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A few hits and several misses: A review of Virgin Atlantic's Premium on the A350 from New York to London

Oct. 31, 2022
18 min read
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Flyers have plenty of options to hop across the Atlantic, especially on the busy route between New York and London.

Personally, I've long been a fan of Virgin Atlantic, with its cheeky, fresh and fun approach to flying. I've been impressed both with Virgin Atlantic's economy and Upper Class (business class) on its flagship Airbus A350 aircraft, so I was keen to try premium economy, simply dubbed "Premium," aboard the same jet.

Virgin Premium was the very first airline experience I reviewed for TPG roughly three-and-a-half years ago on a much older aircraft. It was a fine, if unremarkable, flight. This time around, after flying the very luxurious British Airways First to the United States to film an all-cabin video review with the U.K. team, I decided on something a little more ... economical for the return journey.

Here's how my Virgin Atlantic Premium experience rated.

Booking

Virgin Atlantic currently flies from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) to its home at London's Heathrow Airport (LHR) four times daily, increasing to five daily flights from Mar. 27, 2023 and then six flights daily from May 1, 2023 for the busy summer travel period. Virgin operates a mix of aircraft on this important route, with Boeing 787 Dreamliner, Airbus A330 and A350 aircraft being used each day. For the newest seats on its newest aircraft, look for A350-operated flights.

Related: Watch TPG UK review all 3 cabins on Virgin Atlantic's brand-new Airbus A350

I am a vocal supporter of jetlag-free daytime flights from New York to London in any cabin, so I immediately focused on flight VS26. It is flown by a mix of aircraft, but fortunately on my day of travel, an A350 was scheduled to operate the service. The flight leaves New York at 8:15 a.m. daily, touching down at London Heathrow Terminal 3 at 8 p.m. The flight is blocked at six hours and 45 minutes, though it is often much quicker than this, usually at least one hour shorter.

Cash fares in Premium on Virgin Atlantic currently start from $1,160 round trip, which is just over twice the price of Virgin's economy fares on the same dates. I haven't found my premium economy experiences in the past to be twice as good as economy but was willing to give Virgin a chance.

Award availability on this route is usually good as there are multiple daily frequencies. We booked this flight using 27,500 Virgin Points plus $350.30 in fees, taxes and fuel surcharges for a one-way flight in Premium. The fees, taxes and surcharges were paid with The Platinum Card® from American Express, which earns 5 Membership Rewards points per dollar on purchases made directly with airlines (on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year), picking up a further 1,751 Membership Rewards, worth $35 by TPG's current valuation.

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With the Virgin Atlantic World Elite Mastercard®, you can earn 30,000 bonus points (enough to book this flight) after spending $1,000 or more in purchases within the first 90 days of account opening. TPG’s valuations peg the value of Virgin points at 1.5 cents each, so this welcome offer is worth $450. But, depending on how you use your points, you may be able to get even more than $450 in value from them. The card also earns 3 Virgin points per dollar spent on Virgin Atlantic tickets and duty-free items purchased directly from Virgin Atlantic. This means you can get a 4.5% return on these purchases based on TPG's valuations. You can also transfer American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Capital One miles at a 1:1 ratio to Virgin Atlantic's Flying Club program.

With my paid fare, I was able to select my seat for free and chose a window seat in the last row of the cabin, so I could both look out the window, and observe the service flow.

The information for the Virgin Atlantic World Elite Mastercard has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Related: Sorry, aisle-seat fans: The window seat is the best in the air

BEN SMITHSON/THE POINTS GUY

Ground experience

Virgin Atlantic departs from Terminal 4 at JFK Airport, along with its partners, Delta and KLM (Air France departs from Terminal 1).

BEN SMITHSON/THE POINTS GUY

Virgin had dedicated check-in lanes for Premium guests (which Economy Delight, the most expensive economy class can also use). There was no wait for check-in and I was helped immediately.

One of the many reasons I love daytime flights from New York to London is because the airport is usually quiet, with few international departures. That's why I practically gasped when I saw the massive security queue awaiting me in Terminal 4. The line was so long, I couldn't even work out where to join it, so I asked a nearby security staff member. She looked at my boarding pass and — in an unexpected and pleasant surprise — directed me to the priority lane, explaining that Virgin Atlantic Premium passengers were allowed to use it.

