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If you want to cross the Atlantic comfortably in economy class, consider Virgin Atlantic. The Pros: friendly and efficient service, numerous food and drink breaks and a myriad of entertainment options. The Cons: Wi-Fi pricing is not consumer-friendly.
More than a dozen airlines fly from London to New York — some nonstop and some connecting — and I don’t have loyalty toward any one in particular. Having flown to Europe to review the inaugural flight on Norwegian Air from New York’s Stewart International Airport (SWF) to Edinburgh, I was just holding out for a deal that would bring me back to the States for a reasonable price without having to suffer with any of the low-cost/low-frills carriers. So when I spotted a deal for a 30% bonus when transferring American Express Membership Rewards Points to Virgin Atlantic, I booked my return flight instantly. Virgin Atlantic has a good reputation; the airline fared well in TPG Assistant Editor Nick Ellis’s review of the premium economy product and in TPG’s review of Upper Class. In my case, the experience was especially comfy since I sat in an otherwise empty bulkhead row.
It was easy to pounce on the 30% bonus deal — which ended May 22, 2017 by the way — and I moved 16,000 Membership Rewards points, currently worth about $300 based on TPG’s latest valuations, from my Amex account to Virgin Atlantic, which yielded 20,800 Flying Club miles. Then, I used 20,000 of those to pay for my one-way economy seat on a Saturday afternoon — plus 253.47 British pounds, including taxes of 193.47 British pounds, for a grand total of $331.14 USD.
Those of you who already have Flying Club miles could also book flights between London and New York City for 20,000 miles round-trip — but the taxes and fees are ridiculous at around $450. What’s more, those charges change for each destination, so if you’re booking an award ticket, check the fine print to determine your total costs.
You can also transfer points from other major programs at the following rates:
- American Express Membership Rewards: 1:1
- Chase Ultimate Rewards: 1:1
- Citi ThankYou Rewards: 1:1
- Marriott Rewards: 5:1
- Starwood Preferred Guest: 1:1 (if you transfer 20,000 Starpoints, you’ll receive a 5,000-mile bonus)
Alternatively, pay for your flight with a travel card like The Platinum Card from American Express, which gives you 5x points for booking directly with the airline, the Chase Sapphire Reserve or the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which let you earn 3x or 2x points on travel purchases, respectively.
Virgin Atlantic is located in Terminal 3 at London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR), a big, clean space that was nearly empty when I checked in two hours prior to departure. Sure, I could have taken the Tube to get there, but I opted for a taxi — Uber rides are cheaper but I like supporting the old-timers in their iconic black vehicles. One big advantage: I pulled up close to the check-in area, which meant I didn’t need to wander through the airport or dodge harried travelers — at least not yet.
I stepped up to one of the kiosks — there were many and all were free — and got my boarding pass before checking my bag at one of the counters.
On the line — or should I say queue? — to security, we walked past two exhibits showcasing examples of things that would not be allowed on the plane, which I thought provided an amusingly comprehensive collection of illicit containers. Not just one sample water bottle, for example, but four. I wonder if these are the brands that passengers most often attempt to bring on board when traveling to the US. Are we a nation of dandruff sufferers and sugar addicts? I guess so.
The line moved quickly and once past security, we explored the terminal. Signage was clear.
Getting past all the duty-free shops was the hard part since passengers must move through rows of booze and perfume. I felt empty-handed but refrained from purchasing needless knick-knacks.
I headed to Gate 21 and snapped a quick photo of the plane — a Boeing 787-9 twin-jet. It’s got the same wingspan as the 787-8, but is longer by 20 feet.
There were no seats at this gate, so you either had to stand around or step up when it was time to board.
Cabin and Seat
This is a long plane — 66 rows in a 3-3-3 configuration (68 rows in the center) — with 31 flat-bed Upper Class seats, 35 premium economy seats and 198 standard economy seats.
My aisle seat (53H) was in the bulkhead, with a pitch of 31 inches and width of 17.5 inches. Needless to say, I leaned back comfortably.
The headrest could be easily adjusted, which is important to me since I’m a short guy. I hate feeling like I’m being pushed forward by an ill-placed headrest.
Here’s how bulkhead looked from my perspective — no one to lean back on me, plenty of room for extending my legs but no under-the-seat stowage either. So, yes, there was a lot of getting up mid-flight to take items in and out of my carry-on. I was that guy.
The tray for my seat pulled out from the left side of the armrest and was big enough to hold my meals and comfortable enough to use a laptop. It also looked clean. I’ve become obsessed with the idea of tray-table filth ever since I read Jennifer Woods’ post about what really makes you sick on airplanes.
The IFE system featured a wealth of options. For bulkhead seats, the screen pulled out from the seat like the meal tray did, and you can control it from the touchscreen or via a remote unit situated in the left armrest.
