Welcome to the second instalment of my Brian’s Travel Spot covering my trip to/from Boston with Virgin Atlantic. In the first part, I wrote about my flight over from Heathrow, where I was unexpectedly upgraded to Upper Class. This post covers my flight back to Heathrow from Boston Logan, where I travelled in premium economy. I tend to fly either at the front of the plane (business class, when work is paying) or at the back of the plane (economy, when I’m paying), so this was a fairly unusual experience for me.
I also took the daytime flight from Boston to Heathrow, which leaves Boston in the morning and arrives in London in the evening, the perfect flight for someone like me who doesn’t enjoy sleeping on planes. When I first started flying transatlantic in the late 1990s, this used to be my favoured flight, but after 9/11, they largely disappeared from the schedule, only to reappear a few years ago. This was probably the first time I’ve caught this flight or its equivalent in nearly 20 years! With my flight leaving at 08:15, this meant an (unreasonably, for me) early start, although my first problem was getting to the airport…
Since I was staying with Amanda in Portland, Maine, getting to Boston’s Logan Airport was always going to involve a two- to three-hour drive, so rather than busting a gut trying to get there for an evening flight, I decided to book the morning flight for the following day, which I prefer anyway, particularly for short flights (anything under eight hours counts as a “short” flight for me these days). However, with the flight leaving at 08:15, this meant being at the airport at 06:15, so rather than leaving Portland at three o’clock in the morning, I took the same decision I did coming over and booked a night at the same airport hotel.
This meant that I didn’t have to rush, so Amanda and I had a very pleasant day driving down the Maine coast. We’d hoped to go all the way to the New Hampshire border at Kittery, using the back roads and byways along the coast, a route I’d last driven (in the other direction) in February 2013. As it was, we set off late (neither of us being early risers), dawdled along the way and made far too many stops, including one for coffee on the beach (I’d brought along my Travel Press, which I’d used to make some coffee, using the Bird Dog blend from Speckled Ax before we left).
As a result of our various delays, we only got as far as Nubble Lighthouse on Cape Neddick, just over 10 miles northeast of the New Hampshire border. At this point we decided to call it a day, having covered a distance of about 60 miles, although it felt longer! We had dinner at Sun & Surf, a restaurant overlooking Long Sands Beach in York, where we enjoyed the twin spectacles of the sun setting to the west and the moon rising above the ocean to the east. After dinner, we hopped on I95 and zipped down the freeway to the airport hotel in Chelsea, arriving just before 10pm. Although I’ve said “we” a lot, I would like to make it clear, Amanda did all the driving, for which I’m very grateful, allowing me to fully enjoy the views!
I rarely sleep well before flights and that night was no exception, but I got more sleep than if I’d taken an overnight flight (where I’d be lucky to get four hours). The alarm went off far too soon at 05:45, but the good news was that I’d packed the night before, so all I had to do was roll out of bed, get dressed and head down to the lobby to catch the 06:00 hotel shuttle to the airport.
The last time I did this early morning start at the airport, I was travelling in from the centre of Boston, having to get the metro at the crack of dawn. This was much more civilised, particularly since I had the shuttle bus to myself. By 06:10, I was at the terminal, and ready to go.
My flight was leaving from Terminal E, which handles all incoming international flights and most of the outgoing flights operated by non-US carriers, much like Terminal 5 in Chicago O’Hare. This means that there’s a limited number of flights at any time during the day, while at that time in the morning, there really isn’t anyone else at the airport. The only other flights were the corresponding British Airways flight to Heathrow, which left at 07:30 (ie 40 minutes less sleep for me, which meant I was very happy to be on the Virgin Atlantic flight) and a flight to Toronto at 09:00. Of course, if I’d been flying United, Delta or American (check), I’d have been leaving from one of the domestic terminals (again, similar to my experiences in Chicago), where I’d have fighting through crowds of morning commuters, so I was doubly grateful to by flying Virgin.
