Why you shouldn’t pay to fly Club Europe during the pandemic
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Travel is back, but not as we know it.
For many, flying for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began might be a daunting prospect. Though it was only domestic, I was very apprehensive before my first flight earlier in July, but it was smooth as ever, and better yet, I didn’t feel unsafe.
Two weeks later, and I decided I had enough of the chilly County Durham summer. So, I decided to make the most of being able to travel internationally again. I flew from London to Split, Croatia, in British Airways Club Europe. Usually, when flying in Europe, I’ll pay for a BA Euro Traveller (economy) ticket rather than flying low-cost, or, if there are lots of Tier Points to earn, I’ll occasionally pay for Club Europe (business class).
But for the flights and dates we wanted, a last-minute economy ticket was more than £400 return, so using my Avios was the only feasible option.
The trip was set to be my first time flying British Airways since the pandemic started. But I was curious to see how the Club Europe experience post-lockdown would be different. And ultimately, if splurging for a seat in the European business-class product — in other words, an open middle seat — was worth it. Here’s what my experience was like and why I don’t think it’s worth paying extra cash for a Club Europe seat at this time.
Club Europe check-in
Once inside the London Heathrow Terminal 5, the first thing I noticed was the sheer number of people at the economy check-in desks. Even in pre-coronavirus times, I had never seen so many queues of people. I immediately started to feel a little anxious.
The queue at Club check-in was also the longest I’ve ever seen it, and nobody seemed to be adhering to any form of social distancing rules. There were also no markings on the ground to keep people a safe distance apart — but everyone we saw was wearing a mask.
The check-in agent, who now sits behind a plastic screen, checked my bag, handed my boarding pass and was really friendly while maintaining the level of professionalism that you’d expect.
The Galleries lounges
By the time my flight came around on 19 July, a third lounge, the Galleries South lounge, was also open. This meant that use of the First lounge would return to being used only by those with BA Gold status and those travelling in first class. The Galleries South lounge, which I used, can be accessed by passengers travelling in Club Europe/Club World, as well as Executive Club members with Silver status or higher.
The lounge experience was very different to anything I’d ever experienced — but I actually preferred it.
Seating was split into smaller sections and divided with plastic screens to help with social distancing — this also made the whole experience feel far more private and exclusive. We found an empty section that had just been cleaned.
First and foremost, gone are the days of the buffet. My travel companion and I were able to use our phone cameras for a scan of the QR code on the table, which took us directly to a menu for ordering. Once we had filled out a couple of pieces of information including name, table number and “code of the day”, we were able to gain access to the menu.
Within a couple of minutes, our orders of full breakfasts, coffee and sparkling wine had arrived and I was pleased to see that my beloved Union coffee was still being served.
I went for the vegetarian option and was pleasantly surprised. Aside from slightly rubbery and watery eggs, the breakfast was delicious.
Lighter options such as greek yoghurt, cereals, porridge and pastries were also available. In terms of drinks, all the usual teas, coffees, soft drinks and alcoholic delights were on offer, including a couple of new additions like Gordon’s pink and Jinzu gins.
The once self-service bar area is now fully staffed. There is a sign to remind passengers that orders must still be taken using the QR code provided, rather than going to the bar itself.
It was only after looking back at old photos of the lounge that I realised how different the space was. It will be interesting to see how long the service stays this way, and if BA will ever revert to the old buffet style in its business-class lounges — though I don’t see that happening anytime in the near future.
In the meantime, the empty, sad-looking buffet areas take up a chunk of space right in the middle of the lounge.
I’d like to see the fast and efficient table service become standard practise in BA’s Galleries lounges. The extra space and fewer passengers was also a vast improvement to the usually very cramped and busy lounge experience that I’m used to at Terminal 5.
While the lounge access was a nice benefit of my Club Europe itinerary, I would have gotten it regardless because of my Silver status.
To help with social distancing, British Airways, like some other airlines, has introduced a new boarding process and now boards with row numbers starting at the back of the plane. This means that if you’re travelling in a premium cabin, you will likely be one of the last to board.
I overheard other passengers travelling in Club Europe remarking that due to economy passengers boarding first, when their overhead bins filled up some people were using up the space reserved for passengers in the Club Europe cabin. If you’re relying on storing your carry-on luggage in the overhead bins, this might be worth taking into consideration. Because a Club Europe ticket comes with a checked allowance of two bags, that may be a more reasonable option — and will help you to avoid spending too much time in the crowded aisle.
