The Hilton at Heathrow was a bit disappointing for its price point. Even as a Gold member, we had a small, dark room that only had a window facing into the fluorescent atrium of the hotel. The gym was okay for an airport hotel, though. We had lounge access and access to the full breakfast buffet, but I decided to forego it in exchange for extra time at the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse. Basically, you’re paying for the convenience to Heathrow.
My flight was on the early side, at 11:35, but I left the Hilton around 9am so I could enjoy the most of the Clubhouse (although I knew the English breakfast was unlikely the best of their food). It took awhile to get to Terminal 3 from the Hilton, as I had to take the long walk from the Hilton to Terminal 4, and then wait for a Heathrow Connect train over to Terminal 3. The check-in line for Virgin’s Upper Class (business) was quick and efficient, and soon I was in a dedicated security line which was a bit slow. Then it was into the main terminal, and onto the Clubhouse at around 9:45.
There was a bit of a wait to check in to the Clubhouse, as each passenger who was new to the lounge was given a tour by the check-in agent. In addition, it was peak time for the lounge, as lots of flights from the U.S. had arrived in the last few hours, and flights to Asia and the US were leaving in the next few hours. Although it was crowded, the Lounge was beautiful, with a range of seating areas – restaurant tables and more traditional lounge seating – a huge bar, a shoe shine, a game room, and a kids area. But I headed right to the back corner, where the Spa is. Each guest at the Clubhouse is entitled to one free treatment – either a massage or facial, or a haircut from the on-site Bumble and Bumble salon. I got an appointment for fifteen minutes later, so headed back to the dining area to grab some breakfast. The friendly waitress said it would take 12 minutes to get the hot cooked-to-order breakfast, so I grabbed a yogurt and muesli from the “deli” area and had some coffee before hitting the salon.
My haircut was quite professional, and I chatted a bit with the stylist as he efficiently cut and shampooed my low-maintenance hair. I was offered a drink with my haircut, but thought that was overkill. As I needed the haircut pretty badly, it was a great use of time, and a pretty good cut.
After my haircut, I headed over to a quieter area of the Clubhouse, where I ordered an English Breakfast and an off-menu espresso martini, recommended by the stylist, from a [extremely goodlooking] waiter. The breakfast was a bit disappointing and may have been a poor choice on my part, or just that breakfast isn’t the Clubhouse’s strong suit. It was better than your standard catering tray breakfast items at a lounge, though.
My boarding pass had a boarding time of 10:20, so I left the Clubhouse around that time. But when I got through the gate area at 10:40, this is what I found.
I realized 10:20 must have been just the time the gate opened (at Heathrow, your boarding pass is checked and scanned before you get into the gate). The gate area soon started filling up, and I was fine sitting and using my laptop. But then I heard my name being paged to the podium.
“Mr. Pulver, I don’t know if anyone told you, but we ask that our Upper Class passengers wait in the Clubhouse until the flight is called. So if you’d like to return to the Clubhouse, we’ll be boarding at around 10 past. We’re running a bit late.”
After waiting another 5 minutes, I was back in the Clubhouse and got myself another espresso martini.
As time passed, I checked in with the “concierge” desk as I was a little concerned as it was 10 after and there still had been no announcement for the flight. The concierge said she was just about to announce the flight. So I headed back to the gate and boarded, and found the Upper Class section almost completely full
Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class seats are “herringbone” or “coffin” style seats, very similar to those I rode in on Cathay Pacific in 2013. My plane had the “new” version of the seat, which is basically the same seat with hipper plastics and some minor bells and whistles. There are two problems with these seats, in my experience. One, they are a little bit claustrophobic, and a bit narrow, and two, you are facing the aisle and other passengers the whole flight (not the back of a seat or a window), which can be distracting, to say the least. Number two ended up being a big problem on this flight. (They’re also not great for traveling with someone.)
As I boarded, a small amenity kit was waiting on my seat, made out of recycled plastic that looks like felt. The contents were pretty sparse – just earplugs, a pen, toothbrush and paste, tissues, an eyemask, socks, and a mint. I was disappointed that no pajamas were distributed, as Virgin is one of the few airlines that has pajamas in business class – but apparently they’re only handed out on night flights.
I was immediately impressed with the attitude of the cabin staff, which was uniformly friendly and attentive. Pre-departure, I was offered a choice of water, orange juice, or champagne, and welcomed aboard.
