I was lucky enough to fly out to Austin Texas on only the second flight Virgin Atlantic to the state. I was attending a conference in town and that was as good an excuse as any to visit such a cool city. The whole trip was a bit of a masterclass in not only upgrades but how to get the most out of a Business Class experience.
I’ve written quite a bit about upgrades before. In fact, upgrading a Premium Economy ticket to Business is one of my favourite tactics. It represents epic value most of the time.
I bought a Premium Economy ticket, just after the Austin route was announced and it was around £750. For an 8-hour transatlantic flight, this is pretty good value. When I booked that ticket, there were no Business seats available to buy with points. The flight was only the second outbound flight after the official inaugural flight. However, I knew it takes time for a new route to build up demand so patience was the key here. I waited a few weeks and then without warning, reward seats popped up. I rang Virgin to upgrade both the outbound and inbound leg at the same time (it cannot be done online).
The upgrade cost about £150 plus 67,400 Virgin points. But I would also earn points for the underlying Premium fare, totalling around 16,000 for the flight. Then another 2700 for the spend on my Virgin credit card (3x points for the cash spend). That reduced the cost of the points upgrade to 48,700. That could be further reduced by roughly another 20,000 points if I purchased a points booster up to 6 months after the flight.
All in all, a good deal given Upper Class return tickets were over £3000. Factoring in the value of the points, I paid about half of that.
Getting to and from London Heathrow Terminal 3 used to be much easier for me. Since relocating to the North of England, it’s a bit harder!
The flight to Austin was scheduled to depart at 11.35 am. That’s a bit too early to chance getting the West Coast mainline to London and then trying to get from Euston to Heathrow in time. To combat this issue, I decided to get a hotel in London the night before and see some friends.
There was an added bonus to this strategy, I got to experience the Upper Class wing for the first time ever. I’d only ever entered the wing from inside the terminal itself through the secret door above check-in (if you know, you know).
It used to be that certain expensive Upper Class fares included a chauffeur-driven car that would pick you up and drive you to the wing. This was all included in the price of your ticket, but recently Virgin dropped this from their offering. However the wing still operates and anyone flying Upper Class can use it, usually arriving via their own app-based chauffeur service.
The wing experience
The Upper Class wing is located directly above the normal Virgin Atlantic check-in at terminal 3. As you approach the terminal there is a ramp that your car takes up inside the terminal building. The staff check that you are eligible to use the wing before your car is allowed through the barrier. This check consists of giving the passenger’s name and flight number.
As you approach the wing at the top of the ramp, one of the check-in agents comes out to greet you and take your luggage. There’s a small waiting area inside the wing with a nice scale model of the A350 in Virgin livery. Check-in is completed extremely quickly as usually, the wing is fairly quiet. Then you’re on your way to the private security lane just a few meters around the corner.
Other Upper Class passengers who checked in downstairs have access to this private security lane too. In my experience, it can get very busy between 9 am and 1 pm. Today was ok and there were only 3 people in front of me in the queue. The whole experience took about 5 minutes.
The clubhouse experience
Personally, I think this is one of the best airline lounges in the world. It sets the bar for most other lounges at London Heathrow. I think the only other lounge that can even come close is the British Airways Concorde Room, which can only be accessed if you are flying First Class or have a Concorde Room card (which very few do).
There is plenty of different seating areas in the Clubhouse. I prefer the area behind the bar as you get a nice view of the apron outside. Before midday is the breakfast menu, so I naturally indulged in a full english breakfast. You can order as much food and drink as you like, all à la carte. Even the area that is sort of self-service (the deli) is actually manned by staff who will serve you. So none of this serve yourself rubbish you see in other, less premium lounges.
It was a lovely morning at Heathrow, above 20 degrees, so I spent a bit of time on the terrace taking in the views of departing aircraft and the smell of jet fuel. If you ever visit the Clubhouse, I highly recommend the terrace if the weather is nice. It’s located above the cinema room, up the stairs at the end of the Clubhouse near the bistro dining area.
Since COVID, not much has changed in the Clubhouse. The only notable difference I could see (now that full service has returned) is that flights are no longer announced in there. As a result you have to keep an eye on the screens. I think this is an improvement as with the expansion of routes and addition of Delta flights that the Clubhouse also serves, the announcements had become too frequent.
People often ask me, how long could you spend in there. Realistically, if it is your first visit, maybe 3 hours to enjoy all the novelties. Nowadays I tend to limit my time to half of that and it’s still plenty.
The boarding experience
This was the only bad part of the outbound portion of the trip. Anyone who’s flown Virgin regularly will know there is one departure gate you do not want. Gate 24 in Terminal 3 is the dreaded bus gate. It’s annoying because you can usually SEE the aircraft you’re boarding from the gate. Despite that, you still have to load up onto the bus with everyone else to get there. A real ego killer!
After the bus, it was just a short flight up the steps onto G-VBOW – Pearly Queen – and into seat 1A for the flight.
Being in your favourite seat is nice. The only issue Virgin has in this area is that the Upper Class seats on the 787 is quite dated. This is in comparison to the new Upper Class suite on the A350 – which happens to be very similar to the British Airways Club Suite. But overall, a seat that reclines and turns into a bed, with a large table for eating is a godsend on long flights. The usual amenity kit and menu were on the footrest as I arrived. The amenity kit has been changed to be more environmentally friendly which was a nice touch.
I wrote about some of this trip in my previous article about what it’s like flying after COVID. In that article I noted that i’d forgotten how warm and dry the air was once you’re onboard. The 787 is one of the newest aircraft flying, but this was still very noticeable after not flying for so long.
The 787 layout in business is 1-1-1 for Virgin, with the A aisle facing the back of the middle seats, so it’s more private. My preference for Upper Class is always the A aisle.
The bar, which is located at the rear of the cabin – between Upper Class and Premium, was in use with some passengers choosing to dine there rather than in their seats.
One of the big factors in whether you have a good flight, especially when you’re in First or Business Class, is the quality of the crew. I was really happy that the crew on this flight were top notch. If you fly enough, you can tell within minutes how the crew are going to be for the rest of the flight.
I was pleased that the Flight Service Manager was quick to introduce herself and chit-chat about the experience and what was on offer for the flight. I dealt with her directly for most of the flight, which is normal for Virgin Upper Class, so rarely was there a moment where my glass was empty.
Arriving in Austin
Having never been to Texas, much less Austin, I was not sure what to expect upon arrival. I knew the weather was going to be hot, having checked in advance. However, I was not ready for the reality of 42-degree heat. It was so hot that the crew asked us to close the window shades once we were on the ground in an attempt to keep the aircraft cool.
Austin Bergstrom is a regional US airport that happens to have a few long-haul international routes. This is quite a common trend now in the transatlantic market. The airport isn’t brilliantly set up for dealing with long-haul flights (more on that in part two). On the plus side, there was no waiting for baggage as I was flying hand baggage only. In addition, I had the benefit of Global Entry and I have to say, the experience in Austin was the fastest Global Entry experience I have ever had. I was off the plane and waiting for my Uber within 5 minutes. Most of that time was walking through the terminal.
Overall, it was a great outbound experience. It was my first flight since COVID and I forgot how much I loved the thrill of being in the air. Given Austin is a new route, there are plenty of deals on seats if you look at the right times. The crew on board (who happened to be staying at the same hotel as me), told me there was a lot of demand for Austin to London. This was reflected in the fact that the outbound flight had less than 100 people on, but the inbound – which I’ll cover in part two – was full.