This is the first in a series of posts about my December 2019/January 2020 trip to Dublin and Belfast.
Virgin Atlantic Flt. 22, Washington-Dulles to London-Heathrow (IAD-LHR)
Airbus A330-300, Economy
Sched. Dep. 6:25pm Sched. Arr. 6:40am +1
Actual Dep. 6:20pm Actual Arr. 6:37am +1
Aer Lingus Flt. 159, London-Heathrow to Dublin (LHR-DUB)
Airbus A320, Economy
Sched. Dep. 12:15pm Sched. Arr. 1:45pm
Actual Dep. 12:15pm Actual Arr. 1:22pm
In April 2019, I booked a flight for five days around New Year’s from DC to Dublin, planning to split my time between Dublin and Belfast. Although Aer Lingus flies nonstop from Dulles to Dublin, my flight was on a Virgin ticket, with the DC/London legs on Virgin, and the London/Dublin legs on Aer Lingus one way and British Airways on the return. It was a good price for the holidays, but certainly not a super bargain — $495. But I’d be able to credit the long-haul legs to Delta, and the timing of the flights was pretty good. I’d leave Dulles at 9:15pm on Thursday night, with a 2-hour, 45-minute connection at Heathrow, and landing in Dublin at 1:40pm on Friday afternoon. I planned on staying that afternoon/night in Dublin, then heading up to Belfast for two nights, then back down to Dublin for two nights, leaving on New Year’s Day on a 7:10am flight to London, with a just under 3-hour connection, arriving back in DC at 3:20pm.
In retrospect, booking this flight was a terrible idea. Even though it was a Virgin-marketed fare, the only way to book it online was through an OTA, so I booked through Priceline. I don’t think the ensuing disaster would have been any different if I’d had Virgin ticket the flight directly. In July, I received notice of a schedule change—one of several, but the only major one of the booking. Most significantly, my outbound flight IAD-LHR flight had moved from 9:15pm to 6:25pm—but they had not changed my connection, so I was still booked on a 12:15pm flight out of Heathrow. This doubly sucked. First, it meant I would have to take off several hours from work to get to Dulles in time for a 6:25pm flight, when I had planned on leaving work at my normal time. Second, it meant I would have nearly six hours in Heathrow, almost as long as the entire flight from DC to London, making for a very, very long trip from DC to Dublin.
Since there are near hourly flights from Heathrow to Dublin, I thought, surely, I could at least get moved onto one of the earlier flights so I didn’t spend an entire day in Heathrow. Priceline looked into it, but insisted that Virgin wouldn’t allow the change, since the schedule change was “less than three hours.” It was almost as if the schedule was changed by 2 hours and 50 minutes intentionally… I asked if they would just cancel the trip instead, but no. I tried pleading with Virgin’s social media team. Nada. I was stuck. (My return flight also got changed, with an extra hour added to my layover in London.)
I really was not looking forward to the trip, as I would spend nearly a full day traveling in coach to get from DC to Dublin which was just stupid. I thought about getting a hotel room at Heathrow for my stay but the hotels at T2 and T3 were expensive, and it didn’t make sense to schlep to an off-site hotel.
I was at Dulles at 4:25pm, and the Precheck lines weren’t bad at all. The only delay was caused by a United manager who had escorted a family to the front of the line, even though the whole family couldn’t use Precheck, which caused a whole back-up. By 4:45pm, I was at the Turkish Airlines lounge. It wasn’t quite as chaotic as during peak summer travel, but there were still no seats to be had and a long wait at the bar.
At 5:25pm, I headed to the gate, which was fairly placid. No one was lined up for boarding yet, and I went to the counter to do passport verification. Boarding began at around 5:35pm. There was a large priority boarding sign for Upper Class, Delta Platinum and Diamond, and Flying Club Gold and higher. But then I saw a second, smaller sign that said Delta Gold and Flying Club Silver. My boarding pass said Flying Club Silver on it (even though I am Delta Silver), so I joined that line. Boarding used facial recognition, and I was basically the first person in the coach cabin.
