The ultimate guide to flying Virgin Atlantic
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Editor’s note: The coronavirus has had a huge impact on the aviation industry. As a result, airlines are constantly having to adapt, from schedules to in-flight service. This piece is a guide to flying Virgin Atlantic in non-COVID-19 times.
Founded by Richard Branson in 1984 to shake up the aviation industry, Virgin has a reputation of being one of the more fun airlines in the sky. Virgin Atlantic is one the main flag carriers of the U.K. and operates a global, long-haul route network from three main airport hubs across the country: London Heathrow (LHR), London Gatwick (LGW) and Manchester (MAN).
At the time of writing, the airline’s fleet is made up of a total of 42 aircraft comprising of A330-200s, A330-300s, A350-1000s, Boeing 747s and Boeing 787-9s. The last of the airline’s old and significantly less fuel-efficient A340-600s was retired in March 2020, earlier than originally scheduled.
This guide is a one-stop-shop for everything you need to know about what it’s like to fly with Virgin. From using your points and miles to book to explaining the differences between the seats on aircraft and the food you can expect on board, we’ve got it covered.
Virgin Atlantic classes of service
Like most airlines, Virgin splits its planes into various cabin classes for different price points. Virgin opted out of using a first-class product on its aircraft, instead offering three classes: Upper Class (business class), Premium (premium economy) and economy.
Each class of travel offers passengers a significantly different in-flight and ground experience. That’s not all, as each of the aircraft type in its fleet has slightly different layouts and configurations, meaning that flying Upper Class on an A350 is going to be probably a better experience than on an A330-300.
If you want to get a real sense of the differences between each cabin, then check out TPG U.K.’s all cabin flight review of the A350.
Virgin Atlantic Upper Class
Virgin’s highest cabin of service and business-class equivalent is known as Upper Class. Until recently, the airline’s Upper Class product had been the same for years and featured inward-facing window seats. Towards the end of 2019, things drastically improved with the introduction of the airline’s A350-1000 aircraft and the all-new Upper Class Suite.
If you’re flying Upper Class and it’s possible to fly the A350 to your destination, then try your best to book this aircraft, as it’s the best hard product Virgin offers.
To give you an insight into what it’s like to fly in Virgin’s Upper Class cabin, here’s an overview of some of the most important elements of the experience.
On the A350, there are 11 rows of bespoke Safran seats in 1-2-1 configuration. Passengers can expect 20 inches of width and when fully flat, the bed measures 80 inches long. There’s also a small sliding door, which doesn’t completely close, but doesn’t really improve the overall feel of privacy of the seat.
For now, in terms of seats, passengers flying Upper Class on the 787-9, as well as the airline’s A330-200, can expect a slightly downgraded experience from the A350 — though that could change. One of the main reasons is that all window seats face inwards into the cabin, which makes looking out of the window near-impossible.
On the plus side, thanks to the slightly less dense 1-1-1 cabin configuration, seats are 2 inches wider than on the A350. However, when the seat goes fully flat, the bed is two inches shorter than on the A350.
Similar to the A330-300s and 789s, Virgin’s 747s also feature the old-style Upper Class seats. The main benefit for AvGeeks when flying the 747 in Upper Class is that you get to sit right up front in the nose of the Queen of the Skies. Better still, the seats are in a 1-1 layout, angling sideways as the nose curves, meaning you get views straight out the other side of the aircraft rather than your own window.
And finally, the airline has four A330-200 aircraft with a completely different configuration altogether in Upper Class. These aircraft are based between Gatwick (LGW) and Manchester (MAN) and fly to destinations mainly in the Caribbean. The cabins feature 19 seats in a staggered 1-2-1 configuration.
Virgin’s in-flight menus were put together with a distinct British theme in mind, including afternoon tea. In terms of what you can expect to drink (in normal times), the airline worked together with wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd to come up with a selection of alcoholic accompaniments for your food.
Shortly after boarding, you will be offered a choice of a chilled glass of Canard-Duchêne Champagne, orange juice or water. Next up, shortly after takeoff, a pre-meal drink will be served.
Upper Class passengers are able to view the menu online and preselect which meal they’d like before even taking their flight. Bookings can be made between 72 and 24 hours before the flight’s scheduled departure time and are only available on certain routes.
