Flight Review: Virgin Atlantic (787-9) Premium Economy From London to Newark
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After a long-weekend trip to London to visit family, I was excited to try out Virgin Atlantic's 787-9 on my way home to New York. I had originally booked a round-trip economy ticket between Newark (EWR) and Heathrow Airport (LHR), but when I arrived at LHR for my flight, I asked if any paid upgrades to premium economy were available — they were, so I decided to treat myself to a more comfortable ride for the seven-hour flight.
I used my Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and paid $797 for my round-trip economy ticket, which earned me 1,594 Ultimate Rewards points thanks to the card's 2x points bonus category for travel purchases. A search for a round-trip premium economy flight via Google Flights for the same time this year shows that you can book for about $1,160.
As I mentioned before, when I arrived at LHR's mostly deserted Terminal 3, I inquired about getting a paid upgrade to premium economy. The check-in agent quoted me a price of £249, which, at the time of my flight, was about $310. I had recently opened the Ritz-Carlton Rewards Credit Card, which provides cardholders with a $300 annual travel credit, but unlike the Chase Sapphire Reserve's travel credit — which is credited automatically — Ritz users have to call to request that specific charges get credited. Knowing that I hadn't yet used this perk, I decided to splurge and go for the upgrade, especially since it only ended up costing me about $10 thanks to the Ritz Card travel credit.
I chose to credit my flights to Delta this time around so the trip would count toward earning elite status. For the LHR to EWR segment, I earned 3,466 MQMs, 1,733 redeemable SkyMiles and $347 MQDs.
If you have Flying Club miles, you could also book flights between London and New York City for 35,000 miles round-trip — but doing so comes with a staggering ~$550 in taxes and fees, which, by the way, isn't much less than the price of the ticket itself. Note, too, that Virgin Atlantic charges a different amount of taxes and fees for each destination, so if you're looking to book an award ticket, make sure you're aware of what you'll have to fork over in addition to your hard-earned miles.
If you don't have many Flying Club miles in your account, you can transfer points from many major programs at the following rates:
- American Express Membership Rewards: 1:1
- Chase Ultimate Rewards: 1:1
- Citi ThankYou Rewards: 1:1
- Starwood Preferred Guest: 1:1 (if you transfer 20,000 Starpoints, you'll receive a 5,000-mile bonus)
- Marriott Rewards: 5:1
Note that while you can redeem Delta SkyMiles for Virgin economy or Upper Class flights, you can't redeem them for premium economy.
Airport and Check-In
After a traffic-jammed Uber ride from Central London to LHR, I finally arrived at T3, home to Virgin Atlantic and its transatlantic partner, Delta, as well as many other Oneworld and international carriers like American Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Finnair and Japan Airlines.
The Delta and Virgin co-branding was everywhere, from the outside of the terminal to the self-service kiosks.
The check-in area was huge, with tons of counters and kiosks available. When I arrived, there were hardly any people there — my upgrade was processed quickly and I was on my way to security in just a few minutes.
At Heathrow's T3, after clearing security, you'll enter the main terminal area, where you're expected to wait until your gate is announced — that is, if you don't have lounge access. Luckily, Terminal 3 has plenty of shopping and dining options to keep you occupied if you can't get into a lounge. It felt like I was in a mall between the endless rows of cosmetics and all the signs advertising holiday discounts.
Since there had been such bad traffic on the way to the airport — and because Heathrow is infamous for having long walks between the main waiting area and its departure gates — I headed straight for my gate and arrived just in time for priority boarding. Since I was now traveling in premium economy, I got to board first and essentially walked straight from security onto the plane.
Cabin and Seat
Virgin Atlantic's 787-9s have three cabins — Upper Class, premium economy and economy. There are 31 lie-flat Upper Class seats arranged in a 1-1-1 configuration, and each is 22 inches wide and has 79.5 inches of pitch.
While the front cabin is certainly stylish and unique, the seats don't look to be all that spacious, as you can see in this photo I snapped as I was getting off the plane in Newark.
