Recently, I used my Delta Skymiles for a trip to London. However, rather than flying the genteel Southern airline (aka Delta), I used my miles to book an Upper Class ticket with their joint venture partner, Virgin Atlantic (recently named the fifth-best international airline by Travel + Leisure). I was excited to put them to the test!
I had no trouble booking the trip through Delta’s website. I simply logged into my account, searched for DFW to London. 125,000 miles later, I was booked to go to London on an overnight flight across the pond. My husband, who booked separately, also had no problems making his reservation, even though he paid with actual dollars.
The morning of our flight arrived and we took a taxi from our apartment in downtown Dallas to DFW International Airport, arriving at terminal E where Delta has its outpost inside the American Airlines fortress hub. We arrived three hours early as recommended for international flights, but being that it was just before 6:00 A.M. on a Saturday morning, it took less than 10 minutes to check our bags, get through security, and get in to the Delta Sky Club, where I drank all the Starbucks coffee anyone could ever want and grazed on bagels, English muffins, and other breakfast foods.
Around 9:00AM, it was time to board an MD-88 bound for Atlanta. Since we were first class, we were able to board first and get a pre-flight beverage. I ordered a Bloody Mary, and the Atlanta based southern belle who also doubled as a flight attendant said, “You look so young and beautiful, you are over the age of 21, right?”
“Yes,” I replied. At the age of 30, getting carded is definitely a compliment.
A couple hours later, we were in Atlanta, arriving at Terminal B. Since we had about seven hours to kill (we wanted to make sure we made our connection when we booked the flight), we decided to walk to the international concourse, F, rather than take the plane train. Walking between terminals in Atlanta exposes you to a variety of art and gives you a brief overview of the history of the city, with highlights including the Civil War and Reconstruction, Atlanta pastor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work on desegregation and civil rights, as well as the 1996 Summer Olympics. It is also good exercise.
When we finally made it to Terminal F, the difference between this one and all the others was immediately apparent and astounding. That is not to say the other terminals are horrible, and renovations to many of them are ongoing, but Terminal F is in a league of its own. It was like stepping into a fancy new two-story mall that just happened to have airline gates attached to it.
Since we were going to be spending two weeks in Europe, we elected to not do any shopping and proceeded to the Delta Sky Club. Unlike the Sky Clubs in other terminals, this one was open, spacious, and had tons of natural light (NOTE: this was before the new Sky Club opened in Terminal B). Other features that set this one apart are showers and a rooftop deck where we could enjoy watching planes take off and land while sipping New Zealand’s signature wine varietal, Sauvignon Blanc. We also helped ourselves to soup (he had Italian wedding and I had an Indian curry), snacks, salads, and other eats that were available during our time there.
Finally the time came to board the plane to London Heathrow. We made our way down to the departure gate where an A340 named “Bubbles” was waiting for us (Virgin Atlantic likes to name their planes). We made our way down the jet bridge, got on the plane and turned left towards the front.
The first thing that stuck out was the purple lighting and 90’s pop music being pumped through the speakers. When Sir Richard Branson launched Virgin Atlantic a couple decades ago, he wanted to make flying a fun experience. Mission accomplished, even if the on-boarding playlist could use an update.
We made our way past the on-board bar to our seats, and each seat also came with its own footrest. The footrest has the ability to double as a seat (with a seatbelt) if someone wanted to sit across from you. Underneath the footrest it was like a little cubbyhole where you could put your smaller personal items while your larger ones went into the overhead bin.
On the seat was an amenity kit. In addition to toothpaste, toothbrush, blindfold, ear plugs, face moisturizer, etc… it also came with a lemon-chamomile spray for the pillow, supposedly to help you sleep better.
As we were settling in, the flight attendants came by to offer a pre-flight glass of champagne and a newspaper. I had my choice between various publications, including the Sun and Financial Times. I opted for Financial Times, or FT as they called it, and began reading while sipping the Gardet Brut Premier Cru, which I can only describe as drinking the tears from an angel.
The flight attendants, dressed in very fun outfits with the ladies wearing red skirts, white blouses, and red lipstick; and the men in purple vests and black pants, were extremely professional. If you fly Delta frequently, an Atlanta-based crew is most likely going to call you honey, sweetheart, etc. This crew, while friendly and you could joke around with them, was definitely all business. This is not a bad thing, just one a difference I noticed.
Shortly afterwards they came by and asked what I would like for dinner once we were up in the air. I ordered a vodka cranberry for my pre-dinner cocktail, and for dinner I ordered a beef filet and paired it with a 2012 Bordeaux. The flight attendant also gave us cards so we could place our breakfast orders. For dessert (or pudding – as they called it) I chose a slice of the chocolate chip cheesecake. The front of the card read “Wakey wakey,” and on the back were the breakfast options. I selected the chocolate hazelnut croissant, paired with coffee.
After everyone had taken their seats and gotten buckled up, it was time to take off. The captain came over the speakers and stated “Here at Virgin Atlantic, we don’t sing, we don’t dance, but we will show you a short video. So if you would, please give your undivided attention to the video monitors and flight attendants. Thank you.”
