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I recently took an around-the-world trip from NYC (with a stay at the new Park Hyatt New York) and then on to Tokyo for 62,500 AA miles and $5.60, with award seats on American’s A321 first class JFK-San Francisco (SFO) and JAL’s Boeing 777-300ER first class SFO-Tokyo Haneda (HND). I hadn’t visited Tokyo for a long time, but it took me no time at all to fall back in love with the city during my stay at the Andaz Tokyo. I was then on to Kyoto and The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto, followed by a Malaysia Airlines flight bound for a whirlwind trip to Kuala Lumpur. From there, I visited the Indonesian island of Bali for a relaxing stay at The St. Regis Bali, and then it was on to merry old London, England.
When at last it was time to go home to New York City, I flew in style on Virgin Atlantic—and here’s my review of the British carrier’s Upper Class Experience.
Clubhouse Lounge at Heathrow (LHR)
This time we did the Upper Class check-in. Our driver had to call on an intercom before being let in to a nice courtyard. From there it’s a dedicated check-in area with an entry that feeds into security, where there was no line – a seamless experience. As for baggage, there is an allowance for three pieces of luggage per passenger, each weighing up to 32kg (70lbs) and with dimensions of 90 x 75 x 43cm, (35.5 x 29.5 x 16in). With carry-on they allow various combinations totaling 16kg (35lb), with no bag weighing more than 12kg.
I’ve been to the Virgin Atlantic lounge at JFK several times—most recently during my July 2014 flight from JFK to London—but never the Clubhouse at LHR, which is chic all around. Though it’s surrounded by a great array of quality restaurants in (including an outpost of Piccadilly’s swanky Caviar House & Prunier seafood and Champagne bar), the Clubhouse is the place to be in LHR’s international Terminal 3, as well as one of the best airport lounges I’ve ever seen.
Like a kid in a candy store, I took advantage of everything in the Clubhouse that I could, from getting a foot massage in the spa to scarfing down a ton of tapas in the restaurant/dining area.
My favorite part was plane-watching from the open-air rooftop deck, which is sort of like porn for an AV geek like me!
The Clubhouse’s spa, an outpost of London’s popular Cowshed chain, offers a few, short complimentary treatments to help revive you; a large menu of facials, nail care and body treatments; and/or a chance to relax in a co-ed whirlpool/steam/sauna area.
Outside of booking an Upper Class ticket, you can’t buy your way into the Clubhouse. However, Delta elites can now access the Clubhouse due to a new partnership with Virgin Atlantic, and I wasn’t remotely surprised to meet Delta business-class passengers who had decided to use this lounge instead of LHR’s Skyteam lounge.
The flight’s 747 (“Mustang Sally”) upper deck seats weren’t available, but I still liked the opportunity to sit in the nose with a traveling partner. Instead of sitting next to each other, we sat across the aisle so we could look at each other.
If you’d like to treat yourself (or can snag one of VA’s frequent sale fares), know that Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class Suite is both fun and ultra-swanky. With soft purple lighting, cozy beds that lie perfectly flat and a dedicated Snooze Zone, you could easily be off to sleep for your entire flight; however, you’d miss the full, free-standing bar and a wide, “anytime” menu of dining choices—including an elaborate British tea service.
I used 40,000 Virgin Atlantic miles and £353.89 ($546.95 USD) for a $5,000 seat. As I wrote about my JFK-LHR Virgin Atlantic flight back in July, Virgin Atlantic frequent flyer members who redeem for awards are charged huge surcharges, including the United Kingdom Passenger Service Charge ($76) and the United Kingdom Air Passenger Duty ($236). However, it’s possible to book awards on Virgin Atlantic without paying these surcharges, since Delta, Hawaiian and Virgin Atlantic are all 1:1 transfer partners of American Express Membership Rewards.
Champagne and chips (or “crisps” as they say on the far side of the Pond) was the first order of business, and both went down smoothly.
There are 44 flat-bed seats in Upper Class. Each seat has a pitch of 79.5″ and a bed length of 78″; with my 6’7″ frame, I wasn’t able to lie flat, but I still managed to get comfy.
Each seat includes a task light, USB slots and US/UK sockets, a work/dining table, and an entertainment system. There’s also a padded side seat that allows a companion to visit you, or which allows you to put up your feet while you’re sitting. When you’re ready to lie down, this seat forms the foot end of the flat bed. I was definitely able to sleep on it.
Although I opted for the entertainment on my own laptop (as you can see in the photos), a browse around the in-flight entertainment revealed plenty of top movies and TV shows, as well as a lot of kids’ programming.
The food was really good. I had the special Christmas menu, with awesome soup—even if it got a bit dicey with the turbulence we had. Is it just me, or has there been more turbulence over oceans recently? In any case, the meal was beautifully served and delicious – a salmon tartare to start, a carrot and coriander soup, Christmas turkey with traditional English trimmings, and a scrumptious “pudding” for dessert.
There was good service all around, with a friendly staff, just as on my previous Virgin Atlantic flight, although the attendants were younger this time around. As I said above I watched my laptop and slept, which in a way is its own comment on the service; they leave you alone if it’s clear you don’t want to be bothered.
My flight experience was similar to my last trip in Virgin Upper Class—an eastbound red-eye—but I enjoyed this trip more, in no small part due to starting out in the Clubhouse at Heathrow. It’s not the most advanced Business class product, but it’s a sexy experience from start to finish, and it’s more than worth it just to check out the Clubhouse.
On board the plane I found the lie-flat bed a bit tight, but still a great value with Virgin Atlantic miles—even with the fuel surcharges—and there was a ton of availability. Rather than trying to jump through hoops to find saver-level space on other carriers, I’d prefer to pay extra in fuel surcharges and have the convenience of maximum flexibility.
Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
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