And then my hell began. A family of four boarded the plane, and took three seats across the aisle from me, including a toddler on his mother’s lap, and a boy of around 7, who was sitting directly across from me. I am of mixed opinions about small children in premium cabins. But in a plane like this, where you cannot sit next to your child, and instead I essentially am, it is horrible. The 7 year old had loud toys, including a paddleball, which would be inappropriate in any cabin, and needed to talk to his parents about everything…. for 7.5 hours. The toddler cried occasionally, that wasn’t a big deal, and that happens. But the older boy’s noise, and the father spending large portions of the flight in the aisle basically standing over my legs, were terrible.
After departure, the purser came by and introduced herself and asked if I needed anything. Since a sedative for the children next to me wasn’t an option, I said no. She passed out a menu, noting there would be a drink and main meal service, and afternoon tea prior to landing. How civilized.
A first drink service came by quickly, and I started with just a coffee. In an impressive move, when the Flight Attendant realized he had slightly overfilled my cup so that it spilled into the saucer, he ran back and got me a clean saucer. Instead of nuts, there was a ramekin of crisps (potato chips).
The in-flight entertainment system was great, with about sixty television shows. I watched an episode of the Australian series Kath and Kim as we took off, followed by the film 12 Years a Slave. Shortly into the film I decided I needed something lighter, so switched back to TV, with episodes of American Dad , Family Guy, the Tomorrow People, Brooklyn Nine Nine. There was also in-flight wifi offered, at the rate of 50 MB for 24.99 GBP, but I didn’t try it.
Soon after, the meal service started, which was on-par with Delta transatlantic business class, I’d say. The cutest part were the little airplane shaped salt and pepper shakers, which I’m sure mysteriously disappear regularly. For the first course, I went with a basic mozzarella salad, which was skimpy on both the mozzarella and the salad. For my main course, I had the steak which was okay, though the sauce was significantly underseasoned. The best course was dessert– a yummy lemon tart with vanilla ice cream. I skipped the cheese course, and figured I would try to go to sleep, as it was still early morning on the East Coast.
I asked a flight attendant to turn down the seat for me into a bad, which entailed flipping the back of the seat down, putting down a mattress pad, and giving me a duvet and good pillow.
Alas, sleep was not meant to be on the flight for two reasons. One was the shape of the herringbone bed, which does not suit a six foot-plus frame well. The head of the bed was really too narrow for my head and shoulders, and the foot well was too small for my feet. But worse was the fact that the father in the family seated across from me treated the aisle as Grand Central Station, and kept bumping into my feet and legs, and making a variety of noises. The worst was that it didn’t seem to have much to do with his kids needing anything – more that he wanted to get up and mill about and show off his plumbers’ crack. If, for example, he had gotten up when his kid was climbing on the seats, that would have been understandable. But no, that was one of the rare points he stayed seated and watched a movie. It was at other points that he constantly needed to go into the overhead bin above my seat and pull out his large suitcase and back up again.
Mid-flight, the flight attendants came around with vanilla Haagen-Dazs ice cream. I decided to go to the bar in between Upper Class and Premium Economy for a glass of champagne to help me take the edge off. It didn’t work. (Though it was good champagne, Lanson.) Soon after, we hit turbulence, and the seatbelt sign came on and an announcement was made. So of course the father decided that was the time to stand in the aisle at my feet again, reaching up to get a suitcase that could have fallen on me, ignoring the flight attendants’ instructions.
Once the turbulence settled, the afternoon tea service began. I asked to try two of the three options: the finger sandwiches and the scones, which were brought out on a cute tiered server, along with one of the pastries from the third option. The finger sandwiches were nothing special. But the scone with clotted cream and little yogurt cake were delicious. Alas, it probably would have been better for Virgin Atlantic to serve a heartier lunch at that meal, as it was around 1:30pm at our destination.
Overall, I found the “soft” service of Virgin Atlantic impressive – its lounge and the attitude of its flight attendants in particular. The business cabin seats though are just outdated and uncomfortable, though, particularly if you are on the taller side. It was ironic in that I found the cabin to be the most swank and adult of any premium cabin I’ve flown in in terms of décor, and it is the only business class flight I’ve had ruined by parents. What’s worst is I think it would have been more convenient both for the parents and everyone else on the plane if they had taken a row of three in premium economy or economy. But clearly these are not people who worry about the impact of their actions on other people.
Landing at Dulles was uneventful, with a moon buggy to the terminal; vacation was over.