Welcome to another instalment of my occasional Brian’s Travel Spot series. These weren’t so occasional last year, when there I managed 16 in all, but in 2019, I’ve concentrated on writing up coffee festivals, such as this year’s London Coffee Festival and Birmingham Coffee Festival, which, between them, have generated 10 posts and counting! It seems to be a case of writing up festivals or writing Travel Spots: clearly, I don’t have the time to do both!
In a year packed with business travel, mostly flying with British Airways, today’s Travel Spot marks something of a departure from the ordinary, prompting me to write about it. Firstly, I’m not flying for work. Instead, I’m making the (for me) relatively short hop from London to Boston to see Amanda, which means that I’m paying for this one. Secondly, although I’d planned to fly with British Airways, I’ve ended up flying with Virgin Atlantic for the first time in three years, which made for an interesting change.
This Travel Spot covers my flight out, while a separate Travel Spot covers the return flight just under two weeks later. My first challenge, of course, was getting to the airport…
I must confess that flying everywhere for work has spoiled me, particularly as my travel budget stretches to flying business class. It also stretches to taxis to/from the airport, which has made me rather lazy as well. Although, I must say, it’s also very convenient!
Before then, getting to Heathrow was a bit of faff. I would get the train from Guildford to Woking, then catch the RailAir Coach to Heathrow. This wasn’t so bad when it ran every 20 minutes, coupled with an even more frequent train service from Guildford to Woking. This meant that I could effectively leave the house whenever I wanted and be reasonably sure (traffic on the M25 notwithstanding) of getting to the airport within a couple of hours.
Unfortunately, over the years, the service has been cut back, first to a twice-hourly service and now to once an hour. This pretty much coincided with me starting to fly for work, so suddenly being able to take a taxi door-to-door (which, if the roads were clear, could take as little as 30 minutes) was a welcome relief. So, to tell the truth, I really wasn’t looking forward to going back to the RailAir Coach from Woking when it came to this trip.
However, fortune was with me, since a new RailAir coach service started in July, running an hourly service direct from Guildford train station to Heathrow. While it doesn’t sound that different compared to an hourly service from Woking, not having to catch a train first makes all the difference. It also helped that my flight was at 20:10, and the service, which leaves on the hour, also takes just over an hour, thus linking up perfectly with my flight, given that I was aiming to get there two hours before departure.
The other reason that I’ve found taking taxis so convenient is the amount of luggage I’ve been flying with recently. As a solo traveller, I used to just fly with my (large) rucksack and a smaller one for the cabin. Sadly, flying for work has meant packing extra (work) clothes. On top of that, with many of my trips lasting up to a month, I’ve had to pack more, which has again resulted in laziness. Rather than trying to squeeze everything into a single rucksack, I’ve started taking the two bags that flying business class allows. And when you’re taking two large bags, the last thing you want to do is haul them down to the train station…
However, since this trip was purely for pleasure, I was once again able to squeeze everything into my trusty rucksack and off I went, hiking down to Guildford railway station, arriving, with my usual good timing, two minutes before the coach was due to set off. Since it’s a new service, few people know about it (I’d only found out because I’d seen the coach at the station when catching trains up to London). As a result, I almost had the coach to myself: the only other passengers were a couple going to Terminal 5 (hint to the people of Guildford: we’re going to have to start using this service if we want to keep it).
The journey itself was fine. It’s timetabled to take an hour and 15 minutes, with stops at Terminal 5 and Heathrow’s central coach station. As it was, despite Friday night traffic and crawling around several parts of the M25, we reached Terminal 5 at 17:50 and the central coach station at 18:05. From there, it was a short (five minute) walk to Terminal 3 and I was on my way!
My original plan had been to fly with British Airways, where I’d clocked up enough tier points to reach Gold status. This means I get treated as if I’m flying first class, even if I’m flying economy, with the obvious caveat that I still have to sit in economy. Other than that, I get lounge access, can take extra bags and can choose my seat (including exit row seats) for free. As perks go, it’s pretty good.
I’d also built up a fair few airmiles, which I’d hoped to use for the flight. However, I’d left booking it rather late, so all the reward flights were gone and flying direct was looking rather expensive (£1,300 return in economy!). That’s what you get for travelling in August, I guess.