This was a great perk and made my security wait time much shorter (I'm unfortunately ineligible for TSA PreCheck or Clear with an Australian passport).

BEN SMITHSON/THE POINTS GUY

Lounge access is not provided for Premium passengers and I have no elite status with Virgin Atlantic or its airline partners, as British Airways Executive Club is my go-to program. Unfortunately, no Priority Pass lounges were open prior to my 8:15 a.m. departure, either.

Related: Choose this, not that: JFK Priority Pass lounge edition

Instead, I stretched my legs wandering through the modern and fairly peaceful Terminal 4.

I arrived at my gate an hour before departure. It was well organized, with separate boarding lanes already in place and plenty of seating for passengers.

The sunrise provided a gorgeous backdrop to the sleek Airbus A350 aircraft with its signature curved wingtips, standing ready to take me home to London.

BEN SMITHSON/THE POINTS GUY

Boarding commenced 40 minutes before departure with Upper Class guests invited to board as well as Flying Club Gold elites, followed by Premium and Flying Club Silver members. My flight departed slightly late but arrived early, as eastbound transatlantic flights often do because of strong tailwinds.

Cabin and seat

Virgin Atlantic has 56 Premium seats on both layouts of its Airbus A350-1000 aircraft. They are laid out in a 2-4-2 configuration across seven rows. This was a very large cabin for what is supposed to be a more exclusive product than regular economy, and it left me feeling like I was just another number at times.

Eight places abreast in each row meant the Premium seats were just 18.5 inches wide, only one inch wider than Virgin Atlantic's economy seats, and narrower than those on low-cost airline Norse Atlantic, which operates the same class of service on the same route. This seat definitely felt tight around my hips.

BEN SMITHSON/THE POINTS GUY

The other dimensions of the seat were more generous, with 38 inches of legroom and 7 inches of recline, both fairly standard for premium economy. That meant I had no issues when the passenger in front of me reclined their seat. The recline function was operated by a single metal lever on the side of the center console. Unfortunately, Virgin opted not to install leg rests on its A350 Premium seats, a surprising oversight and one that made this seat less ergonomic than those in other airlines' premium economy cabins.

There was a small footrest that could be lowered so I could rest my feet on it. Other than its tight width, the seat was comfortable. However, my own personal issue with premium economy remains: You are seated upright for the duration of your journey. As someone who struggles to sleep sitting up, I don't fancy the thought of flying this on an overnight, long-haul journey to, say, South Africa.

BEN SMITHSON/THE POINTS GUY

The seat hadn't been cleaned properly, and I found crumbs on the leather upholstery, which is an issue I've found common across almost every carrier I've flown this year.

BEN SMITHSON/THE POINTS GUY

I really liked the sturdy tray table that folded out of the outer armrest. While it was small and thin, it was cleverly designed to rest with a rubber edge against the center drinks console, meaning it remained stable while being used.

BEN SMITHSON/THE POINTS GUY

There was a literature pocket in the seatback in front of me as well as a thin open storage shelf below the inflight entertainment screen, which was handy for storing a phone or small tablet. In the center armrest and drinks shelf was another small storage area with a USB charger for small electronic devices. Other than that there was no storage around the seat.

I appreciated that each Premium passenger had their own personal universal charging point in the center console near their feet.

BEN SMITHSON/THE POINTS GUY

Amenities and inflight entertainment

Waiting for me on my seat when I boarded was a pillow, blanket and amenity kit. I also found a pair of headphones in the seatback literature pocket.

BEN SMITHSON/THE POINTS GUY

The pillow was thin and its cover was quite scratchy. The blanket also appeared the same as the one that was provided to economy passengers, although this wasn't such a big deal on a relatively short daytime flight.

The headphones weren't noise-canceling but were still a definite step up from the pairs being handed out in economy. They provided good sound quality while still feeling comfortable to wear.

BEN SMITHSON/THE POINTS GUY

The basic amenity kit contained an eye-catching, Virgin-branded red eye mask, earplugs, a sustainable pen and a toothbrush with a tiny tube of toothpaste. I'm all for sustainability with these kits, but I was not a fan of the crumpled and battered "goodie bag" pouch the items were presented in, as it is not something I would ever use again.