Passengers in Upper Class will get the airline’s iconic Wilbur and Orville salt and pepper shakers, and tea is served in a proper mug.
In terms of what you can expect to actually eat, it varies from flight to flight. For example, on morning flights, passengers can choose from eating as little as a light breakfast bite or as much as a full English breakfast, among other options.
There are also various lunch and dinner options. From fine dining options like Wagyu beef to proper hearty British classics like pie and mash with lashings of gravy and mushy peas to finish it off. You can also expect a proper afternoon tea.
For those passengers flying on the relatively short, night-time hops across the Atlantic from the East Coast of America to the U.K., there’s an express menu option available, allowing for more time to sleep.
Last year, Virgin Atlantic introduced a new amenity kit, initially to be handed out to passengers on its A350s and replacing the old, but also very popular, Herschel amenity kits.
The Goodie Bag, as the airline calls it, includes the usual suspects, but with a more sustainable twist including a bamboo toothbrush.
Virgin changed the rules regarding its baggage allowance in Upper Class on December 9, 2019. If you booked your ticket before that date, you can check-in a total of three bags, but if you booked after December 9, 2019, your allowance is reduced to two bags per person. The weight limit and dimensions remain the same at 70 pounds and 35.5 by 29.5 by 16 inches.
If you’re a Flying Club Gold member, you’re entitled to an extra bag with the same weight and size restrictions as above.
The bar and The Loft
In line with the fun and social side of the airline, its older aircraft (A330-300s, Boeing 789s and 747s) feature a bar where passengers can enjoy a drink with a friend or colleague, or just have a chat with the crew or other passengers.
On the new A350s, the airline decided to do away with the bar and instead have installed The Loft. While it’s not a bar, it is a space for Upper Class passengers to sit back and relax away from their seat.
Virgin Atlantic Premium Class
Passengers in Premium can expect an upgraded experience to economy but without the luxury of Upper Class. Check out TPG reviews of Premium on A330 aircraft as well as Virgin’s brand new A350s. Here’s a round-up of what you can expect.
On the A350, non-bulkhead seats offer 38 inches of pitch and 7 inches of recline. The width is a little tight at 18.5 inches because of the slightly more cramped 2-4-2 configuration. The armrests are also a little small, which may result in a battle with your neighbor over who gets the most space.
While the seat pitch remains the same as the A350, the airline’s older aircraft offer slightly more comfort in Premium. This is because the 2-3-2 configuration means that cabins are slightly less compact, and seats have slightly more width at 21 inches.
Passengers in Premium are also offered a welcome drink during boarding. Water and orange juice as in Upper, but prosecco replaces the Canard-Duchêne.
Menus are also as standard, despite Ben not having received one on his flight from London to New York onboard the A330.
In both our reviews of Virgin’s Premium, Emily and Ben wrote quite in-depth about how much they enjoyed the food. Something that made the experience a little less Premium, especially for Ben, was the fact that meals are still served with plastic lids — even Emilys (stale) bread role was wrapped in plastic.
Rather similar to in economy, passengers are served all three courses at the same time on the same tray.
Depending on the time of the flight, passengers in the Premium cabin are also served the famous Virgin afternoon tea as the second meal service.
Similar to in Upper, Virgin’s Premium Goodie Bags were also overhauled when the airline opted for a more sustainable approach. You can read more about this and what you can expect to find in your Goodie Bag here.
Passengers flying in Virgin’s Premium cabin can check-in up to two pieces of luggage. Each bag can weigh up to 50 pounds with maximum dimensions of 35.5 by 29.5 by 16 inches. If you booked your ticket before December 9, 2019, passengers flying to India in Premium are entitled to a third piece of checked luggage with the same weight and size restrictions.
Flying Gold members benefit from one extra checked item of luggage with the same baggage restrictions as above.
Virgin Atlantic Economy Class
First of all, it’s worth noting that there are three types of economy class fare available for purchase in the same economy cabin: Economy Light, Economy Classic and Economy Delight.
On the A350, the seats are arranged in a 3-3-3 configuration with 17 inches of width and 34 inches of pitch in Economy Delight, which is reduced to 31 inches in Economy Light and Classic seats. On the A330-200, you’ll get 30 inches of pitch.
In terms of inflight comforts and amenities, Virgin provides economy passengers with headphones, a blanket and pillow.