By 06:15, I was checked-in (no queues to speak of at any of the check-in desks) and by 06:25, I was through security with more than an hour to kill before boarding. It’s been a long time since I last flew from Boston Logan and the airport has improved markedly since then. The gates are huge, with plenty of seating (all with at seat power), computer desks and free Wifi. The only downside is that since there are so few flights at that time of the morning, relatively little is open (other than the duty-free shops). I therefore had a choice of all the ‘S’s: Starbucks, Sbarro and Stephanie’s, a pretty standard pub-type restaurant. Knowing that I wouldn’t be fed on the plane until perhaps an hour after boarding, I headed for Stephanie’s for a breakfast of oatmeal.
I also managed to get some hot water, which I used to make coffee at the gate, my trusty Travel Press, Aergrind and Therma Cup doing a sterling job, along with the seasonal espresso (a Brazilian single-origin) from Wood St Coffee. By the time I’d made my coffee, the flight was getting reading to board, with the first call at 07:35. As usual, even though the staff were only letting priority passengers board, there were large queues of people waiting.
While I was flying premium economy, and therefore had priority boarding (after business class but before economy) I decided to employ my usual tactic of waiting it out for as long as possible, electing instead to stay where I was and drink my coffee. I did note that, rather sensibly, when it came to boarding economy, Virgin Atlantic boarded by row number, calling those in the back of the plane first. Of course, this didn’t stop practically everyone lining up to board, regardless of seat number. I really don’t understand it.
Economy boarding started at 07:40, with rows 50+ being called at 07:45 and then all rows at 07:50. At this point, the queue was huge, but moving quickly! When I went up to board at 07:55, there was no queue at all and I walked straight on, being the second-to-last person to board the plane.
Despite also boarding by 07:55, we were still at the gate at 08:15, our scheduled departure time. Five minutes later an announcement explained that we had problems with the lavatories which required engineers to come on board to fix them. The good news was that they’d just finished and five minutes later the doors were closed. We pushed back at 08:25, followed by the usual five-minute wait on the tarmac while we watched the safety video, then we were off.
Compared to the flight over, when we had 249 passengers, 10 cabin crew and two pilots, this time we were down to 230 passengers (for reference, SeatGuru reckons the Airbus 330-300 has 264 seats, so we were pretty full. We lingered on the tarmac for another five minutes before setting off on our taxi to the end of the runway. Although we only had a short taxi, there was something of a queue, so we didn’t take off until 08:50, with an estimated flight time of just 5 hours, 45 minutes.
We took off heading south, immediately turning to our left over the bay. Our route was a slightly more southerly one than the flight over, so we flew south/east of the Maine coast for half an hour until we reached Canada and the western end of Nova Scotia, just in time for breakfast, which was served at 09:20.
I’ve got to say that as much as I’ve enjoyed flying with Virgin Atlantic, I was disappointed with the food on the way back. In premium economy, there’s a menu with several choices on it for lunch. However, because I’d pre-ordered a vegetarian meal, I got a different option. Sadly, as is often the case, the “vegetarian” special meal is grouped with the vegans and lactose intolerant to keep the number of options down.
For breakfast this was particularly disappointing since the “normal” breakfast was vegetarian. So, while those around me received yoghurt and granola, along with fruit and a pastry, I got the same meal, minus the yoghurt and granola, which was just bizarre. On the plus side, the pastry, which was a warm almond croissant, was excellent.
I also tried the coffee, which was better than the one I had in Upper Class on the flight out. Not great, mind you, but drinkable. Breakfast was done by 09:45 and the trays cleared away by 09:55, at which point it was time to settle back and enjoy the flight. We passed over the southern tip of Newfoundland, just south of St John’s, and were out over the Atlantic at 10:25.
