virgin_atlantic

Virgin Atlantic from Gatwick

Virgin’s main route to Vegas is from London Gatwick and it runs pretty much every day. I say ‘pretty much’ as Virgin do have the occasional habit of cancelling under-subscribed flights during less busy periods. Most of the time you won’t notice this since when you go to their website to book there will be days showing no flight. If however you book well in advance like I do (because I like to pay less – see below) this is sometimes an issue. For example in 2015 I booked during the sale in January to fly in late November only to get an email in March transferring me to a return flight on Sunday because there was no longer a Saturday service. I paid the same fare and it was only one day so no big deal. Incidentally they made the change sufficiently early that I wasn’t entitled to any compo but they did also offer me the choice of cancellation and full refund.

Once can possibly be excused but as I recently told you in the post Virgin Atlantic at it again! they have just cancelled my flight for the second year running and their attitude about it really sucks. By all means read on below and you’ll see how they are better that BA in almost every area that can be compared except one. If your airline won’t actually get you there and back on the days you have contracted for shouldn’t you use someone else? You decide but Virgin are now dead to me!

In the busier months VS043 to Vegas and VS044 back to London operate most days. Virgin use a 747 Jumbo and it usually leaves LGW at 11.20 except through the Summer until the end of September when it departs at 10.10. The flight is from the Gatwick South terminal. As you enter departures from the walkway the Virgin check in desks and bag drops are to be found to your extreme left. There are separate desks if you’re lucky enough to be travelling other than in Economy. In all cases you form one line no matter where you’re going. Virgin operate a number of transatlantic flights from the South terminal in the morning so you’re likely to find yourself intermingled with a significant number of passengers off to the Caribbean. The Economy line can often get quite long so beware. There are no such problems with Premium Economy upwards.

At the airport

Once you’ve checked in (or dropped your bags if you checked in online – open up to 24 hours before your flight) it’s a bit of a trek to go through security. You go up the nearby escalator (or in the lift) and along the corridor before you reach security on your left hand side. This entire area has been recently revamped at enormous cost (something like £40 million). You’ll find a priority entrance (if you are travelling Upper Class or have paid for the privilege) and many automatic scanning barriers where you present the barcode on your boarding pass. Many people seem to have a great deal of trouble with these scanners so don’t leave it to the last minute to pass through security.

The exact search process does vary from day to day for security reasons but you can expect to remove laptops and tablets from their bags, belts, shoes, coats and the contents of your pockets all of which has to go into the plastic trays which are then guided through the scanner on the conveyor belt. You yourself then pass through a body scanner before you retrieve your tray(s) further down the conveyor. Tip: don’t stand by the conveyor getting dressed again and getting hassled by other passengers trying to retrieve their belongings, instead carry your tray(s) to the seating just beyond and sit down and do it at your leisure.

If you then follow the signs they’ll take you back down another escalator (or lift) and into the duty free shopping area. If you want to shop that’s fine but if you don’t you then have to weave your way through the entire area to get to the seating, other shops, restaurants and information boards. Obviously the terminal authorities route you this way to maximise foot traffic through the duty free zone but you can avoid this by not going back down and instead following the signs to the private passenger lounges which are on the same level as security. You can always go back down to the shops on the lower level later if you want.

Lounges

Virgin has two lounges in the South terminal – the V Room and the Clubhouse. The terminal gets very crowded and seating is at a premium so any lounge is better than none but the Clubhouse is truly superb. You get automatic free entry if you fly Upper Class. If you’re not that lucky you can buy your way into the V Room for about £24.50 each*. Soft and hot drinks and snacks are included (you pay for alcohol) but there’s also the substantial bonus of being able to use fast track security.

Virgin also have an arrangement with No.1 Lounges to use their facility in the South Terminal for a fee of £22.50 each*. Certain alcohol is included in this price which makes this a potentially attractive deal. You can also gain access to similar lounges worldwide via companies such as Priority Pass. You subscribe, get a card and you can then just turn up at a vast number of executive lounges worldwide. This can be very useful if you travel regularly as few international airports are as good as Gatwick or Heathrow. I was recently in Venice and the airport there is, frankly, a disgrace. A lounge pass made the wait bearable. If you work out how much you’re spending altogether on your travel you might just conclude that adding a little more for a good quality lounge is well worth the investment.

You’ll usually find the staff in the lounges call each flight as boarding commences. This can save you wasted time at the gate where facilities are minimal. There’s always a display board as well if you don’t trust them to tell you!

* prices correct as of 1/06.

Departure Gates

You can never be absolutely sure which gate VS043 will leave from but gates 13 to 21 are the usual ones. It takes me not less than 10 minutes to walk that far and I’m fairly fit so don’t leave it too late. When you get there you’ll have your passport and boarding pass checked again and some passengers, at random, will be frisked again. Expect this one time in four or thereabouts.

