaxing flight.

The cabin lights dimmed right away

The cabin lights dimmed right away

Amenity Kit

In addition to a pair of pajamas, I was given a small amenity kit made from rPET, a material made from crushed plastic bottles. The dark grey fabric is sturdy and stain resistant, and my inbound version of the kit was designed to double as a travel wallet. Aside from the novelty of using recycled materials, though, it was nothing special, for a first-class flight or otherwise; it just offered the usual socks, eyeshades, toothbrush and toothpaste, as well as tissues, ear plugs and a pen. Flight attendants also handed out pajamas (or pyjamas)- a comfortable cotton shirt and pant combo, though I was sad they didn’t have onesies available!

The Virgin Atlantic Upper Class amenity kit on inbound flights

The Virgin Atlantic Upper Class amenity kit on inbound flights

Seat and Cabin Configuration 

My flight was aboard Virgin Atlantic’s A340, where the 12 Upper Class rows are laid out in a herringbone 1 x 1 x 1, and the cabin features a bar you can actually pull up to in order to have a cocktail. These were the original Upper Class Suites, rather than the sexy new ones available on selected A330 flights to JFK, Washington, DC, Boston, Delhi and Mumbai.

The older version of the Upper Class seat wasn't quite long enough to contain my feet

The older version of the Upper Class seat wasn’t quite long enough to contain my feet

Though my older Upper Class seat  was 22” wide across the cushion and 33” wide across the shoulders, and a 6’6” long, lie-flat bed, I felt it was a tight, cramped fit for me, with thinly-padded cushions. I also felt exposed, as my seat was fully open to the aisle, and felt the seat’s overall functionality was a bit awkward. It actually tilts forward when reclining into bed, so you need to get up and remove your pillows from behind. I didn’t love the entertainment system with its small 10.4″ screen, and the tiny overhead bins weren’t large enough to hold a normal 22″ carry-on suitcase.

Quite the cramped night's sleep in my older Upper Class seat

Quite the cramped night’s sleep in my older Upper Class seat

The one bright spot was ironically very dark: when the lights go out on a Virgin Atlantic A340, they really go out. Even though I felt a little cramped, I was able to get a solid 3 hours of sleep (not bad for a short 6 hour hop to London).

Lights out really means lights out

Lights out really means lights out

Food and Wine

The food service, choices and preparations were slightly above average, in my experience. The wines I tried were excellent, as well.

The Upper Class wine menu aboard my flight

The Upper Class wine menu aboard my flight

The steak was decent..nothing special, but nothing awful.

Beef for dinner in Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class

Beef for dinner in Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class

As well as the cheese plate – which I would have happily eaten even down on terra firma.

The cheese plate wasn't too shabby

The cheese plate wasn’t too shabby

I was surprised to find that my favorite meal was their breakfast, since I usually hate breakfast on airplanes. The eggs were creamy (instead of the dried/fried normal eggs) and the meats weren’t too bad.

The Works breakfast..typically British and surprisingly tasty

The Works breakfast..typically British and surprisingly tasty

Arrival

Arrival was a seamless experience. We pulled in a little early to Heathrow’s Terminal 3, and were given fast track passes to ease us through customs in only a few minutes. Our bags came out right away, and before I knew it, I was Heathrow Expressing my way on the train into London.

I was a little bummed to miss the Clubhouse at Heathrow because I’ve heard it’s amazing (with its Cowshed spa, Grey Goose loft bar with a view of the tarmac, a small theater, a library and more), but I was eager to get to my hotel to prepare for a busy day on the ground.

Virgin Atlantic almost won my heart - but not quite (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

Virgin Atlantic almost won my heart – but not quite (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

Compared to Rivals
I was impressed with Virgin Atlantic’s lounge, service and food, but on an overseas flight, I need a little more elbow, leg and breathing room than Virgin Atlantic’s older version of the Upper Class suite can offer. On my recent journeys across the pond, I’ve much preferred American Airlines’ new business class and Delta’s BusinessElite, though Virgin Atlantic does beat out British Airway’s cramped Club World in my opinion.

Here are specs on these four different lie-flat seats, which I’ve ranked in order of my favorite to least favorite:

American 777-300 – Business Class
PITCH: 43-59 inches. WIDTH: 21 inches upright, 26 inches reclined. RECLINE: 180 degrees. LENGTH: 6.5 feet.
Configuration: 1 x 2 x 1
Number of rows/seats: 13 rows, 52 seats

Delta 767-400 – BusinessElite
PITCH: 76.5 inches.* WIDTH: 20.5 inches. RECLINE: 180 degrees. LENGTH. 6.4 feet.