I’ve only flown in premium economy once before, when I was upgraded by British Airways on a flight back from New York in 2014. This was due to a mix-up with the desk agent on check-in which led to me paying around $200 for an exit row on a largely empty flight. When the cabin crew started letting people who hadn’t booked exit row seats sit there for free, I complained (politely, of course) and the purser moved me up to premium economy to say sorry. I had a two-seat row to myself and thoroughly enjoyed the extra width of the seat, plus the ability to look out of the window! That was also my first flight on a Boeing 787, whereas this was an Airbus A330-300 and, of course, it’s Virgin Atlantic’s premium economy cabin, not British Airways World Traveller Plus.
The premium economy cabin is directly behind Upper Class, with six rows of seats in a two-three-two configuration, with an extra row of two seats on the right at the front and two extra rows of two seats on the left (to leave space for the galley between premium economy and Upper Class). When I’d checked-in online the night before, 18A/B (the front row on the left, which were bulkhead seats with extra legroom) were shown as taken. However, when I boarded, they were vacant. I asked the cabin crew if I could change seats, but was told to wait until after take-off. However, the couple in the row behind (19A/B) overheard the conversation and promptly moved into the empty seats, without saying anything to me or the crew, which I thought was rather rude! It’s also disappointing that the cabin crew let them move before take-off, having explicitly told me that I couldn’t, but I decided not to make a fuss and put it down to misunderstanding (and rudeness on behalf of the two passengers).
Instead, I made my way back to my seat, 23D, which was towards the back of the (admittedly small) cabin, on the left-hand side of the three middle seats. The first thing to say is that my seat was very comfortable. Although similar to an economy seat, the main benefit is that it’s a little bit wider (53 cm over 46 cm). Although seven centimetres does sound much, it makes all the difference, meaning that I didn’t feel as if I was squeezing myself into/out of the seat.
The extra legroom also came in handy, with a good 10cm between my knees and the seat in front, which makes a change from trying to get my knees in behind the seat in front when flying Club Europe! Another bonus was that, with all the extra space, I could comfortably use my laptop on my lap and on the table. I can’t tell you what it was like with the seat in front reclined since there was very little reclining going on, but I suspect I would still have had (just) enough room.
Indeed, this is one of the many nice things about taking the daytime flight with Virgin Atlantic. Since the cabin isn’t plunged into darkness during the flight, not only is it easier to work on my laptop, but fewer people seem inclined to sleep and/or recline their seats, which works for me!
Let’s take a quick tour of the seat. For starters, there’s a monitor in the back of the seat in front, with about a 15° tilt to adjust the viewing angle. Having a monitor in the seat in front is a rare luxury given that I normally fly in exit rows. It meant that I could have the map on pretty much the whole flight, which I really like. That said, I really struggled with the map, which is something I noticed on the flight over as well, when I couldn’t get it to stay on a single view. Here, at least, once I’d set the map up, it stayed put, but I found the screen unresponsive and inaccurate. I’d often go to press a button on the touch screen and find that I’d hit the neighbouring button, or I’d try dragging something (eg changing position) and find a long lag between the gesture and a response, making it very difficult to control. So, once I got it vaguely close to how I wanted it, I generally left it alone.
Below the screen is a detachable remote control and below that, two USB outlets, plus an iPort socket and three 3.5mm sockets for AV. I also believe that, with the correct connector, you can play content from your phone on the screen, but I’ve never tried it. Below the power outlets is a broad pocket for magazines, which was the perfect size for my laptop.
Finally, there’s a fold-down footrest, although given the lack of space between me and the seat in front, there was no way I could get my feet on it without my knees sticking up very uncomfortably! However, I suspect that I wasn’t using it correctly, since, looking at the photos, there are some instructions on the footrest that I couldn’t see from the seat. I suspect that it would go lower if I had pushed it, while in the position I had it, it’s designed to be used with the seat reclined.
Talking of which, there are seat controls in the left-hand armrest. There seemed to be one to control the position of the back of the seat with the other controlling the recline, but I never figured out how they worked since I was perfectly happy with the position of the seat to begin with!
Moving on, the table folds out from the armrest on the left on a large, solid hinge. It then folds out again with a hinge in the middle, reaching just far enough across that it rests on the armrest on the other side, making for a very stable platform. Talking of which, there’s a handy space at the front of the armrest between the two seats where you can put glasses/cup, which is very useful.
