Jet-Lag Buster: Virgin Atlantic’s A330 in Economy From Boston to London
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Great award rates, flight times that help prevent jet lag, roomy bulkhead seats, terrific food and friendly, efficient service.
Seating snafu at check-in (though it was ultimately resolved), old-feeling cabin and dated IFE.
When my sister announced that she was getting married in Vermont the weekend just before the Fourth of July holiday, my wife and I immediately set out to make the most of the fact that we’d be in the Northeast by planning a trip that wouldn’t be as easy from our home state of Florida: the United Kingdom. With the opening of TPG UK earlier in the year, I decided to pay a visit to the office and bring my wife and daughter along for the trip. This would also give us a chance to test a daytime flight to London to see if it were really better for avoiding jet lag.
After checking award availability, we soon had three seats on Virgin Atlantic’s nonstop flight from Boston (BOS) to London Heathrow (LHR).
This flight was booked as the outbound portion of a larger trip, with a return from Manchester (MAN) back to Orlando (MCO), where our trip to my sister’s wedding had begun. The one-way flight from Boston to Heathrow only required 20,000 miles through Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club program — though had we be traveling on standard (nonpeak) dates, that would’ve dropped to 10,000 miles each way. Though the carrier is known for its exorbitant fees, traveling in economy for the short jaunt across the Pond meant that we only needed to pay about $150 out of pocket per person.
It’s worth noting that these flights are also available using Delta SkyMiles, and while you’d only pay $5.60 in taxes for the BOS-LHR flight, you’d need to fork over 2x to 2.5x the number of miles: 25,000 during standard dates (compared to 10,000 with Virgin Atlantic) or a whopping 40,000 during peak dates (compared to 20,000). As a result, you’re generally much better off transferring points from one of the three major transferable point currencies to Flying Club.
One final note: After returning from the trip and researching flight options, I stumbled across the nuance that booking two one-way award tickets through Virgin Atlantic Flying Club results in lower fuel surcharges than booking a single round-trip or multicity itinerary. Had I known this ahead of time, I could’ve saved about $100 per person on my award tickets, but c’est la vie ….
We arrived at Boston Logan International Airport just before 6am after catching the short shuttle ride from the Embassy Suites. While the Hilton is physically connected to the airport via a skybridge, I always opt for the Embassy when arriving late into or departing early from Boston, thanks to the spacious two-room suites as well as the property’s proximity to the rental car facility (a five-minute walk).
Virgin Atlantic — along with all other international airlines — uses Terminal E, and we were dropped off at the arrivals level. After a short walk and escalator ride, we found ourselves right at the check-in area for our flight. Signs indicated that it opened at 4:45am, a full three-and-a-half hours before departure, and whether folks had arrived early or were planning to arrive late, the check-in area was largely devoid of other passengers.
There were four separate lines: one for Upper Class and priority passengers — including Flying Club Gold members along with Delta Diamond and Platinum Medallions — one for premium economy, one for economy and one for those already checked in who simply needed to drop their bags. None had a particularly long wait.
As we were booked in economy with no status, we headed to the economy lane, and we were helped by an agent after just a few minutes. Although we were each allowed a checked bag, we only had one large suitcase, and I was a bit apprehensive it was overweight. Sure enough, when I loaded it onto the scale, it registered at 24.4 kilograms (or roughly 54 pounds). Either the agent didn’t notice or didn’t care, but it was tagged and sent on its way without any issue.
Since I was on a separate reservation than my wife and daughter, he processed my reservation first and then took care of theirs. However, despite selecting three seats together at the time of booking, our seat assignments had been switched — the two of them were in Row 42 and I was across the aisle in Row 41. Though this wouldn’t have been a massive deal for a day flight blocked at under seven hours, I nonetheless inquired about being put back in three seats together.