My wife, who is very serious about her entertainment, opted to sit in a completely different row because 1. it was empty and 2. she prefers looking at the IFE on a seat back. I sent her an annoying text message to test out the in-flight messaging system.
The selection of distractions on this flight did not disappoint: The main screen displayed tabs for movies (including The Accountant and Avatar), TV shows (House of Cards and Vikings, among others), music (AC/DC, Alan Jackson, and so on), games (football, mahjong, you get the idea), and more — all sortable alphabetically or by user rating.
“More” led to a screen that offered city guides, a sky map, a seating chart, USB info and health tips.
The suggested exercises reminded me of the series we recently ran about stretches you can do on board to save your back.
While my seat had lots of space, it was located in an area where people went to stretch their legs, wait for the bathroom or calm down the baby, so my view was typically of passenger midsections.
The bathroom was small and cramped, as they always are, but this one had a few modern touches. First, notice the tabs at the outer edges of the toilet, which make you feel like you’re touching less germy parts of a public toilet. I still wash my hands as if my life depends on it.
Another nice touch: simple tabs to pull down if you want to hang your jacket or bag on the door while you do your business. I neglected to test how much weight these could bear, but it’s probably best that I not break anything.
The headphones were free; packaging explained how passengers could contribute to a charity called Change for Children.
These are larger and sturdier headphones than you will see given away on most flights.
At 4:15, a few hours into the flight, I bought Wi-Fi. Both options sucked: 40MB for 4.99 British pounds (~$7) or 150MB for 14.99 British pounds (~$19)? Who uses so little bandwidth on a transatlantic flight?
A mid-flight speed test revealed that it was atrocious.
It didn’t take long before I realized I had to monitor my Wi-Fi situation. Sure enough, I had zipped through half my bandwidth in no time. Luckily, I could pause it.
I took a break to wander around the cabin and admire better seats. Here’s what business class looked like.
Here’s a peek at premium economy.
Up to eight business class passengers can sit at the bar, have a drink and bask in the knowledge that they’re drinking where few others can. The red and purple lighting was especially pronounced in this area.
Food and Beverage
In an era when airline freebies are hard to come by, I was impressed by the amount of consumables I received. At 3:15, the flight attendants gave out bags of pretzels and a drink. I opted for a Diet Coke, which was tiny by U.S. standards at 150ml, or about five ounces.
At 3:35, a flight attendant handed me a hot towel.
At 3:45, towels and trash were picked up. That was quick.
At 4:30, hot meals were served. Here’s a look at the menu.
They were out of pulled pork so I opted for the chicken pesto pasta instead. The plate also featured crackers, cheese, salad and a “silky salted caramel and chocolate ganache” known as Gü. The greens, oddly, had no dressing. I declined the offer for red or white wine, but appreciated that it was considered a fundamental part of the meal.
At 4:45, the FAs cleared the trash and I have to say, this seemed remarkably quick and efficient. There was no endless wait for one of them to come by while I was holding my garbage.
At 5:20, they came by again for “rubbish.” I was in rubbish-free heaven.
At 6:45, the FA came around with glasses and bottles of water for any takers.
At 8:20 (3:30 EST), we were treated to afternoon tea. This included a cheddar-cheese-and-tomato-chutney sandwich on malted bread (the very thin layer of chutney added wonderful acidity, balancing the creaminess of the cheese), along with Tyrrell’s crisps (cracked pepper, sea salt and lemon crisps), a chocolate caramel “smoothy” (though it made no sense why they called it this) by the “Grownup” chocolate company (it was like a shorter, squatter 3 Musketeers bar), Mile High Mints from Peppersmith and tea with milk. Again I noticed that the tea cup was really small. Do Brits drinks less fluids than Americans?
I talked at length to the chatty flight attendant, who sat directly in front of me during takeoff and landing. We discussed the cool windows, which can be controlled to get darker by pushing a button, but which do not have shades to close. Passengers can always see out but light does not necessarily come in. After she described this to me, I played with the windows for an unhealthy amount of time.
She was working 95% of the time, barely taking breaks, but happy to answer all my probing questions. After the flight, she confided in me that they were down two people, which made me appreciate her positive energy even more.
We left LHR 30 minutes late and got into JFK 30 minutes late, which didn’t bother me too much. Our total flight time was 7 hours and 54 minutes. I was beyond comfortable because of my bulkhead seating and the ride was pleasant in almost every other way, too, with tasty food, disciplined flight attendants and ample entertainment. Bottom line: If you can’t get — or don’t want — a super-cheap flight on a low-cost carrier, consider paying a bit more to fly Virgin Atlantic.
Have you ever flown in economy aboard Virgin Atlantic’s 787-9? Tell us about your experience, below.
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