The first that that struck me upon boarding is that even behind the masks, it was clear to see by the smiling eyes and cheerful greeting of the British Airways cabin crew that they were happy to be back doing the job that they love.
Then, as I turned right into the cabin, I was greeted with the largest Club Europe cabin I think I’ve ever seen — a total of 12 rows. Of course, because BA’s Club Europe product is essentially a normal row of three economy seats with an empty middle seat, cabin crew can customise the cabin to fit the number of Club Europe rows.
Just after takeoff, every passenger on the flight was handed a “personal protection pack”, which included an antibacterial towel and hand-sanitiser gel. There was also a clear plastic disposable bag to put the used wipe and packaging into after use. Each passenger was also handed a health form, which had to be filled out and given to a member of the cabin crew before landing.
The biggest change of all was the catering. On this 9:05 a.m. flight from LHR to Split, there was a choice of two sandwiches: bacon and cheddar or tomato and cream cheese.
Let’s start with the positives. Though it’s very different to the proper plates and metal cutlery that Club Europe catering featured pre-COVID, I quite liked the presentation and packaging of the “new normal” Do & Co meal.
I mean, have you ever seen a sadder looking bacon sarnie in your life? The butter was laid on very thick and the bread wasn’t fresh. It was more like the kind of sandwich you’d expect to find in a packed lunch on a day trip on a cheap package holiday — not the kind of sandwich on a business-class flight for which return tickets were selling at around £600.
The meal also came with two sides: yoghurt and fresh fruit. Due to dietary restrictions, I couldn’t eat either. That said, my travel companion did and enjoyed both, noting that the fruit was, indeed, fresh.
Though all soft drinks, wines, beers and spirits are still being served, as usual, the gin and tonic that I would normally order would be served with no ice or lemon, as BA’s short-haul flights currently don’t offer it. However, I went for a little bottle of Nicholas Feuillatte Champagne instead — superior, right? It’s worth noting that ice is still served with drinks on long-haul flights.
The crew on this flight were exceptional. This was my first flight with British Airways since February and I was very impressed that despite all the uncertainty the aviation industry is dealing with, the crew on flight BA530 were as professional as ever.
So, is Club Europe worth it?
The million-dollar question: Is flying Club Europe during the pandemic worth it?
The short answer is no — if you’re paying cash, that is. However, there’s an exception to the rule in that if you use Avios to pay, real value for money can still be found. Let me explain.
Using Avios for last-minute trips — especially to Europe — thanks to BA’s Reward Flight Saver can often save you a decent wedge of cash, and this trip was a perfect example of that.
My friend and I decided we really wanted to go to Croatia and that we wanted to visit Hvar and some of the other islands around Split, which meant flying to Split (SPU) airport. Tickets in Euro Traveller to Split with BA were around £400 return, and in Club, it jumped up to £600 per person, meaning a total of £1,200.
A quick check for BA award availability showed that there were seats available on the dates we wanted. My Companion Voucher was due to expire in June 2021, and while that’s many months away, I didn’t know if there’d be a time I’d be able to use it again before then.
So, we were able to get both return flights in Club Europe for a total of 30,000 Avios plus £100 in taxes and fees. As per TPG’s current valuation 1.1p per Avios, that puts the total value of these tickets at £430 (including taxes), saving us a total of £770 from the cash price.
If you’re nervous about flying in the era of COVID-19, then it might be worth considering using your Avios to fly Club Europe — purely for peace of mind that you won’t be sat directly next to someone, thanks to the middle seats being blocked.
However, I really don’t think that paying cash for a BA Club Europe ticket right now is worth it — unless it really is your only option and you don’t have enough Avios. While I really enjoyed the new lounge experience, my personal opinion is that the new catering served in Club Europe is definitely not business-class standard. It will be interesting to see if more improvements are made as we navigate through this uncertain period, but for now, a bacon and cheddar bun just isn’t going to cut it.
BA’s inflight catering might have suffered because of the pandemic, but thankfully, those views outside the window are still just as magical as ever.
Featured photo by Daniel Ross/The Points Guy
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