Related: Delta overhauls the onboard experience, goes all-in on sustainability

BEN SMITHSON/THE POINTS GUY

Arguably the highlight of the flight was the terrific inflight entertainment via the crisp and up-to-date 13.5-inch touchscreen that could also be controlled by my mobile phone once connected via Bluetooth. I counted 117 movies and 81 TV shows to choose from, including "Top Gun Maverick," "Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore" and "Sing 2." There was also an excellent interactive flight map available.

The screen tilted slightly up and down for easier viewing by folks of different heights, and it also had a USB charging point at its base.

Wi-Fi was available throughout the flight, with pricing from 2.40 pounds ($2.60) for a messaging-only option up to 16.80 pounds ($18) for the full-flight option. Once connected, I registered speeds of an acceptable 11 Mbps download but no speed to upload anything. Nonetheless, I managed to work productively for most of the journey to London, another advantage of daytime flights.

VIRGIN ATLANTIC

Two lavatories dedicated to the Premium cabin were located at the front of the seating, just behind the Upper Class social space. Unfortunately, they were quite cramped and there were no special amenities compared with economy lavatories. The toilets were kept clean, however, and with several empty seats in the Premium cabin, there was rarely a wait to use them.

BEN SMITHSON/THE POINTS GUY

Food and beverage

During boarding, the crew passed through the Premium cabin with trays of welcome drinks. With the sun barely up, I initially opted for an orange juice, but when the crew mentioned Champagne was also on offer, it piqued my interest. A pet peeve of mine is when the crew describes prosecco or other sparkling wine as Champagne. I had assumed only French airlines would be generous enough to serve actual Champagne in premium economy, so I politely asked to clarify if it was actual Champagne, or just sparking wine.

The crew insisted it was the real deal, so I tried a small glass and it did indeed taste like real Champagne. There was no bottle or label to be seen, but I assume it was Ayala Champagne, which has been Virgin's house brand for several years.

As a regular premium economy traveler, I remarked to the crew that Champagne was not usually served in these cabins. A crew member responded with a smile and told me, "We do things differently here at Virgin Atlantic!"

BEN SMITHSON/THE POINTS GUY

While the welcome beverages were a pleasant surprise, both meal services were not.

Airlines seem to insist on having only one full meal on flights between New York and London, with a second meal being a lighter "snack." With an early morning departure and an evening arrival at Heathrow, these two meals were the only things I ate all day. On this Virgin Atlantic flight, the first meal was actually the lighter one and was served an hour after departure.

Menus were handed out during the boarding process and I could see there was a choice between a sausage, egg and cheese biscuit or a Belgian waffle with syrup. Both dishes were listed as being served with a side of overnight oats with mango and coconut.

BEN SMITHSON/THE POINTS GUY

Unfortunately, I soon realized the wrong items had been loaded onto the aircraft and did not match the menu description at all. I was served a tiny, dry bacon roll with no butter, sauce or other condiments, and a small bowl of plain yogurt with some berries and kiwi on top. The meal was small and disappointing. I chose orange juice and coffee to go with it — I did at least appreciate the sturdy mug the coffee was served in.

BEN SMITHSON/THE POINTS GUY

I was ravenous by the time the trolleys appeared again in the cabin for the second meal service, about an hour before landing. Fortunately, a full-size meal was available and the food corresponded correctly to the menu.

The appetizer was a tomato, mozzarella and pesto salad and the dessert was a raspberry swirl cheesecake. There were three choices for an entree — fajita chicken, red Thai curry, or vegetarian shepherd's pie. I decided on the fajita.

The tray passed to me didn't look appealing. For starters, it was presented the wrong way around, with the dessert in the front rather than the appetizer salad. The dish covers were still on, and the cutlery was lodged inside two drinking glasses, which were laying down on their side. I did like the cute little airplane-shaped salt and pepper shakers.

BEN SMITHSON/THE POINTS GUY

It would have taken the crew only a few seconds to tidy up the trays before serving them, but instead, passengers had to do it themselves.