Configuration: 1 x 2 x 1
Number of rows/seats: 40
*Note that bulkhead seats have a pitch of 81 inches

 

Clockwise from left: American, Delta, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic

Clockwise from top left: American, Delta, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Atlantic A340- Upper Class
PITCH: 79.5-78 inches.WIDTH: 22 inches (33 inches across the shoulders). RECLINE: 180 degrees. LENGTH: 6.6 feet.
Configuration: 1  x 1 x 1
Number of rows/seats: 12 rows, 34 seats

British Airways 747-400 – Club World
PITCH: 72 inches. WIDTH: 20 inches. RECLINE: 180 degrees. LENGTH: 6 feet.*
Configuration: Two levels in two configurations – the lower deck is a 2 x 4 x 2, and the upper deck is always a 2 x 2
Number of rows/seats: The entire plane is Club World, and the two version have either 52 or 70 seats
*Note that I’d only choose an exit row seat on this double-decker plane, for the extra room

I would consider giving Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class another whirl to London – but next time on an A330 outfitted with the new Upper Cabin suites.

Have you flown Virgin Atlantic? What are your thoughts?

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • SL

    Great review! We are planning a trip soon to London via using Delta Skymiles.
    I’d love to know if anyone has done Upper Class on Virgin’s 747-400 planes.

  • Allison Marino

    From what you describe about the cramped feeling, I don’t know if the swanky new seats are any better. I flew BOM-LHR-IAD and overall felt disappointed in the seat product/overall experience compared to the new KLM World Business. Though, the granola in the Heathrow lounge is absolutely life changing and the showers are the best I’ve found in a lounge.

  • Joe

    Great review. I loved them in Economy when I flew from LAX several years back. Can’t comment on premium cabins, though. I’m always amazed at how expensive Heathrow Express is …

  • robert

    yes – it’s great. they have the older seats (wider) both the front cabin downstairs or the front of the upper deck are good. The second cabin on the lower deck can be noisy due to being close to the bar. The beds on the upper deck are supposedly slightly longer than the ones on the lower deck. Don’t miss out on the club house in London – great place, worth arriving at Heathrow early so you can spend a coupe of hours there.

  • Skymiles Q

    I’d really like to fly Virgin Atlantic to North Asia via London using Skymiles. Any idea on whether or not Delta will let you price such an award?

  • Jeffry

    Had the chance to fly with Virgin Atlantic in Upper Class when they started service out of Vancouver in 2012. The service was the tops and nothing has been un thought of by their plane designers. Being on a longer flight from Vancouver I was able to take advantage of the onboard bar with other guests and had a great nights sleep. I was on the same time of aircraft as you for both my flights with could us some updating but still did not take away from the experience. In Vancouver the use the Premium Lounge which hasn’t the bling and is not a posh as the “Club House” in other air ports but it was nice. On my return flight from London to Vancouver I would recommend, any one who is flying Upper Class arrive at lest 3 hours before your flight to enjoy this amazing lounge. I did have a couple of hours but it still wasn’t enough and I did get a bit side tracked with duty free shopping. After you check in at the Upper class counter in London you get to ride in a private elevator to Virgins own security check point. After that your fee to enjoy the last of your stay in the UK. Points Guy that you for your great review! The Travel Picks Guy.

  • Mike

    Unfortunately most BA flights to NYC are now on their 777, which doesn’t seem to have any pre-reservable seats suitable for tall people (thee are two reserved for bassinets).

  • Tony

    “After takeoff, I was given a little bowl of crispy-salty potato chips and Lanson Black Label Champagne from France in an old-school glass. I was not unhappy about this.” I know this is a first world problem, why weren’t you happy with it ?

  • joeypore

    It may be much more expensive than the tube, but compared to a taxi, and the ultimate time it saves, is definitely worth it in my opinion.

  • Mike

    Reading comprehension? Not unhappy = happy.

  • GW

    All champagne is from France…

  • thepointsguy

    I was happy with it. Not unhappy = happy :-)

  • Billy S

    Did you get to use their Revivals Lounge at Heathrow? It’s for VS arriving passengers.

  • Warren Ostroff

    its a shame it goes thru London and the tax is very steep for business and foorst class. how can you avoid this when travelling thru to a destination

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