The economy cabin has a total of 198 seats arranged in a 3-3-3 pattern, which is pretty standard for the Dreamliner. These seats are 17.5 inches wide and have 31 inches of pitch.
All coach seats feature a personal IFE screen as well as USB charging ports.
The premium-economy cabin is situated between Upper Class and economy and features 35 reclining seats arranged in a 2-3-2 layout. Each one is 21 inches wide and has 38 inches of pitch.
The seats themselves are very attractive and truly make you feel like you're in a different class than regular old economy.
There was an abundance of padding and seats were wide enough to make it a very comfortable flight. Since I was flying in the afternoon, I didn't really need to sleep, so I thought my seat was perfect, especially since Upper Class seats are only an inch wider.
21D, where I sat, was an aisle seat in the center section, which had three seats. At my chair was a pair of (not-so-great) headphones, a blanket and a nice pillow that had a neat cutout spot for your neck, though I'm not convinced it was really much different than a conventional airplane pillow, comfort-wise.
Each seat came with a personal IFE screen as well as a headphone jack, USB power port and a remote with a large screen that mirrored many functions of the IFE screen but seemed pointless to me. Instead of having a tray table fold down from the seat-back in front, each seat came with one that pulled out from the armrest.
Food and Beverage
After settling in to my seat, the flight attendant offered me a bottle of water, along with either a glass of sparkling wine or orange juice. I asked for both, and she was happy to fulfill my request.
Next, menus were distributed to the premium-economy cabin, which was about half-full on my flight. We were offered a salad as a starter, as well as a choice from three main course options and a dessert. There was also an 'afternoon tea' course, which turned out to be more of a light dinner due to the timing of the flight.
Flight attendants soon came through the cabin taking orders for food and drinks. I chose to start with an oh-so-British gin and tonic.
For my main course, I chose the chicken with chorizo and bean casserole, which came with vegetables. It doesn't look so great thanks to the cabin's purple mood lighting, but it was tasty. Dessert consisted of a toffee brownie as well as 'cheese and crackers' — which, in reality, ended up being two packaged crackers and Boursin cheese dip. Dessert was served on the same tray as the rest of the meal.
A few hours after the main meal service was complete, it was time for 'afternoon tea,' which consisted of three small sandwiches, a biscuit with cream and jam and two small pastries. I thought this 'snack' was excellent and even preferred it to the main meal. It was also one of the most unique dishes I've ever had on a plane, and it felt like I was experiencing something truly British.
Premium-economy passengers also had access to the in-flight 'bar' between the premium economy and Upper Class cabins, which was well-stocked throughout the flight with snacks, juices and water.
In-Flight Entertainment and Amenities
The IFE screen was responsive and the graphics were sharp — it was a pleasure to have a thoroughly modern entertainment experience on this flight. There were plenty of movies and TV shows to choose from and I had no trouble staying entertained.
If you're not impressed by the movie selection, you can follow the plane's flight path, thanks to the numerous map views offered through the IFE system.
There was also a 'Seat Chat' feature available, which allowed you to send messages to people at specific seats. I don't think I'd ever use this, but it might be fun if you're seated away from your friends on a flight.
While the entertainment was great, the Wi-Fi was a different story. The plane is supposedly equipped with Wi-Fi, but I couldn't connect at all during the flight — I tried numerous times, both on my laptop and my iPhone, but was unsuccessful. It was frustrating at first since I was planning to get several hours of work done on this flight, but once I resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn't be getting much done, I was able to fully relax and enjoy the ride.
I really enjoyed this premium economy flight with Virgin Atlantic. The hard product was perfect for the roughly seven-hour transatlantic hop from London to New York, while the soft product was different enough from regular economy that it felt like it was worth the extra cash I paid for the upgrade. The lack of connectivity was a major point of frustration, but I wouldn't hesitate to fly Virgin Atlantic again — in fact, it's now my preferred way of getting between NYC and London.
Have you ever flown in premium economy aboard Virgin Atlantic's 787-9? Tell us about your experience, below.