The mozzarella salad was tasty and fresh, though the portion was a little small given how light the first meal was. The entrée was the exact opposite, a dense, cheesy, sloppy dish overflowing with rice. I finished it only because I like Mexican food and was starving, but it wasn't visually appealing and not something I would serve a guest in my home. I did not realize until I had finished the meal that there were two small tortillas folded up in the foil lid to enjoy with the meal. One was soft and fluffy while the other was overcooked and as hard as a rock.

While it was my fault for not realizing where the tortillas were held, I observed several passengers around me making the same mistake. It would have been great if the crew members could have mentioned how the meal should be eaten when they served it.

BEN SMITHSON/THE POINTS GUY

While Emirates offers three different types of bread in its premium economy, the cheap, white, plastic-wrapped dinner roll served on Virgin Atlantic was indicative of the lack of thought and investment the airline seems to be making in its Premium dining experience. The cheesecake, which both looked and tasted great, was the highlight of an otherwise mediocre meal.

I chose a Brewdog Lost lager with my meal. It was served at room temperature, and I had to call the crew to ask for a cup of ice to try and cool it down.

Service

The crew that worked the Premium cabin on my flight to London was friendly and well-meaning, but not overly polished. I appreciated their high spirits for this early morning departure and they made me feel very welcome, but there were service gaps during mealtimes. For example, while the food for the initial meal service didn't match the menus the crew had handed out, they only seemed to discover this after passengers had finished eating it — despite it being obvious the moment I opened my meal.

During the second meal service, the crew accidentally served me a special gluten-free meal that I had not ordered. Fortunately, I realized this before opening or touching anything and I was able to give the meal back to a crew member so they could serve it to the passenger who actually ordered it.

The beer I had with dinner wasn't cold, and setting up the meal trays with a little care before serving them would have made a big difference in the experience.

BEN SMITHSON/THE POINTS GUY

Bottom line

Overall, Virgin Atlantic's Airbus A350 is a great aircraft to fly. Everything from nose to tail feels fresh, contemporary and new.

There was plenty to like about this particular flight in Premium from New York to London, too — I especially enjoyed the large, crisp inflight entertainment screens and the numerous device charging options. Fast-track security and Champagne after boarding were both pleasant surprises.

The food, however, was a comedy of errors, including the wrong items being loaded for the tiny first meal, the messy, upside-down tray for the second meal (with someone else's special order initially served), the hidden tortillas and the warm beer. The cheesecake was the only thing I would ever look to order again from the whole flight.

Taking all that into consideration, Virgin's Premium isn't a bad product — just one on the same aircraft as a very solid regular economy product but costing (at least) twice the price.

This flight did not change my earlier thoughts that premium economy is currently overpriced across the industry. As I wiggled around sitting upright on that narrow seat, just one inch wider than economy and with no leg rest — not to mention those out-of-whack meal services — I couldn't help thinking I'd save the cash or Virgin Points and just choose economy next time.

Featured image by BEN SMITHSON/THE POINTS GUY
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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Cons

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  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
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TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

10xEarn 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
5xEarn 5x total points on flights through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
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  • Intro Offer
    Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

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  • Annual Fee

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  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    740-850
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Why We Chose It

If you are looking to take your premium rewards to the highest level, this card is really a no brainer in our eyes. Chase's Ultimate Rewards make points easy to redeem, with a wide range of 10 airline and three hotel transfer partners and a friendly user interface. Despite the high annual fee, Chase is consistently adding new benefits to keep the card competitive in a fierce premium rewards field.

Pros

  • $300 annual travel credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year
  • Access to Chase Ultimate Rewards hotel and airline travel partners
  • Unlimited 3x points on the broad category of travel and dining
  • 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Broad definitions for travel and dining bonus categories

Cons

  • Steep $550 annual fee
  • May not make sense for people that don't travel frequently
  • You must spend the $300 travel credit before earning 3x points for travel and dining
  • No automatic hotel elite status
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
  • Earn 5x total points on flights and 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3x points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,200 toward travel
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Access to 1,300+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select and up to $100 application fee credit every four years for Global Entry, NEXUS, or TSA PreCheck®
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more