Virgin Atlantic economy class passengers get to look at a menu for meals. It’s worth noting that no matter which level of three economy class fares you buy, the food is the same for each one. Alcohol, including spirits, is also included throughout the flight.
One slight criticism, however, is that on day flights from America’s East Coast, a small snack style breakfast is served first, which meant that Nick Ewen and his family were rather hungry for the duration of their flight until the second meal was served. It was a similar situation onboard Virgin’s day flight from New York to London on board the now-retired A340.
Again, depending on the time of your flight, passengers in economy will also be served the airline’s coveted Mile High Tea — albeit a significantly reduced portion size to what passengers will enjoy in Premium and Upper.
If you want to make the most of Virgin’s lowest Economy Light fares, then check-in luggage isn’t included in the price of your ticket. The slightly more expensive Economy Classic and Economy Delight fares do include one checked bag per passenger with weight restriction of a maximum of 50 pounds and dimensions of 35.5 by 29.5 by 16 inches.
As an exception to the rule, Economy Classic and Economy Delight passengers are entitled to two bags on flights to and from India and Nigeria. For passengers flying from the U.S. to Johannesburg who booked their flights before December 9, 2019, two checked pieces are allowed per passenger with an Economy Classic or Delight ticket. For flights booked after that date, only one piece is permitted as per the standard allowance.
Flying Gold members will be eligible, as always, to take one extra piece of hand and hold luggage with them no matter the cabin they’re flying in.
Virgin Atlantic routes
Virgin’s route network consists of flights to five continents as of October 2020. The bulk of the airline’s flights are made up of scheduled departures from London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR). Scheduled flights that depart from London Gatwick (LGW) and Manchester (MAN) are predominantly to beach holiday destinations in the Caribbean as well as New York.
Note: At time of publication, Virgin is currently operating a very limited schedule due to the coronavirus crisis. We will review once the pandemic is over to update with any route network changes.
From the airline’s main hub at Heathrow (LHR), Virgin passengers have the biggest selection of destinations served by the brand new Airbus A350, Boeing 787-9s and both variants of the airline’s A330 aircraft.
The A350 currently only flies the London (LHR) to New York (JFK) route, but there are plans to add more destinations to the aircraft’s list before the end of this year.
If you’re a fan of the Dreamliner, the airline’s 787-9s currently fly from Heathrow to several destinations including: Delhi (DEL), Hong Kong (HKG), Johannesburg (JNB), Las Vegas (LAS), Los Angeles (LAX) Miami (MIA), San Francisco (SFO), Seattle (SEA), and Shanghai (PVG).
The A330’s fly to these destinations: Atlanta (ATL), Boston (BOS), Barbados (BGI), Delhi (DEL), Lagos (LOS), Miami (MIA), New York (JFK), New York (EWR), São Paulo (GRU; from October 2020), Seattle (SEA), Tel Aviv (TLV) and Washington (IAD). There will be new additions of Havana (HAV) from June 9, 2020 and São Paulo (GRU) with the inaugural flight on October 5.
Virgin’s Gatwick (LGW)-based fleet mainly operates to sun, sea and sand destinations in the Caribbean as well as a couple of destinations in the U.S.
Its A330s currently fly to Antigua (ANU), Barbados (BGI), Grenada (GND), St Lucia (UVF) and Tobago (TAB). Sadly, flights to St Lucia stopped as of May 31, 2020.
Virgin’s Queen of the Skies lives on at Gatwick. Passengers can fly the Boeing 747 to Montego Bay (MBJ) and Orlando (MCO).
Travelers in the North of England currently have access to seven destinations flown by Virgin Atlantic from Manchester Airport (MAN). This increased to eight with the addition of a new route to Delhi as of October 26, 2020.
Passengers can fly the Boeing 747 to four destinations, including; Atlanta (ATL), Barbados (BGI), New York (JFK) and Orlando (MCO). The airline also flies its A330-200s on a year-round basis to Barbados (BGI) as well as seasonally to Boston (BOS), Las Vegas (LAS) and as of May 2020, Los Angeles (LAX).
There are seasonal summer flights to Orlando (MCO) operated by an A330 from Belfast (BFS) and a Boeing 747 from Glasgow (GLA).