We were told the flight was full, but he was happy to check with his supervisor, though she was busy with an unaccompanied minor checking in next to us. After a five-minute wait, another agent was able to unblock the bulkhead row, and we were moved to 40E, 40G and 40F. We thanked both agents for their help but then remembered our bag tag had been stuck to the back of my original boarding pass. Fortunately, he was able to retrieve it from the garbage, and we were on our way.
Given the early hour and the mere handful of departures from the terminal, security was mostly quiet, though I imagine it gets quite busy later in the day.
With no TSA PreCheck lane, and with no PreCheck designation on our boarding passes, we were forced to endure normal security procedures and dutifully emptied our pockets, removed our shoes, and took our laptops and tablets out. All told, we were through and on our way within 10 minutes.
Since lounge access isn’t included with economy tickets, I didn’t include a visit to the lounge in the scoring of this section, but my Priority Pass Select membership from my Chase Sapphire Reserve would allow us into two: The Club at BOS and the Air France lounge. With the latter not slated to open until 11:30am, we followed signs to the left for The Club, which was one floor down from the main concourse and on the same level as the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse.
We looked longingly into the Clubhouse as we walked down the hall to The Club, but once inside were pleasantly surprised by the offerings. The lounge was larger than expected and included a relatively diverse set of breakfast offerings, including full-sized bagels, yogurt, cereal and even omelets.
A separate station included flavored water and an array of jars of sweet and savory snacks.
There were several different seating options, and both bathrooms even boasted showers, a nice amenity for Priority Pass members who want to freshen up before a long-haul, international flight.
There were no announcements made in the lounge, and the departures board was never updated to indicate whether a flight was boarding. Since our flight showed as being on time, we left the lounge at 7:30am, five minutes before our scheduled boarding time.
We caught a quick glimpse of Lady Stardust — the plane set to ferry us across the Atlantic — from the terminal.
After a quick stop to fill our water bottles, we arrived at Gate E8 just as boarding was announced.
The first wave of boarding included Upper Class, premium economy and priority passengers, and given that we were traveling with a small child, we hopped into the queue and were allowed to board at that time.
Cabin and Seat
All passengers boarded through Door 2L, and the sleek Upper Class cabin was immediately to the left. We continued to the far aisle and turned right, passing through the seven rows of premium economy before arriving at our seats.
Row 40 was the very first row of the economy cabin, situated up against the bulkhead that separated it from premium economy (which strangely ended at Row 25). The cabin was arranged in a 2-4-2 configuration, and seats D, E and F were in the middle section (Seat C remained unoccupied for our flight).
Though there were two lavatories in the middle of the cabin on either side of the plane, there was no additional bulkhead for the middle seats, so the economy cabin felt much more spacious than others.
Our seats had been set with a small pillow and thin cover over the headrest.
The seat pockets on the bulkhead had the usual literature and safety card along with a blanket and headphones.
The amount of legroom was substantial for economy class, so we were pleased with the unexpected “upgrade” due to our seat-assignment snafu.
The headrest on the seat slid up and down, and the two sides swung out to provide some support when trying to rest.
However, the seat fabric felt dated, and as a whole offered minimal padding, so I was immensely glad we had a relatively short flight on which to endure it.
It’s also worth noting that the bulkhead seats had both the tray tables and the personal TVs in the armrests, as opposed to TVs that swing out from the bottom. As a result, the two end seats had immovable armrests on both sides, and they were quite wide.
The two middle seats, on the other hand, only had the one fixed armrest, while the other two were adjustable.
I was also a bit disturbed to find that a previous passenger had used the TV screen’s storage space as a trash receptacle.
The tray table itself was rather small but functional.
The immovable armrests also housed the call button, the switch for the seat’s reading light (which could also be turned on and off from above), and power outlets, which was limited to USB and AV jacks.
The temperature on this flight was comfortable throughout, but each seat also had its own air button.
One of the most disappointing aspects of the bulkhead was the fact that the overhead bin compartments down the middle of the plane were not secured to the bulkhead itself. As a result, during takeoff and anytime we experienced even the most minimal amount of turbulence, the two would rub together, and the friction created a sound like squeaking mice.
