Review: Virgin Atlantic A340 Upper Class — JFK to London
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Recently, TPGtv took off for Vietnam — look out for full episodes for all of our journeys starting February 1! I was going to use my British Airways Travel Together Ticket for my producer and me to fly out of Newark. However, I was filming a segment for Nightline at JFK and we ran over on time, so I wouldn't have been able to make it to Newark in time for the flight. Stuck at JFK and knowing that I would need to get to London that day as a quick stop before continuing on to Vietnam, I starting looking at alternative options.
Coincidentally, I was filming in the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at JFK, and when the segment kept getting pushed back and I realized I wouldn't be able to make it to Newark in time, I loaded up the Delta app on my phone. Browsing the options, I realized there was Virgin Atlantic award availability at the same exact departure time (6:30pm) and from the same airport and terminal I was already sitting in. I thought how convenient, so I just booked it from there and didn't have to worry about switching airports — or even terminals.
Virgin Atlantic and Delta inked a partnership in 2013, which was a great move for those with SkyMiles because you could book Virgin Atlantic flights, which don't charge any of London's notorious fees for transiting through. However, you do still have to pay the TSA fee on a Virgin Atlantic flight. Also, Delta doesn't have a last-minute ticketing fee, so this is where Delta SkyMiles are hugely valuable.
I had flown Virgin Atlantic on this route and this aircraft — an A340 — in the past and enjoyed my experience enough to want to try the product again. From my phone, I booked this last-minute one-way ticket to London on Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class for only 62,500 miles and $5.60 — amazingly cheap for a last-minute ticket to Europe — whereas cash tickets were going for $5,326. I've been increasingly shocked at the super low fares some other carriers charge for one-way tickets to Europe — most notably, my flight from New York to London on Kuwait Airways' less-than-luxurious first-class product for only $1,400.
Unfortunately, because my producer had already checked in at Newark for the original flight we booked on British Airways using my Travel Together Ticket, I lost the pass. Cardholders of the British Airways Visa Signature Card who spend $30,000 in a calendar year can redeem the certificate for a companion ticket on award flights operated by British Airways in any class of service. It's a very nice perk, but I'll just have to look forward to maximizing it next year.
Checking in at Virgin Atlantic was a great experience. The check-in counter is a shared Virgin/Delta partnership and the staff was great.
It was right around the holidays, so I wore my reindeer hat at check in. It was a nice festive and fun way to start the trip, and it really got me in the mood to fly.
The one downside to flying Virgin Atlantic is that you're ineligible for TSA Precheck. However, the Sky Priority lane was actually pretty good, and I was able to get through the line in almost no time at all.
The Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at JFK is great. Located in JFK's Terminal 4, the lounge is 10,000 square feet and is very modern with a long, curving bar and several other amenities that are hard to find in airport lounges. It opened in 2012 and has a very glamorous feel to it with lots of lighting, leather and streamlined designer furniture.
I had complimentary access as a Virgin Atlantic Upper Class passenger, but access is also complimentary for Delta Diamond, Platinum and Gold Medallion members with same-day nonstop flights to the UK (operated by Virgin Atlantic or Delta). It can also be accessed by Flying Club Gold members, Suites-class passengers on Singapore Airlines and first or business-class passengers on TAM. Finally, first class, Main Cabin Select and Elevate Gold passengers on Virgin America can pay $75 per adult and $40 per child (ages 5-12) for entry.
Once inside, just about everything is free, including the Wi-Fi, cooked-to-order food, unique cocktails, a pool table and my favorite part, the spa. I decided to go for a complimentary beard trim at the spa and was very happy with the service. It's a nice touch to be able to have the option of spa services if you want them while you're at the airport. During my last stint in the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, I went with a facial, which I highly recommend and would have gladly experienced again, but I was short on time.
As for food in the lounge, I was a big fan of the tapas menu, which was delicious. I opted for the pasta with truffle sauce and it was great. However, I didn't really have enough time to fully experience the lounge on this trip. That being said, it's definitely worth a stop if you have the time.
Cabin and Seat
Boarding the aircraft was quick and fairly uneventful.
Once I was on board the A340, I realized it hadn't been updated much — if at all — since the last time I was on board. There were 16 rows of seats in a 1-1-1 herringbone configuration in the Upper Class cabin for a total of 45 seats (row one has only one seat and row 17 has two seats).
Let's be honest, the seats are cramped. Each of the flat bed seats is 22 inches wide and offers 79.5/78 inches of pitch.
I'm a tall guy — 6'7" — so having the space to stretch out really makes a difference. As you can see, although I did have the room to stretch my legs, I felt like I was right of top of the person sitting across the aisle from me.
The bed is where it really gets tight. It's a very narrow seat overall, and I had to really cramp myself in the bed in order to fit. Being so tall, I had to lay on my side and curl my legs in order to fit in the bed comfortably — or at least as comfortable as was possible — and get some sleep for a couple hours of the six-hour flight.
I really think it's time for Virgin Atlantic to update its cabins — they really try to pack a lot of people into a cabin that isn't so large. There's a feeling that you're right on top of the people sitting next to you, which is unfortunate for a premium cabin.
Although the cabin is a bit tight, it looks very modern and is aesthetically pleasing. It's kind of blinged out with nice lighting — including the signature negative sign at the front of the cabin. I wish that the space for each seat matched the updated feel of the interior.
Service and Food
For the duration of the flight, the service could not have been better. The flight attendants were all accommodating and made the — literally — uncomfortable situation a bit better.
Although I was looking forward to trying more of the products offered on board, I was most looking forward to getting some sleep. So, that's what I did for a couple hours in the air.
For the portion of the flight that I was awake, I did try one of the carrier's food options. I chose the chicken option, which was like a chicken biryani of sorts. It was fine — nothing special.
I ended up sleeping through breakfast because I was so tired and was still full from my meal in the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at JFK and the chicken biryani dish.
Overall, this product didn't leave me especially impressed. It's really not that great of a premium product, however, given the price and the relative short distance to London, it can be worth it. To spend $5.60 and 62,500 Delta SkyMiles, which we value at 1.2 cents each, for a one-way Upper Class ticket to London is like paying less than $1,000 to fly business class one-way to London the day of the flight. It's pretty incredible no matter how you slice it.
I think Virgin Atlantic is a decent option to get across the Atlantic — especially for the price. I was impressed with the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, the service and food, however, I needed more room when I was sitting in my seat. In the future, I hope the carrier makes its business-class seats a little bigger with more room, and in that case, I think this product would be more desirable.