That’s when I started looking around, finding a pair of direct flights with Virgin Atlantic which not only were more convenient, but cheaper too. As an added bonus, the price for premium economy was lower than the price for economy, so that’s what I booked, even though I’d have been perfectly happy in the rear half of the plane (as long as I was able to get an exit row/bulkhead seat, that is).
My flight was relatively late in the day. I can’t recall ever having flown that late before on a transatlantic flight, but it suited my purposes since I had a conference call from 14:00 to 16:00 that afternoon. If I’d flown with British Airways, I’d have ended up getting to the airport early, doing the call from the lounge, then boarding my flight. With the Virgin flight, I was able to do the call at home, catch the RailAir Coach and still make my flight in plenty of time.
I’ve flown from Terminal 3 with British Airways or American a few times now, but this was my first time with Virgin since I flew out to Boston in 2015 (a few months before my first ever Travel Spot). That said, it all looked very familiar as I headed for the check-in desks. The first surprise was to find that there was a stall handing out free ice cream to all Virgin Atlantic (and Delta) passengers (and very nice ice cream it was too). The second surprise was when I came to check in.
I went to the premium economy check-in desks (there didn’t seem to be a bag drop option for premium economy, even though I’d checked-in online the night before). When the agent printed out my ticket, we were both surprised to see the seat number 9K (my original seat had been 23C). It turns out that I’d been upgraded! So, rather than telling you all about the joys of premium economy (I’ve saved that for the flight back), this Travel Spot is all about the joys of Virgin’s Upper Class, a hybrid between business and first class.
Within 10 minutes I was checked in and heading for security, where it turns out that Virgin Upper Class doesn’t just have its own priority lane, it has its own entrance (which amounts to having its own lane, but feels much more exclusive). Security was, given how few of us there were, a fairly slow process, but I’d rather slow and thorough than quick and miss things. Even so, I was through by 18:40, just 35 minutes after arriving at the airport.
It’s worth noting that an Upper Class upgrade on Virgin doesn’t get you into the lounge (in comparison, when I was upgraded to first class on British Airways, this came with first class lounge privileges) so I had to hang around in the main terminal area, waiting for the gate to be announced. As it was, I got carried away on my laptop and when I next looked up, at 19:25, the flight was shown as boarding.
I wandered down to the gate, fully expecting there to be no movement, but when I arrived, at 19:35, I was surprised to find that the flight was indeed boarding. The gate was one of the those where you queue to get into the seating area, rather than just sitting down, then queuing to board, which has always struck me as more sensible. While was a long queue for economy boarding, as an Upper Class passenger, I was able to walk straight up to the desk and from there, straight onto the plane.
Boarding was pretty straight forward, with 249 passengers boarded in pretty good time (although Virgin Atlantic annoyingly calls us “customers”), plus 10 cabin crew and two flight crew (or so the announcement said). I was surprised that there were only 10 crew since at least six of them seemed to be in the Upper Class cabin, which left me wondering who was left to serve the back of the plane!
Despite boarding quickly, it wasn’t until 20:00 that we were told to put our seat-belts on and not until 20:10 that we actually closed the doors. However, we then immediately pushed back, right on schedule. This was followed by the usual five-minute wait on the tarmac while the safety video played, then we trundled off down to the end of the runway. Although it’s been three years since I last flew with Virgin Atlantic (on my way back from Chicago), I clearly remember the safety video, complete with the sea monster, so it obviously made an impression on me, although I’m surprised it’s not been changed since then.
We were taking off in an westerly direction, which meant taxiing to the far (eastern) end of the runway, where we arrived at five minutes later, only to be stuck in a queue. I counted at least seven planes ahead of us, but eventually we took off at 20:35. It was a very gloomy evening at Heathrow and within two minutes we were in cloud, although a minute later we were above it, which is pretty much how it was until we reached Boston, where we had clear skies for the last half hour of the flight.
One of the nice things about the flight was that the pilot turned off the seat belt signs within five minutes of take-off (I’ve been on flights where the sign has been kept on for over 20 minutes, which is no fun when you are bursting to go the toilet). Perhaps because it was a relatively short flight (around seven hours) and fairly late in the evening, the cabin crew seemed keen to get on with things, which may explain why the seat-belt signs came off so quickly. Before long, they were coming through, taking drinks orders (I had ginger ale) and delivering a small bowl of crisps, which makes a change from the usual nuts.