It was easy to drown out with a movie or noise-canceling headphones, but for anyone hoping to focus on work, be aware that you’ll definitely want to have a remedy if you find yourself on the same plane (and note that the two bulkheads on either side in Row 40 didn’t have the same issue; it was limited to the middle section).
As noted above, there were two bathrooms in the middle of the economy cabin and another two at the rear. The first time I took my 4-year-old daughter to the bathroom, I made the mistake of going to the midcabin lavatory on the starboard side of the plane, which was your typical, run-of-the-mill format you’d typically find on any domestic flight in the US — albeit with Virgin’s signature purple mood lighting.
However, the left one was much more spacious, so bear that in mind if you’re traveling with young children.
Amenities and IFE
The amenities at our seats were limited, consisting solely of a small pillow, blanket and a cheap pair of headphones wrapped with an envelope to donate leftover currency to Change for Children.
We were glad we brought our own headphones on board, which were compatible with the headphone jack at the top of the armrest at each seat and provided a much better audio experience.
Virgin Atlantic’s inflight entertainment system, Vera, was relatively extensive, with 110 movies, 131 TV shows, over 500 music options and a handful of games.
However, the TVs themselves showed wear and tear that was atypical for their relatively young age. The touchscreen itself wasn’t very responsive, and it had a strange, Rubik’s Cube-like arm to choose the optimal position for viewing.
Sadly, this wasn’t very functional, as it took some effort to get the TV turned into the right spot. In the case of my daughter’s seat, the twisting mechanism wasn’t working properly, so she was forced to watch her movie at an angle — and ultimately decided to switch back to her Kindle.
My screen also had pixelation down the side that didn’t ruin the image but was noticeable the majority of time.
The plane, like virtually all of Virgin Atlantic’s fleet, was equipped with inflight Wi-Fi, though it initially wasn’t working. The crew was apologetic as we went through three stages that ultimately ended in full functionality. First, there was “maintenance with a Panasonic satellite” that would hopefully be resolved once we got closer to UK airspace and had access to a different one. Then they tried resetting the system but didn’t have any success. Finally, at 10:50am Eastern Time — roughly two hours and 15 minutes after takeoff — the cabin supervisor was excited to announce that service had been restored.
There were three passes available. A one-hour pass cost 6.99 pounds or $8.95, or an entire flight was 20.99 pounds or $26.95. You could also purchase a messaging-only pass for 2.99 pounds or $3.95.
I choose the full-flight pass, as we still had nearly four hours to go when it finally started working, and I purchased the pass using my Ritz-Carlton Rewards card to hopefully use up portions of my $300 annual travel credit. (Note that this card is no longer available to new applicants but should still an option for upgrade).
It’s also worth noting that I bought a pass for my wife as well, paying for one in pounds and one in US dollars to compare the exchange rates that Virgin Atlantic was offering with the two pricing options, and they were close to one another.
A quick call to Chase upon my return to the US was able to get both of these credited back to my account.
I found that the speeds on board allowed just the simplest of tasks. Loading a website took anywhere from 10 to 30 seconds, even with background syncing (like Dropbox) turned off. Nevertheless, it was nice being able to stay connected while traveling across the Atlantic, and had I been able to utilize the coverage for the entire time we were above 10,000 feet (about five hours), I would’ve characterized it as decent value.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
As the flight was blocked at less than seven hours and given the fact that we were flying in economy, I wasn’t expecting much from the food-and-drink service. Imagine my surprise when, shortly after takeoff, we were given menus for the flight.
The introductory letter on the inside wasn’t totally accurate, as our early-morning departure meant that our initial service didn’t include a full range of beverages (though the lack of complimentary sparkling wine was accurate, it was not something I was interested in purchasing).
In addition, the meal choices on the righthand side of the menu also had slightly inaccurate information.
The reverse side of the menu included drinks, which I found to be extensive for economy.
