Virgin Atlantic is a great airline with a great brand that is, surprisingly, fun to fly. For those of you who remember my post back in March about using miles and points before they are devalued, I used 100,000 Delta Skymiles to fly from London Heathrow to Chicago, and back from New York JFK to London Heathrow for a short weekend trip to the states. Delta bought a 49% stake in Virgin Atlantic in 2013, and both are now frequent flier partners. (Note: given the Delta Skymiles devaluation, the same trip in business class would now cost 125,000 Delta Skymiles).
That being said, I would fly Virgin Atlantic Upper Class (business class) any day if I could. The entire experience is significantly nicer than British Airways or American Airlines business class. Virgin Atlantic, having no first class, strategically positions Upper class right between business and first class on British Airways. It is a very smart business move for an airline that has to struggle with the juggernaut of what is a British Airways/ American Airlines hold on over half of the London landing slots.
The nicer, hipper, and more fun experience begins at check-in, with red boarding cards, and for those in Upper Class or elite members, and lounge/ Clubhouse access (first 9 pictures below). The Virgin Atlantic lounge at Heathrow is unlike any other airport lounge I have seen. It is bar, deli, movie theater, library, spa, lounge, restaurant, reading room, and observation deck, with each section unified by chic, modern, and bright design elements. You can have a massage, go in a Jacuzzi, get a haircut, eat a snack while reading in a pod suspended from the ceiling, or be served a multiple course plated meal. In the afternoon, there is a vodka bar, and in the summer, there is an outdoor observation deck with awesome views of Heathrow and the runways, complete with chaise lounges. I had peppered smoked salmon and a fresh smoothie for breakfast, and then just sat and chilled for a bit with champagne. I never wanted to leave! (Note: with Delta moving its New York, Boston, and Seattle flights to T3, the Clubhouse at Heathrow has become fairly busy during peak travel periods).
Once I made it to the plane (an A340-300), Upper Class is designed in a herringbone configuration, which I personally prefer, as every seat has aisle access and you can still look out between 2 and 3 windows, which are behind you. Yes, there is less privacy than in a First class “suite” or than a forward facing business class seat, but at a certain point, were all on a plane together. So unless you’re super famous and need to hide from the paparazzi, you can deal with “sharing” part of the cabin with other people. That is even more true given how cool the cabin looks, the excellent meal service, the in-flight bar, and the fact that your chair turns into a bed. It is a bit complicated, and your chair actually flips itself over in the process, but you get what is billed as one of the longest business class beds in the sky, with a duvet, comforter, and oversized pillow to help you sleep. On afternoon flights, British tea is served, complete with scones and macaroons. Again, I never wanted to leave (pictures 10-14).
In case the hard product of seats and meals and a bed aren’t enough to sell you on Virgin Atlantic, the soft product is just night and day from British Airways. I have always found the British Airways cabin crew to be efficient and professional, but not overly friendly. Virgin Atlantic cabin crew go out of their way to make your flight experience better, more fun, and well just quirky. They’ll invent a cocktail for you if you like, or recommend a movie for you to watch, and in general are more friendly, approachable, and fun than British Airways cabin crew.
For the return flight from JFK to London, I checked out the Departures lounge at T4 (separate from the Delta SkyClub in a different part of T4) which also serves Emirates and Singapore Airlines passengers. It was a uniquely quirky and fun mix of things to do (picture 15), drinks and food to try, and chic modern style, with a pool table thrown in for good measure. I even had a margarita for Cinco de Mayo in a branded clubhouse glass (picture 16). The return flight was a 747, which on a Monday after a UK bank holiday, was almost entirely full (picture 17). The service was great, the flight attendants fun and friendly, and we got to Heathrow early.
Overall, I would highly recommend using Delta Skymiles for Virgin Atlantic Upper class whenever you can. Even at 125,000 Skymiles, buying a roundtrip Upper Class fare to or from anywhere in the US will cost at least $2,200 if you get a good deal, which means my “cost” was almost $0.18 per mile used. I value anything in the $0.10 per mile redeemed or higher range to be a good deal. On the LA to London route I fly, a cheap Upper class fare would be at least $3,200. The only negative for me, based in London, is that Virgin Atlantic (just like British Airways) charges ridiculously high taxes and fees. I paid $800 (£500) for my “free” reward ticket, which is not unusual for a UK departure business class reward redemption. This brought my “cost” down to $0.14 per mile, assuming a $2,200 ticket. But that still beat a $1,000 economy ticket without the Upper class experience.
Overall, use Delta Skymiles for Virgin Atlantic flights! You will not be disappointed. If Virgin Atlantic had more flights out of London, they would give British Airways a run for their money. Since Virgin Atlantic are slot constrained, they compete on service, design, and wow factor, all of which are things that truly won me over.
Virgin Atlantic A340-300
The NY JFK Clubhouse
Virgin Atlantic B747