By 21:00, we’d crossed the Welsh coast and were over the Irish sea, and by 21:15, my table had been laid with a very nice tablecloth. Dinner followed shortly thereafter as we flew across Ireland and out over the Atlantic. I had a very tasty sweetcorn soup, followed by tomato and mozzarella tortellini and, for dessert, a passionfruit and yuzu sponge pudding, which was very good.
This was rounded off by a cheeseboard and port, which was excellent, with a selection of three cheese, a Pearl Wen (a Welsh brie-style cheese), a Mull of Kintyre (a hard, yellow cheese) and a Shropshire Blue (a semi-hard blue cheese). Probably the weakest link was the port, which was okay, but a little sweet for my tastes.
Dinner was over by 22:15 and, after working on my laptop for a little while, I decided to have a nap, partly because I wanted to check out the bed and partly because the port had made me really, really sleepy.
I’ve now flown long-haul in business class on eight airlines: British Airways (multiple times), China Eastern (twice), American Airlines (twice), Vietnam Airlines, Finnair, Air Canada and Hainan (once each) and now, of course, Virgin Atlantic. In that time (a span of just over two years!) I’ve discovered that not all business classes are born equal and I definitely have my favourites, although all of them are far superior to flying in economy when it comes to comfort, service and personal space.
I must start with a confession. And, having only got into Upper Class courtesy of a free upgrade, I feel a little mean saying this: initially, I wasn’t a great fan, although it grew on me during the flight. This, by the way, was entirely down to the cabin layout: the service was excellent, as it has been on every airline I’ve flown on except American, which is the only one where I felt the crew were more interested in talking amongst themselves than actually looking after the passengers.
Let’s start with a brief introduction. Unlike British Airways, for example, Virgin Atlantic doesn’t have separate first and business classes. This means that Upper Class is a hybrid, containing some elements of first class and others of business class. For example, the service, which included things like free pyjamas and having the table laid for meals, is what I’d expect in first class, while the cabin was much more like a business class cabin, although the seat layout was unlike anything I’ve flown on before, which is where my issues started.
All the airlines I’ve flown with(except British Airways) have individual pods in business class, which are broadly similar, even if the layout varies from airline to airline. In contrast, Virgin Atlantic has gone for a very open layout, although as far as I can tell, this layout is only on the Airbus A330-300 fleet, which consists of just 10 aircraft, although there’s a similar layout on the A340 and Boeing 787 fleets. For those that are interested, I was flying on Miss England, Virgin Atlantic’s newest A330, which was delivered in 2012.
Each seat is identical and faces forwards, but only by an angle of about 30°. There are three seats per row, one in the centre, and one each on the outside, with a total of ten rows, plus an extra seat in the middle row, making 31 seats in all. What I found weird is that although all the seats face forwards, the seats on the outsides had their backs to the fuselage, instead facing into the cabin.
This was immediately off-putting. With the pods of the other airlines, you are usually facing the windows or, if you’re in the middle, facing the shell of the pod, which gives you an immediate sense of privacy (albeit possibly a false one). Instead, with this layout, you are looking across at other passengers. The walls separating the seats are also quite low, which helps give the cabin its open feel.
This, however, only applies if you are sitting in one of the seats in the middle or on the right-hand side. If you sit on the left-hand side, you’re looking at the backs of the seats in the middle row, so that might give a great sense of privacy (note that in an earlier version of this post, I erroneously said that there were two seats in the middle row).
Each seat is well set back between the two separators, with an armrest on either side, and a footstool at the far end, which extends just beyond the separators and out into the aisle. In its initial configuration, I found it quite narrow (a problem I’ve had in other business class seats), and I was forever bumping my elbows on either side.
Compared to the pods, there isn’t much stowage space (although it’s still more than British Airways). There’s a small, triangular area at the back on the right, while above that, a fold down shelf has enough room for a bottle and a glass. That said, if you put the armrest down, this vastly improves the storage space, plus you can stow things under the footstool, so I was able to keep everything that I wanted in the space around me (laptop, phone and camera).
Once in flight, I also found that the footstool was a useful flat surface to put things on. There’s one more storage space and that’s directly behind the seat, between the seat back and the fuselage (or between it and the back of the casing for those in the middle) where Virgin Atlantic stores the pillow and bedding, which is ideal. In contrast, most other airlines put the bedding on the seat, which means that the first thing anyone does is put it in the overhead locker so that they can sit down.