I’ve reviewed Virgin’s A330-300 in economy twice before, and there was nothing different this time. It remains a fine, but not great product. I had a window seat in the 2-4-2 seating. A blanket and pillow were on each seat at boarding. The plane filled up, with 234 of 264 seats occupied. At 6:20pm, we pushed back from the gate, and at 6:40pm we were wheels up.
The outdated personal IFE only had USB power, but there were plenty of TV options, so I started with Derry Girls, in honor of my destination. Unfortunately, the woman in front of me completely reclined as soon as we were in the air —even though the seat next to her was empty. I couldn’t really watch the TV given it was so close to my face, so given expiring travel credits on my Ritz Carlton Visa expiring, I bought a one-hour wifi pass for $8.95 and futzed on my phone for a bit.
Rather than distribute a menu, the cabin chief announced the service for the whole flight, stating that the choice for dinner would be chicken malvani, barbecue pork, or gnocchi. I wonder if that was a provisioning error. About 20 minutes into flight there was a friendly drink service, and I had a vodka soda and pretzels. 30 minutes later there was a hot towel, and not until we were in the air nearly 90 minutes did the meal cart come out – which is slow for such a short flight. At around 8:25pm, the cart came to me. My photo didn’t come out for some reason, but it was basically the same as the chicken malvani I had on Virgin in January 2019. On one tray, I had a bottle of water, a bottle of wine, the entrée, cheese and crackers, and a CakeLove jarred dessert. Delta’s new international economy meals are a lot better. The tray was cleared promptly, and I dozed off before the cabin lights were dimmed.
I woke a few times to screaming babies, and got about 2.5 hours sleep before breakfast service began, about 90 minutes outside of London. The breakfast box was particularly meager- just a yogurt and a tiny fruit cup. I was surprised there wasn’t even a granola bar or some other carb; when I flew ATL-MAN two years ago there was an “Aussie Bar”. There was a single pass of coffee, and then we were on the ground at Heathrow at 6:32am.
When I arrived at Heathrow’s Terminal 3, I did not follow the Flight Connections path, which would have been the quickest way to Terminal 2, where my Aer Lingus flight would depart from in six hours. The only lounge I had access to in Terminal 2, the Plaza Premium Lounge, did not have showers and caps stays at three hours anyway. But with my Amex Platinum card, I had access to the Plaza Premium Arrivals Lounge at Terminal 3, including showers. (Somewhat confusingly, this is the only Plaza Premium lounge at Heathrow that does not participate in Priority Pass—probably a function of its size).
So, at 6:51am I was at the main e-Gates for immigration. Having access to e-Gates does speed up the immigration process at Heathrow, but a lot of user error (i.e., inability to read) meant there was still a bit of a backup. At 7:05am, I was in the Arrivals area, where I followed the signs to the Plaza Premium Arrivals Lounge – which actually requires going outside 50 feet or so and then entering from outside.
The lounge was very quiet and I was helped right away. It’s quite small, with just two rooms: one with food and dining tables, and one that is more lounge-y seating.
My first stop was a shower. There was no wait, and as soon as I went into the shower room, I realized this was the old Delta Arrivals lounge, which was closed back in 2016. The red tile of the bathroom, and the large pumps of Malin & Goetz toiletries, familiar to SkyClub frequenters was the giveaway. (And from looking at pictures, it appears they kept the furniture in the main rooms as well.) It was definitely one of the nicer shower rooms I’ve visited in lounges, with a clean and spacious full bathroom. There was an Aerotel-branded dental kit and other toiletry products on the counter waiting for me.
After a leisurely shower, I headed into the food room, where I set myself up at a table with my laptop for about 90 minutes. The food options were fairly sparse, with self-service soft drinks and a coffee machine, prepackaged sandwiches and salads, some meat and cheese, mini-muffins, pastries, and rolls. The only other guests the entire time I was there was a single family, who mostly stayed in the other room. So, it was a fine place for me to just relax in relative quiet, with lots of coffee.