This table isn’t huge, but was deep enough for my laptop and slightly wider, which was more than adequate for my needs. There’s also a little bit of travel, maybe half the depth of the table, but that was more than enough to get an adequate typing position, so overall, I was very impressed (and happy) with the table.
There’s at-seat AC power too, but I had to ask the cabin crew where the outlets were. It turns out that there are two of them on the stanchion between the seats, pretty much at ground level, which meant that I had to lean down and to the side in order to plug my laptop in. It’s not easy, particularly when you’re my height, and not seeing what you’re doing doesn’t help. A far better place would be in the back of the stanchion of the seats in front, where you can easily see/access the power.
Finally, the headphones are a step up from the usual ear buds in economy, with over-the-ear headphones with small, foam circles. While not as good as the full headphones in Upper Class, they do have a standard 3.5mm jack so I could use them with my phone.
As we flew out across the Atlantic, I went for a wander to stretch my legs, popping up to the galley. One of the cabin crew suggested that I do a circuit of the plane, so I went all the way to the back, cut across the economy galley, which is in the tail, and came back up the other side. Along the way, I nattered with some more of the cabin crew (including one from Guildford) and had a chance to reacquaint myself with economy.
Although I still fly economy on occasion, I almost always get an exit row or bulkhead seat, so am often right at the front of the cabin. This time, wandering to the galley at the back gave me a chance to look around and, honestly, I’d forgotten how the seats are packed in back here, something that having a nearly-full flight further emphasised. Just looking at the rows and rows of people was enough to make me feel claustrophobic! How I managed back in the day, when I used to fly in regular economy seats to/from the US, I’ll never know.
The timing of my walk was perfect, since the seat-belt signs came on a few minutes’ after I got back to my seat at 11:00. I took this as a sign to have a little nap, snoozing for about half an hour, when the cabin crew came through offering drinks.
It’s surprising how quickly a flight like this goes. Just 45 minutes later, the lunch service started. I’m used to doing night-flights where the cabin crew let you sleep as long as they can, so the second meal (which is, of course, breakfast) is served as close to the end of the flight as possible. Here, lunch was the main meal, so it was served at 12:15, with more than two hours to go. This gave us the chance to enjoy it without feeling rushed and also allowed the cabin crew to clear it away before we landed.
As with breakfast, I was disappointed with the food selection (rather than the food itself). The lunch menu had three options for the main course, one of which was vegetarian (sweet potato gnocchi), plus a Greek salad starter and a peach and cream cheesecake for dessert, followed by cheese and crackers. That, I thought, would do me very nicely. Except, of course, I got a vegan meal, the Greek salad replaced by a very anaemic looking green salad and, in place of the cheesecake, I had a few slices fruit. On the plus side, the main course was a curry: a central bed of rice, with spinach on one side, lentils on the other.
In Virgin’s defence, the curry was excellent, but I was less impressed with the rest and was particularly aggrieved at missing out on cheesecake. After a quick word with one of the cabin crew, I managed to procure the Greek salad, cheesecake and the cheese and crackers, all of which were excellent, while the cheesecake was outstanding (although not as good as the homemade one I’d had on the beach the day before). Lunch was done and cleared away by 12:50, at which point we still had an hour and 40 minutes to go.
There was still time for one (very small) piece of drama. The at-seat power had stopped working midway through the flight, but since I’d been plugged in from the start, I had a full battery for what, at that point, was about three hours of flying time (I can easily get six hours out the laptop, more if I try). However, the man next to me hadn’t plugged his laptop in and, with about an hour to go, his battery was dying. He duly plugged it in to discover that the power wasn’t working.
We called the cabin crew, who tried to reset it, but that didn’t work, so they moved the man (and his young daughter) to Upper Class for the rest of the flight to allow him to keep working on his laptop. Moral of the story: always plug your laptop in when you have the chance. You never know how long the power will last! Alternative moral of the story: don’t plug your laptop in and get a sneaky upgrade for the last hour of the flight!