There’s a simple control panel on the left for the seat, with four buttons (up, down, back and forwards) and a fifth button for the table, which we’ll come to. There’s also a separate control at the far end of the separator on the right to control converting the seat to a bed.
Coming back to the seat controls, opposite them is a fairly small monitor which hinges out on an arm, which gives you excellent control over the viewing angle. It’s also just to your right when stowed, so you can still see it (I had mine on the moving map for the entire flight). In comparison, most other business class seats have the monitor too far forward to be visible when stowed.
On the downside, it’s a fairly small screen by business class standards (although it was a clear one). Also, I never managed to get it into a position where I could watch it and use the table (so, for example, no watching a movie while eating).
However, my biggest issue with the seat was its position relative to the window. To be blunt, if you like looking out of the window, this is not the seat for you. My window was over my right shoulder, which meant that to see out, I had to twist by about 135°. I could look out of the window of the seat in front of me, which only meant twisting my head by about 90°, but in the early part of the flight, my view was blocked by the bedding, which was sticking up behind the seat. It was only when the seat’s occupant went to bed that I could get a decent view.
There were plenty of other niggling features which annoyed me, most of which were down to poor design. However, instead of dwelling on them, I’d rather tell you about the positive features, which I’ll come to after the gallery.
Since Virgin Atlantic has no first class, the Upper Class cabin was right at the front of the plane, with a galley between it and the cockpit. At the back of the cabin, where you enter, there’s an open bar, complete with drinks (although these were put away before take-off) and three bar stools. Beyond that is a second galley which serves the premium economy cabin immediately behind it. The neat thing about the bar is that you can stand there and chat with the aircrew. In fairness, I do this regardless in a normal galley, but I always worry that I’m in the way. Here, it feels much more natural.
Returning to the seat, the footstool at the end was a nice touch. As well as being a handy place to put my feet, it also doubled as a second seat, which means that if you are travelling with someone, one of you can sit there and you can share a meal, something made possible by the awesome table.
I’m often disappointed by the tables in business class. As a laptop user, the table is a really important feature, particularly on daytime flights when I’m not trying to sleep. Put simply, the table is awesome. At first sight, though, I couldn’t locate it. That’s because it’s hidden behind a pop-out panel on the right-hand side, right at the front of the separator, just before the footstool.
I mentioned earlier that the control panel has a dedicated button for the table. Press it and out pops the panel, revealing the top of the table. It’s then a simple matter to extract it by pushing down on the top of the table. Well, I say simple. It took me five minutes of futile puling at the table before I asked on the cabin crew, who showed me what to do. Push down on the top of the table, which then lifts out and folds over on a single hinge.
The first thing to say in its favour is that it’s huge, maybe twice as deep as my laptop and one and a half times as wide. Since it’s a single unit (so many tables have a fold in middle) it’s incredibly stable, which is vital for laptop use. Finally, it has an incredible back/forward travel. When pushed as far forward as it will go (almost over the footstool) it left more than enough space for me to step out of my seat, which is great when the table is covered in stuff. It’s so frustrating having to take everything off the table before you can get out of your seat! I could also pull it right up to the seat, so finding a good typing position was a piece of cake.
Another good feature is the at-seat power. There’s a USB outlet built into the underside of the monitor, although how useful it is when the monitor is fully extended on its arm, it’s hard to say, but when folded away, it’s really convenient. There’s also a multi-national AC power outlet in an alcove under the monitor, although once again, I had to ask the cabin crew where it was. Once I’d found it though, it was easy to access and at a good level to minimise cable straggling.
About two galleries ago, I introduced this description of the cabin by saying that I’d decided to take a nap, partly to test out the bed, another area where the seat excels. Every other business class seat I’ve been in converts into a lay-flat bed. However, they all do it by sliding the bottom of the seat forward until it meets the footrest and flattening out the back of the seat. Unfortunately, this leaves a ridge/join in the middle of the bed, and this can sometimes be uncomfortable, particularly since it’s usually right in the middle of my back.