Virgin Atlantic Clubhouses
The airline’s Clubhouses are available for those passengers traveling in Upper Class, or those Flying Club Gold members flying in any class. In total, there are eight in airport locations around the world including: Boston (BOS), Johannesburg (JNB), London Gatwick (LGW), London Heathrow (LHR), Los Angeles (LAX), New York (JFK), San Francisco (SFO) and Washington (IAD). According to a report by Business Traveller, there is soon to be a ninth Clubhouse in the North of England. The airline’s Northern hub Manchester is set to get a brand new Clubhouse in the airport’s renovated and expanded Terminal 2. Its former Newark Clubhouse closed as a result of the airline ending its route to the airport.
Here’s a look at the airline’s flagship Clubhouse at LHR.
Located in Terminal 3, access to Virgin’s Clubhouse is via a rather grand staircase that sweeps up to the upper level.
There are seating areas for all purposes. Whether you’ve got work to do or some sleep to catch up on, there are spots for everything. There’s even a restaurant area with at-seat waiter service.
There’s a chillout area with books, TV screens showing a variety of channels and, if you’re up for it, you can even have a game of pool.
An outdoor viewing terrace would probably feature quite high on an AvGeek’s wish list for what they would want to find an airport lounge. The Clubhouse at LHR has one.
And in true Virgin style, there’s even a barber for those who didn’t have time for a fresh trim before their trip.
How to book On Virgin Atlantic
Whether you’re cash or points rich, booking Virgin Atlantic flights is quite simple.
Booking with Cash
For cash tickets, a good way to start is by using Google Flights. The search engine will produce you with a number of options if you set the airline to Virgin Atlantic. Be sure to look at the timing of the flights, as well as which cabin you’re looking at.
When it comes to booking, rather than book through a third-party website which might be cheaper, make sure to book directly through the airline’s website as this makes things easier when changes need to be made or if there are any issues down the line.
Booking with Points
Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club utilizes Flying Club miles. To search for Virgin Atlantic award availability, the best way is to go directly through the airline’s website. Simply pop in the right credentials: LHR to JFK, return trip and the dates you require, for example. Next, click on the Advanced search dropdown and select Miles. Then choose the cabin class of your choice — I went for Upper Class, because, why not?
(Image courtesy Virgin Atlantic)
The site will then show you options for your given route. If you’re flexible with your dates, you should be able to click around to find dates and prices that work for you.
Virgin Atlantic Loyalty program
Like many airlines, Virgin has its own frequent flyer program, the Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, enabling passengers to earn and burn miles. Passengers will automatically earn Flying Club miles when flying with Virgin Atlantic or its partners when making sure that their membership number is included in the booking.
Its partner airlines include: Air China, Air France/KLM, Air New Zealand, ANA, Delta, Hawaiian Airlines, SAS, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways and Virgin Australia. When flying any of these carriers, a passenger’s Flying Club membership must be entered into the booking to be rewarded the miles.
To earn extra Flying Club miles without flying and keep that account topped up, members can earn bonus miles by shopping through the airline’s shopping portal, Shops Away. Virgin has partnered with hundreds of online retailers that many of us use on a regular basis, making it easier than ever to earn more miles.
What about burning miles? As well as Virgin flights, you can also spend your miles on flights with many other airlines such as Air China, Air New Zealand, ANA, Delta, Hawaiian Airlines, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways and Virgin Australia. In February, the airline strengthened its partnership with KLM and Air France, meaning that Flying Club members are now also able to redeem Flying Club miles for flights on KLM and Air France flights.
If you need some inspiration, or to learn just how valuable Flying Club miles can be, here are some of the best ways to redeem your miles.
As well as earning miles, Flying Club members will earn Tier Points, which accumulate to help progress through the levels of the airline’s elite status tiers. Members will start out at Red, progressing to Silver on earning 400 Tier Points and then the final tier is Gold, which requires a total of 1,000 Tier Points. Benefits range from earning extra miles on flights to an additional free checked bag and access to Virgin Atlantic Clubhouses across the world even when flying in economy or Premium.
For more details about the Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, read our guide here.
Virgin Atlantic is a solid option. Given its comparatively limited route network, it won’t be the first choice for every trip or every traveler. However, if you want a solid hard and soft product, the ability to earn and burn miles and access to some luxurious lounges, Virgin is a great option.
Featured image by Photo by James Oates/speedbirduk
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