At around 8:45am, I started making my way over to Terminal 2. I’m not sure if there is an easier way, but I followed the signs and it was about a ten-minute walk underground through a series of random hallways and escalators. This was my first time at the “Queen’s Terminal,” which only opened in 2014, and is almost-all Star Alliance carriers. Aer Lingus is kind of randomly there, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, post-COVID-19 schedule reductions, Aer Lingus finds itself sharing space with its IAG partners British Airways, Vueling, and Iberia in Terminal 3 or 5.
I could have tried to get on one of the earlier Aer Lingus flights standby, but that isn’t a published benefit and I didn’t even bother to try. I had been unable to figure out a way to pick a seat in advance, so tried at the Aer Lingus kiosk in the main hall. It wouldn’t let me change my seat, but it reflected I was in an aisle exit row, so, that was fine. Security was absolutely massive and moved super quickly, and by 9:03, I was in the departures area.
It was a five-minute walk to the Plaza Premium Lounge, which was much larger than the T3 Arrivals lounge, but also a lot more hectic. As you walk in, there’s a small bar area, leading towards one larger room that has seating divided into dining tables, armchairs, and workstations. There was a hot buffet breakfast when I arrived, and I picked at some eggs while reading.
At 11am, the buffet changed over to a “Christmas Lunch,” with turkey and stuffing, vegetable curry, rice, tortellini, Christmas pudding, and a variety of vegetables. I knew there would be no free food on my Aer Lingus flight, so I sampled the heavy dishes, before leaving the lounge at 11:15am.
My boarding pass hadn’t shown a boarding time, just “gate closes at 11:45am,” which is a pet peeve of mine. When I got to the gate at 11:21am, the monitors showed the flight was already boarding, but in reality, there was a just one big queue forming for all economy passengers, and wheelchair passengers, kids, and priority passengers hadn’t begun to board yet.
The flight also used facial recognition to board, through three separate electronic gates. There were a lot of nonrevs, probably going back to Dublin after the holidays, but the flight wasn’t super full. It was a fairly standard intra-Europe A320 plane, with slightly more padding on the seats than other airlines. The safety briefing was extremely serious, for some reason, and the flight attendants scolded several people for not paying attention. I didn’t remember that from my one previous intra-Europe Aer Lingus flight, but apparently I noted it then too! I did find the super dowdy FA uniforms familiar.
We pushed back at 12:10pm, and were wheels up at 12:22pm. Oddly, they announced they weren’t going to have time to do a full snack service, but then it turned out they did? Since I had my Ritz Carlton Visa credit expiring in a few days, I got a sandwich and a Diet Coke I saved for later.
The flight was short and boring. There was no wifi or in-flight entertainment at all. The flight attendants spent most of the flight in the aisle talking to nonrevs a few rows ahead of me. At 1:22pm, we were on the ground.
(I’ll note that it was a major endeavor to try and get mileage credit for this flight. I had my BA number on the ticket, but nothing credited, and when I followed up with a fax request, it was denied. Aer Lingus AerClub doesn’t appear to have any way to request credit for an Aer Lingus-marketed, Aer Lingus-operated flight that is issued on Virgin Atlantic stock. Randomly, I ended up crediting the flight to Alaska Airlines, which makes no sense, but I’ll take the 500 miles.)
Although there was no wait at immigration, for some reason, the official gave me a lengthy grilling about my traveling alone, which seemed weird. It was 1:50pm by the time I made it to the curb for the Airlink bus into town. The first bus was full, so I had to wait for the next. The buses were supposed to be every 10 minutes, but it was a full 30-minute wait which sucked. I didn’t get into town until 3pm, for the short walk to the hotel. Having left my office at around 3pm the day before, this was an entirely exhausting, wasted full day of travel to get from DC to Dublin. Lesson learned.
Next up, I will review the two hotels I stayed at in Dublin: the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Dublin and the Hilton Garden Inn Dublin Custom House.