Virgin Atlantic has solved this problem by folding the back of the seat forwards, over the bottom of the seat. There’s a separate set of controls at the front of the separator on the right which converts the seat to a bed (and back again). Initially, this completely confused me since I’m used to the sliding style seats. Having the back of the seat folding down towards me was rather disconcerting (particularly as I’d put all my stuff on the seat to get it out of the way).
However, once I’d got used to it (and moved my stuff), I loved it. The resulting bed is much more comfortable, completely removing the ridge/join which I often found was right in the middle of my back. Although I only napped for about an hour, it was easily the most comfortable business class bed I’ve ever laid down on.
There’s one more plus point to this particular cabin layout. I started my description by saying that it felt very open, which I found disconcerting, since I was used to individual pods. While this left me feeling a lack of privacy, it had some benefits. The first is that the seats are much easier to photograph, and, perhaps more importantly, I found them much easier to get into and out of compared to a pod, where I would often be levering myself out of the seat.
What more, because the seats all face forwards and into the cabin, you’re always facing the cabin crew, which makes for a much more personable service. It also makes for quicker service since the table is usually between you and cabin crew. No more leaning across/over you to put something on your table. It doesn’t sound much, but multiple it by 40 (the number of seats) and even small delays add up.
In summary, I started off not liking the cabin, but it really grew on me as the flight went on. The ease of access, the table and the bed all appealed to me, although the positioning of the windows remained a major annoyance. Whether or not the Virgin Atlantic Upper Class cabin (compared to any other airline’s business class) is for you largely depends on what you are looking for. The service, however, is very good, a cut above your average business class service. I particularly liked the goodie bag, one of the nicer ones I’ve had, and I also appreciated the pair of pyjamas, which I’ve added to my collection.
I didn’t end up napping for long, getting up at 23:30, at which point we were halfway through the flight and more than halfway across the Atlantic. Surprisingly, it was still light outside, a rather lovely, extended sunset and twilight which finally ended at about 02:00. I spent most of the remainder of the flight writing this Travel Spot, although I did regularly get up and have a wander, including making my own coffee at midnight using my trusty Travel Press and Aergrind. We’ll see if that was a mistake when I try to get to sleep in Boston (footnote: I was fine and slept like a log that night)!
Talking of the coffee, I did try a cup of Virgin’s coffee when I boarded the flight and all I’ll say is that having tried it, I recommend that you don’t. There plenty of drinks and other snacks on hand throughout the flight, which you could either help yourself to or wait until one of the cabin crew wandered by on their regular rounds. The flight itself was very smooth, by the way, with no turbulence at all.
The cabin slowly descended into darkness, with people left to their own devices as to when they closed their blinds (and some never did). We crossed over the Canadian coast at around 01:00 and crossed the border into Maine at around 02:30 before starting our descent into Boston, where we were scheduled to land at 03:15, or 22:15 local time. Our final approach was across the bay, with the seat belt signs coming on at 02:45. The pilot called seats for landing at 03:05 and we touched down right on time at 03:15/22:15.
I’m used to arriving at business American airports where it can take ages to get to the gate. However, at time of night, there were very few flights around, so we taxied straight in, arriving at 22:20. There was one small hitch before we could disembark: someone had been taken ill during the flight, but it had been dealt with so efficiently that I’d not noticed anything. We had to wait a couple of minutes while the local paramedics came and took the person off (I’m just grateful that the person seemed okay and that the flight didn’t have to be diverted).
I was off the plane by 22:35 and once again, the advantage of arriving late into the evening became immediately apparent. I’ve never seen Boston Logan so empty! I was through passport control (now handled entirely by automatic kiosks, which pre-screen you before you are directed to see an agent for a final, brief check) in a jiffy. By 22:35 I was at our baggage carousel and by 22:40, I had my back and was out of the airport.
The only downside with arriving so late is that it’s really too late to be going on anywhere. In my case, I was ultimately heading for Portland, another two hours’ drive northeast of Boston, but rather than attempt that, I’d checked into a local hotel for the night. Fortunately, this ran a frequent shuttle bus and by 23:00 I was tucked up in bed! Then, the following day, there was a leisurely drive up the coast to Portland, including a visit to the delightful Little Wolf Coffee in Ipswich.
In conclusion, I enjoyed flying Virgin Atlantic and would do so again, all things being equal. In particular, I’d take this flight again, since arriving late into Boston Logan worked out really well. And, of course, getting upgraded always helps!
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