There are just a couple of vending machines at the gate and barely enough seating for a full jumbo load of passengers hence you don’t want to get there too early. You’ll be called to board by section, disabled and infants first, then Upper class, Premium Economy and then Economy by rows. This can also take some time if the plane is full.

Some of you will like to visit the lavatory before you board, after all an aeroplane toilet is an aeroplane toilet! Most of the private lounges have them and these tend to be cleaner and less used than those in the main terminal waiting areas. Tip: If you don’t have a lounge pass wait until the walk to the gate. You’ll find toilets along the walkway to gates 13 to 21 that are much less used and which also tend to be in better condition without a queue.

Classes of travel

Virgin operate three travel classes compared to BA’s four. You can choose between Upper Class, Premium Economy and Economy. Budget is the only real selection criteria; if you can afford Upper Class then that’s where you go as the difference is huge.

I must have flown Virgin to and from Vegas at least 70 times by now. I’ve flown in all three classes and, the folks at VA probably won’t like me for this, the one I won’t fly again is Premium Economy. Why you ask? It’s all about the seating.

In cattle class (Economy), the central section of the 747 comprises four seats and the window sections three seats each. There are armrests between each seat that can be raised and lowered. I’ve been on many flights where the Economy section is far from full – very occasionally as few as 25% of the seats occupied. When this is the case and as soon as the ‘fasten seatbelt light’ goes off there’s a stampede to move to blocks of empty seats so one can raise the armrests and stretch out or even lie down across three or four seats. I can truthfully say I’ve been able to stretch out (at 6 foot 3), lie down and sleep all the way home in Economy! Not that often of course as Virgin try hard to sell every seat but it can happen.

In Premium Economy the seats are different. They have solid sides which house the metal tray that you use to eat your meal – you open the top, it folds out and across. Because of this you’re well and truly fixed in your seat. Even if you were the only passenger in that section of the aircraft (which never happens) you couldn’t stretch out, lie down or get more comfortable. True, there is a little more legroom, the menu is a little better and it’s more select but this doesn’t warrant the price hike for me. If I can’t fly Upper Class I would personally choose Economy.

Upper Class

I am going to tell you more about Upper Class because I want you to seriously consider it when we come on to the question of price a little later.

Firstly you get to pass through the express security channel. This is never instantaneous at an airport as big as Gatwick but it does save a lot of queuing and I personally reckon the staff are a little nicer to you. You then get to use the Clubhouse. Everything is complementary including hot or cold food, drink (including all alcohol), shoe shine, a spa treatment (you can pay more for a more involved treatment), internet access, TV and more. There’s lots of comfy seating and private, very well maintained toilets which even have individual cloths to wipe your hands. You’re always called promptly for your flight and it’s a pleasurable way to start your journey.

You get to board the aircraft first so you spend less time at the gate. There are just fourteen seats in the Virgin 747 Upper Class cabin from Gatwick so you benefit from exclusivity and more attentive service. Your seat is leather, it tilts electronically so you can adjust to your preferred angle and comes with a separate footstool. This has multiple uses: you can put your feet on it, a friend or relative can join you for a chat or so you can eat together as the footstool also has it’s own seatbelt in case of turbulence. It also forms part of the bed when you press the button and invert the chair into  your own fully flat bed.

You’ll receive a welcome glass or two of champagne (or juice if you prefer). Your personal entertainment handset has greater functionality than in the other classes and your TV monitor folds out and in front of you for better viewing. You can adjust the angle considerably.

The Upper Class menu is very different from the other sections of the plane. It’s very nouveau cuisine. There’s more than one choice for each course.  The starter and main aren’t enormous in terms of quantity but the quality is very high. The dessert is often more substantial, there is cheese, port, an extensive wine choice (if that’s your thing) and it’s all attentively served.

Before this first meal you’re offered drinks and crisps and a hot towel for your hands and face. There’s a bar with seating if you’d rather congregate than stay in your own seat (subject to turbulence). Of course you don’t have to eat, you can convert the seat into a bed and just go to sleep. You’re provided with a duvet and pillow and as long as you do up your seatbelt over the top they won’t disturb you until the descent into Vegas. The cabin crew will make up the bed for you if you ask but it’s very straightforward to do yourself once shown.

There’s a second meal as you approach descent which now tends to take the form of afternoon tea complete with cake stand, sandwiches, little cakes, scone and cream. All very appropriate for an Englishman in Vegas. One of the other advantages of Upper Class however is that you can snack between meals on items such as little burgers. There’s fresh fruit, often sweets (candy) and the free bar is always open.

When you arrive at Vegas you get off the plane first which is handy and your luggage is supposed to be delivered onto the conveyor first so you can make a quick getaway ahead of the crowd.

Tempted? Let’s get on to the subject of cost.