At that point, the screens that normally showed movies began playing the animated safety video, featuring you, the passenger, in a variety of scenarios including playing a cowboy in the wild west, a superhero, and a spy like James Bond.
When the video got to the part about flight attendants pointing out the exits and lights illuminating the aisles, the flight attendants were perfectly synchronized. If synchronized safety demonstrations were an Olympic sport, Virgin Atlantic’s crew would win the gold.
After the pre-flight safety briefing was complete, it wasn’t long before we were taxiing into position to get ready for takeoff. Atlanta is the world’s busiest airport in terms of aircraft movements (as of this writing – Chicago O’Hare has been known to have more from time to time) and passengers. So for anyone who has ever flown in to or out of ATL, it comes as no surprise that the runways were busy.
Most narrow body aircraft have their seats perpendicular to the fuselage, so in order to look out the window one only has to turn their head to the left or right. However, Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class suites on their wide-bodies are angled at roughly 45 degrees to the fuselage, so I had to twist and turn to check out the action occurring outside the window.
As we lined up and got in to position, I could feel the power of four engines revving up and it wasn’t long before we were racing down the runway and taking off into the clouds. Soon, we reached our cruising altitude, and the captain turned off the “fasten seat belts” sign and the flight attendants began serving the pre-dinner cocktails.
While enjoying my drink, I kept turning around and looking out the window to see if I could see any of the great cities of the east coast, but alas, it was a cloudy evening. So, I began reading my book, An Imperceptible Spark by my friend Steven Rice, until they began serving dinner. The beef filet I ordered was cooked medium well, tender, juicy and marinated in a mildly sweet brown sauce. The meal was delicious, and the wine I chose paired perfectly with it. Soon they brought out the pudding, and the chocolate chip cheesecake was divine. It was moist and tasted like it could have been made right there on the plane.
After dinner, the flight attendants were also making their way around the first class cabin, changing the seats into lie-flat beds as us passengers began queuing at the lavs to change into the pajamas we were provided with. The long-sleeved shirt was very cozy, but the bottoms would not stay around my waist even if I pulled the draw strings as tight as possible.
I returned to my seat, now a bed, but I wasn’t tired, so I decided to try Virgin Atlantic’s in-flight entertainment system that so many rave about. I put on the noise-cancelling headphones they provided me with and tried to start browsing the music selection.
After about the fifth or sixth time I poked the screen, I realized it wasn’t a touch screen (Virgin Atlantic’s newer A330s do have touch screens) so I began navigating using the control panel at the bottom of the screen.
Virgin Atlantic does have a humongous selection of music, but for whatever reason I wasn’t in the mood to listen to a lot of the offerings. After creating a small playlist of music, I decided to check out the movies. I was impressed by the options, and since I hadn’t seen Deadpool, I began watching. Unfortunately, it was around this time I started drifting off to sleep.
I am a light sleeper; however, if something is constant – like say, sound from a TV – I can adjust and fall asleep. This happened a couple times while Deadpool played in a continuous loop, so eventually I gave up and went back to music where I picked a long playlist entitled “Country Divas.” It wasn’t long before Dolly Parton was begging Jolene “please don’t take my man,” and at that point I finally drifted off to sleep. I remember waking up one time and looking out the window and seeing lights below and wondered if we were over Iceland (a later review of the flight path reveals we weren’t anywhere close to Iceland), but those thoughts didn’t last long as I drifted back to dreamland.
The next time I awoke, we were just beginning to go over Ireland and our flight attendants were starting to serve breakfast. The chocolate hazelnut croissant was flaky, buttery, and chocolatey, but the British need some lessons in choosing which coffee to serve. After breakfast it was time to change back into regular clothes. Some of the passengers dug into their amenity kits and got out toothbrushes, lotions, creams, etc… but I was just content chewing gum until we could get to our hotel, where we could shower and freshen up.
I returned to my seat and put my belongings in my carry-on and stowed it under the foot rest for landing. The skies over London are some of the busiest in the world, and Heathrow airport only has two runways, so we were in a holding pattern for a bit. However, the wait for the final approach was well worth it.
I began craning my neck to look out the window as we passed over Wembley Stadium (I tried to power up my phone to take a picture, but alas, I was not fast enough), central London with the River Thames, Tower Bridge, Parliament, Big Ben and the Eye below, and several row houses (see the video below of the final approach and landing) before touching down.
We got to our gate, and here our plane was attached to two jet bridges, compared to just one in Atlanta. After disembarking, we proceeded to the UK’s immigration and customs, where we unfortunately waited about an hour until we were seen by an immigration officer; we got our passports stamped and went to baggage claim where our luggage was already waiting for us. We then headed to the Underground/Tube station (every terminal at Heathrow has its own station) to go to our hotel in Piccadilly Circus and begin our European adventure.
Overall, my first flight in a wide-body plane could not have gone any better (ok – maybe if they served better coffee it would’ve been better, but that’s beside the point). Virgin Atlantic is as known for their service and in-flight entertainment options as they are for their founder, Sir Richard Branson, and the airline definitely lived up to the hype. Delta has picked an excellent partner across the pond.
To Sir Richard Branson, well done.
A big thanks to our friend John Walton for allowing us to share some of his photos!