By this point, 13:30, we’d reached the coast of Ireland and were crossing its southern tip at Waterville. Figuring that this was my last chance for some coffee, I got my Travel Press filled with hot water in the galley and once again made full use of the bar between Upper Class and premium economy to grind my beans (Wood St Coffee seasonal espresso) in my Aergrind. This inevitably ended up with me chatting with even more of the cabin crew, who were all lovely, reinforcing my impression that the service is excellent.
I returned to my seat with my coffee (which was also excellent) just as we left Ireland behind and headed out over the Irish Sea at 13:45, flying over the tip of Wales at St David’s at 13:55. We crossed the Severn into England at 14:05 and, five minutes later, the seat-belt signs came on. The pilot announced that we were expecting to land in about 35 minutes due to congestion at Heathrow. This put our landing time at 14:45, or 19:45 local time, bang on schedule. At this point I got permission from the cabin crew to move to seat 19A (one of the two seats vacated by the couple who moved up to 18A/B), so that I could look out of the window.
We came in south of Heathrow, doing a big S-curve to kill some time, which may have taken us over Guildford, particularly as we were landing from the east, meaning that we had to approach over South London. There were some great views of the City of London and Canary Wharf, where we turned, coming back in a straight line over South London, passing the likes of Clapham Junction and Twickenham.
As it was, we were 15 minutes early, landing on the north runway at 19:30, a flight time of 5 hours and 40 minutes. From there, we taxied straight to Terminal 3 and were at the gate by 19:35. Just as this flight picked a good time to leave Boston, this is a good time to arrive since the airport seemed very quiet. I was through passport control and at baggage reclaim by 19:40. I picked up my bag at 19:55 and was at the central bus terminal by 20:05.
Before my flight I was slightly worried that I might miss my coach, particularly since, during the day, the new RailAir service to Guildford leaves Heathrow’s central bus station at quarter past the hour. However, in the evenings, the schedule changes a bit and the coach was timetabled for 20.25, so I actually had time to kill. We left on time, called in at Terminal 5 and were back at Guildford Station by 21:10. Having pretty much had the coach to myself on the way out, I was pleased to find a few more people on my journey back, with ten other people joining me. If I’m the only one who uses it, the service won’t last long!
I was home well before 10 o’clock that evening, pretty much the perfect time (particularly since I had an 11pm conference call!). I really like this flight since it gets me home close to bedtime, although I’d offer a word of caution. The first time I did the equivalent of this flight, just over 20 years ago, it was my first time flying trans-Atlantic and I didn’t really know about jetlag. On that occasion, I just went to bed, assuming that I’d wake up normally the next morning.
This turned out to be extremely foolish: I didn’t wake up until three o’clock the following afternoon. Then, of course, come bedtime, I couldn’t get to sleep, so managed about two hours that night, starting a pattern of sleep deprivation/jetlag that would last about a fortnight. However, I’ve learnt my lesson. I went to bed after my conference call and set my alarm for the following morning (which is just as well, since I’d have never woken up without it).
Since then, I’ve kept to (my) normal sleep patterns, although I still need an alarm each morning. However, it seems to have worked. While I’ve felt a little tired this week, I’ve not really had any jetlag symptoms to speak of! Which is probably just as well since I’m flying to Tokyo on Friday…
So, in conclusion, what did I think of premium economy? Well, I enjoyed it. It’s definitely a step up from economy, although, as always, it comes down to price. Is it worth paying extra for? Or, indeed, is it worth taking the step down from business class and saving (my employers) some money? Well, that’s a judgement I’ll have to make on a flight-by-flight basis, but on shorter flights, when I’m not planning on sleeping, it’s a real contender, particularly for a daytime flight like this one. I’ll also say that I thoroughly enjoyed flying with Virgin Atlantic and would happily fly with them again given the chance!
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