There’s no getting around flying. If you want to go any distance from your home, you have to get on a plane even as every horrible “incident” is splashed all over the news constantly. Flying has never been more anxiety-inducing. So finding the best airline is important.
It is a long haul to get to our first love, Europe, from California. Eleven hours is pretty much standard just to get to London and that’s if it’s nonstop. Then, there’s the connection there or in Paris or in Munich to get anywhere else. And if, like me, you can’t really sleep on flights, crossing the pond is not something to look forward to. I flew to London in a narrow, uncomfortable coach seat once and it was miserable. I was squirming and uncomfortable and stayed up all night talking to my seat mate because I couldn’t relax.
That’s why I’ve almost always flown Business class outside North America and Hawaii. Back in the day, it was easy to make reservations using mileage awards and fly premium for free. I’ve had affinity credit cards for United and American both for more than 25 years and I use them for everything. But some years ago, airlines stopped being so generous with mileage award reservations for Business and First. You can’t be assured you have a good seat until pretty much last minute, which means you can’t be sure you aren’t flying coach. My husband and I both have worked long and hard and at our age, we’re just not interested in being that uncomfortable on a flight that’s already stressful.
Traveling on other people’s money is better, but…
And that’s why a good bit of our travel budget goes to Business class airline seats. Yes, that gets expensive and yes, it rankles to have to pay so much. It was far better when we traveled overseas for our jobs on “other people’s money.” But we plan for it and now we don’t even think about it except for the gasp when the fee hits our credit card. Our AIRLINE AFFINITY card, which means we get mileage credit for that big purchase.
From California we often fly Air France or Lufthansa or Delta or United and I have begun to think that coach might be preferable. Their Business class seats are made for men, I’m convinced. My feet dangle uncomfortably so the blood rushes downward and the beds don’t lie flat. I hate it. So when I learned that Virgin Atlantic had true “lay-flat” seats in their premium section, we decided to try the airline.
Very little surprises us about air travel these days, but Virgin Atlantic did surprise us with fantastic service, amenities and customer experience. I think it’s the best airline flying our favorite routes. We’re so accustomed to the way carriers are cutting back, it’s hard to figure out how Virgin Atlantic can be profitable with all the added services it offers travelers and especially Upper Class travelers. Which is what Downton Abbey-esque name for their Business and First sections.
First, let’s talk about driving up to Heathrow. There is a special Upper Class entrance for your driver to take you directly to Virgin reps, who already have your baggage tags and boarding passes if you haven’t already gotten the passes. You go through their own security screening, not the huge long lines. Not kidding. I couldn’t believe it.
Once in, you simply must experience Virgin’s airport lounges, where passengers are served free meals and drink while they wait. And good meals, too. FREE. Now, it’s not that a free meal is going to make up for the amount of money that a Business ticket costs. But it’s a nice benefit.
SFO’s Virgin lounge serves the best cappuccino I’ve had outside of Rome.
SFO’s smaller Virgin lounge had a smaller menu but at Heathrow, the place was so luxe I could hardly believe it. It was HUGE. The cafe was a large as some restaurants and the morning we were there I saw both a breakfast buffet and a fairly extensive sit-down-and-be-served menu.
The lounge part was expansive, with comfortable chairs that could serve as beds. Here’s a small section of it.
The TV screens in the TV lounge were the biggest i’ve ever seen.
Oh, did you want to see the library? It was so big I couldn’t even get it all in the photo.
There were a few of these for travelers to enjoy.
Wait. You say you wanted to play billiards? Oh yeah. Right there. No kidding.
So then, you board the plane. Here is the clever configuration of Upper Class, where you are in your own little pod.
Everything is at your fingertips and the tray table becomes a table for two complete with a small seat and seatbelt, so your traveling companion can join you for your meal. I am not kidding. What looks like a footstool? Is that seat. So when it’s time for bed, you ring for a flight attendant. She makes up the bed for you, because it is a little complicated to flip it around. She puts the mattress pad, sheets and pillow on the flat bed and pretty much tucks you in.
Ignore the disco lighting in this commercial photo.
Snug as a bug in a rug, right? Notice the bed is flat. Oh wait. Did I tell you that they handed out navy blue lavender-infused PJs you could wear? I think she’s wearing them in this photo. I hate the aroma of lavender (I know, shoot me) so I gave it back right away.
Ok, so here’s the truth. It looks good but it wasn’t all that comfy. In fact, on the way back we found it easier to sleep in the chair position.
The meals were very good. I mean, very good. There was an endless array of snacks in the back lounge if you got hungry. The whole experience was designed with customer service in mind, something U.S. airlines go out of their way to NOT do. I can’t remember when I was as pleased with a flight experience as I was with this one and Virgin has become our new go-to airline for overseas travel.
I could do this. Premium economy looks as good as many American first class sections.
Now, I had a peek at Premium economy and it looked pretty good, too, don’t you think?
All of the flight attendants had a rather retro look, with long, slim pencil skirts (red) and their hair done in old school styles reminiscent of the 1940s, 1950s or 1960s. Which I loved. Many had these rather elaborate but gorgeous up-dos. Here’s one:
These days, air travel is more like a cattle call than the special experience it started out to be in the early days of passenger air travel. Virgin Atlantic brings back some of that old school feel and also shows its customers that passenger experience is important to them. I can’t think of a single American carrier that does that, can you? We’re not only fans, but trying to figure out if we could give up a nonstop to Paris just so we could fly Virgin Atlantic on our trip next year.
And no, they didn’t pay me a cent for this.
I’ve got a question for other travelers among us. What’s your experience been on long-haul flights?