I like to pay less

There’s a common misconception that if you leave it to the last minute to book the flight will be cheaper. This might be correct elsewhere but not on the Las Vegas route. Generally the opposite applies – the earlier you book, the less you pay. The downside to this is that you pay in full for your ticket when you book but in these days of 0% savings interest is that really much of a downside?

Also and most importantly Virgin Atlantic, like BA, operate sales. These tend to take place at quieter times when they receive less bookings and they really do make a difference. One sale usually starts in late December and runs through the whole of January to February 2nd or thereabouts. There can be another sale after the Summer holidays are over. You’ll pay less if you make your reservation during one of these sales. Once I discovered this I never now book outside of a sale unless I’m getting a free flight with my airmiles.

Obviously there are only a finite number of seats on a 747 and, in the case of Upper Class, there are just fourteen. It pays to get in as soon as you can after the sale starts.

Also bear in mind that travel doesn’t cost the same all year round. None of us like it but it costs more to travel during the school Summer holidays. It’s simple supply and demand. You’ll still pay less if you book your Summer holidays during the sale but you’ll pay more than if you travel at a quieter time.

From my experience it’s cheapest to fly to Vegas (cheapest first):

  • Between late December and mid March
  • Between late October and mid December
  • From mid March to Mid April
  • Anytime other than –
  • Mid June to Mid August

So, if you can choose your holiday time, book during the sale and travel between late October and mid March and you’ll pay a lot less.

To give you an indication, in 2015 I booked during the sale and travelled in Mid March and again at the end of November, each for two weeks and an Upper Class return ticket cost me a fraction over £2,000. ‘Way too much’ I hear you say. Well, possibly, it depends on your budget but consider this:

An economy return fare booked during the sale to travel during the school Summer holidays will cost you not less than £846. In that context £2,000 to travel in comparative luxury is in my books an absolute no-brainer.

If however you want to save your money to spend when you get there and I can certainly see the merit in that, during the sale you can get an Economy return ticket for as little as £545 and Premium Economy from £949.

If you can’t book during one of the sales you will pay more. You can shop around between Virgin and BA but they operate amazingly similar pricing structures (BA First Class excepted) and they tend to hold their sales at the same times. What can happen is that you wait too long into the sale before you try and book and your preferred dates are no longer available. Then it can pay to try the other company. I had to do that for my trip in March 2016 and ended up flying BA instead hence I’m updating the British Airways section of this blog upon my return so I can see what’s changed and to keep you up to date with the latest developments and any useful wrinkles.

Loyalty program (air miles)

Virgin’s loyalty program is called Flying Club. You start at Red and can progress to Silver and Gold. You progress through the levels the more you fly. What’s common to each level is that you earn miles dependent upon how far you fly. A trip to Vegas and back as a Silver member is worth about 21,000 miles. You earn miles faster as a Gold member than as a Silver member than as a Red member. There are extensive details on the Flying Club website.

You don’t have to join Flying Club so is there any point? If you’re going to fly once in a blue moon then no there isn’t. If you’re going to fly more regularly then yes there is. Besides miles there are some other benefits. For example as a Silver member you get to use Premium Economy check in facilities even if you’re flying Economy. You can use the No. 1 lounge without paying and there are seat reservation benefits. With Gold you do better still such as free access to the Clubhouse.

Most important however is miles earned because you spend those miles on’ free’ flights. I say ‘free’ but that’s not strictly true. You still pay taxes and surcharges but you don’t pay the fare. By way of example if you have enough miles for a ‘free’ Upper Class flight you would still pay about £550! I bet you didn’t realise how high Air Passenger Duty has become! You pay more duty in Upper Class than you do in Premium Economy and so on. That said an Upper Class flight for the price of the cheapest Economy flight! How many miles would I need? The answer is about 100,000. So, one ‘free’ flight for every five or so that you pay for. Similar economics apply to passage in the other classes.

I’ve just made my reservation for this year’s November trip. Have a look at this recent post and you’ll see how it pays to collect these air miles. Note also that the tax and fuel subsidy has come down somewhat from its height of £550 because of the (temporary) collapse in petrol prices.

If you’re going to fly regularly it does therefore pay to stick to one carrier such as Virgin. You can also earn miles as you spend with various credit cards or on other purchases and you can transfer benefits from other loyalty programs to Flying Club so that you earn miles faster. Periodically, if you take out a Virgin Atlantic American Express card you can gain as much as 30,000 miles for spending a fairly modest sum on the card which would put you well on the way to a ‘free’ flight.

As with everything else you can find much more information on the Virgin Atlantic website.

You’ll spend between nine and a half and eleven hours in the air. When you arrive you’ll need to decide how to get to your hotel – see Airport Transfers.

As always I’ve tried to give you a lot of relevant detail in this section that you might find helpful but please feel free to comment if you need more help or if you think I’ve got it wrong and I’ll try to get back to you with more specifics or to deal with your particular query.

Written by eilv