Our flight was wheels up at 8:36am Eastern after a decent taxi to Runway 33L, and the first round of service started just 19 minutes later. Part of this was undoubtedly due to our seat being in the very front of the economy cabin, but it was still pretty impressive. The initial “meal” came in a cardboard box with a choice of tea, coffee or water (I selected the latter two).
Despite expecting the “blueberry and pomegranate Cooper Street granola cookie baker” as described on the menu, I found an apple-cinnamon-flavored Nutri-Grain bar accompanied by a small container of Greek yogurt.
Nevertheless, it was nice to put something in our stomachs so early in the flight.
Around 10:20am, roughly an hour and 45 minutes after takeoff, the flight attendants came by with a full beverage service and then offered another at 11:45am. Both my wife and I asked for white wine and were served miniature bottles of Casa Pinero sauvignon blanc, a crisp, Spanish white that I enjoyed.
The full meal service commenced at 12:04pm, nearly three and a half hours after we took off. This started with a hot towel, which happened to be the same as the ones in the premium economy cabin (I saw the flight attendant simply continue onto us from the premium economy row directly in front of us). By this time, I was pretty hungry, so when the food cart arrived at 12:20pm, it was a welcome sight.
I got the Italian sausage marinara, and it came with a side of mashed potatoes, a small bottle of still water and a pack of crackers with two types of cheese.
The desert was a small container of Key lime pie.
Maybe it was because I was ravenous by this point, but my main dish was outstanding. It was flavorful without being overpowering and provided a good balance of meat, vegetables and sauce. And it wasn’t just good ordering on my part; my wife got the chicken dish, and we ordered the gnocchi for my daughter, and both were equally (if not more) delicious.
Unfortunately, that was the end of the formal food-and-beverage service during the flight, though additional drinks were always available using our flight-attendant call button. I didn’t see any additional displays of snacks set up in the economy cabin, so this meant that by the time we made it through immigration, grabbed our bags, hopped the train into the city and reached our hotel, we were once again ravenous.
The service on this flight far exceeded my expectations.
One of my biggest pet peeves on transatlantic flights — especially shorter ones — is inefficient, slow service. The crew on this flight provided the exact opposite. While I included details on timing above, here’s a rundown of how the flight went (all times Eastern Time):
- 8:55am (19 minutes after takeoff): Breakfast
- 10:20am (one hour, 44 minutes after takeoff): Drink service
- 11:45am (three hours, nine minutes after takeoff): Another drink service
- 12:04pm (three hours, 28 minutes after takeoff): Hot towel
- 12:20pm (three hours, 44 minutes after takeoff): Lunch
The economy-cabin flight attendants rotated as they served passengers, as we never seemed to have the same one twice. However, all of them were friendly as they handed out drinks and food and then collected our trash.
After the initial service was finished, I twice used the call button to request additional drinks, and in both instances, an attendant was at my seat within 20 seconds, and they never acted as if it were a bother. This was a notable difference from other airlines, where I’ve encountered even business-class flight attendants who seem annoyed when I use the button to request something.
Virgin Atlantic’s economy class on daytime flights to London may now be one of my favorite ways to get to Europe. With reasonable award rates and a complete lack of jet lag, it was an enjoyable flight. While the seating mix-up during check-in was a bit frustrating, the carrier made up for it by switching us to roomy, bulkhead seats, and once airborne, we found the service and cuisine to be excellent.
The big drawback was the hard product, as it felt dated despite being less than 7 years old. It’s possible that we’re simply spoiled with the updated inflight-entertainment systems found on new and retrofitted aircraft these days, but the entire screen apparatus wasn’t fully functional. The fact that it shared the armrest with the tray table significantly reduced the width of the bulkhead seats, too. And the squeaking bulkhead added a tangible annoyance that persisted for a large portion of the flight.
Would I fly this route again? Absolutely. However, I’d probably aim to snag a departure from New York-JFK or Newark (EWR) to hopefully enjoy a better inflight product — and hope for the same friendly service and great food.
All photos by the author.
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