Upper Class makes me feel swanky!
Points, Award Space, and the Dreaded Fuel Surcharges
On our vacation to London, we chose to fly Virgin Atlantic Upper Class for the 10.5 hours there and 12 back because we had amassed the required 50,000 Elevate points each to redeem the Virgin Atlantic Upper Class award, through just flying a lot on Virgin America, both having Virgin Visa Credit Cards (we get 8 points per $1 base airfare using our cards to book Virgin America flights), some Amex Memberships Reward point transferring, and a good points buying sale around last winter time. Virgin America and Virgin Atlantic, despite being both Virgin, are separate brands and airlines, but they do partner together. This means if you are a Virgin Elevate member and have enough points, you can redeem them for award seats on Virgin Atlantic, also Virgin Australia, Hawaiian Airlines, Singapore Airlines, and more.
While it's great it you fly Virgin America a lot and rack up points, it does have it's drawbacks. You need to call to redeem any partner awards, you cannot do it online. Also, there aren't many award spaces given in Upper Class on Virgin Atlantic and the calendar opens up 333 days out, so it's wise to check Virgin Atlantic's calendar for space by going to their site, putting in the dates you're thinking of, and then selecting the spend miles option. This will then show you the availability calendar and give you the option to look at different months. When looking at this calendar, keep in mind that purple means Upper Class availability and red means Economy.
The other thing to keep in mind is that you do get charged quite the fuel surcharges and taxes on this award redemption. For both our Upper Class redemptions it ended up being $1100 per person in tax and fuel surcharge. This might and can be unattractive to someone looking to minimize cost, but for us at the end of the day it was what it was. The Upper Class seats are normally in the ballpark of $5k, so to get them at $1100 a piece is still a fairly good deal. That being said, you can also book Virgin Atlantic award space with Delta Skymiles online through Delta.com and pay way less in tax and fuel surcharges (from West Coast it's usually around $304-314), but it will require at least 140k miles if there's even award space available. You can also redeem Hawaiian Airlines miles with lower fuel surcharges as they partner with Virgin Atlantic, but again, at 130-160k miles. So your mileage quite literally may vary on how you choose to go about it for redeeming award space. For us, despite the hefty fuel charges, it takes less flying and spending to generate the 50k Elevate than it would be to earn 140k Skymiles or Hawaiian miles.
SFO-LHR Virgin Atlantic Upper Class 747-400/SFO Virgin Atlantic Lounge
(apologies now- my photos ended up deleted off my phone by accident when I was clearing space in my Photos folder)
Our flight was at 5:50pm on a Wednesday night, so I chose to work from home that day and we headed to SFO early to make use of the Virgin Atlantic Lounge, which came complimentary with Upper Class booking. We had never been to it before and were pleasantly delighted at how open and well-lit it was. There's a bar, tables and chairs everywhere, and the windows overlook the runways and have a nice blue tinting on them. The food and drinks are complimentary, so I had a blackberry bramble and we ordered a burger to split with fries. The Lounge bathrooms were spacious and nice, and overall the SFO lounge is a fantastic way to kill time before a flight. It is before security, but Upper Class has it's own security entrance, so you don't really need to rush to the gate and they'll announce when passengers should head to their gates for their flights.
I had moved our seats from the bulkhead to down by the bar in case I needed water or snacks throughout the flight, and as we boarded it was clear the 747 was the older Upper Class product introduced a few years ago. There was noticeable wear and tear, but the seats felt private and comfortable enough, and since this was my first time in a first or business class, I can't really complain. I'm only 5'1", so I don't have to worry about being too tall for a seat. In fact, the seat to small ottoman distance was perfect for me to kick my feet up. Upon boarding, we were offered water and a glass of champagne, which I readily accepted, and some tasty kettle crisps as boarding commenced and finished. The amenity kit was basics like socks, earplugs, a sleep mask, toothpaste, chapstick, toothbrush, tissues, etc. The food and drink menu was readily available and I liked having the option to fill out if and what I wanted for breakfast ahead of time so I didn't have to wake up or worry about it later. As we took off, I reclined my seat back a bit and proceeded to watch a few movies and ordered more drinks and dinner, which was a filet with a potato rosti that was just okay, and some nice pumpkin cheesecake for dessert. I got to say, I do think they do a nice job setting up dinner and those airplane salt and pepper shakers are cute. About 3 or so hours in, I asked for my seat to be converted into bed mode, which the flight attendants do, and I went to the bathroom to wash my hands and change while they did their thing. I will say the thin mattress padding and bedding is pretty good for an airplane, and the pillow isn't awful. But as a light and kind of "sensitive" sleeper, I was never going to get a full night of sleep ever. I did manage a few hours and only woke up because the cabin, or at least me, got really warm so after fidgeting for a bit I watched some TV, had some water, and laid in bed a bit longer until about two hours out where I had my seat restored and I had some scones and bacon and coffee for breakfast, did my fast track card, and put my shoes back on. My boyfriend didn't seem overwhelmingly impressed with Upper Class, but for me I thought it was a lot better than had we flown ten hours in economy, so for me flying UC for what it would cost for economy was more than fine.
The bar itself, which seems to be a big hit for some UC flyers, is neat looking if a bit small, but its convenient for grabbing snacks and drinks and making small talk if that's your thing. Luckily on our night flight, no one was loud or very active there, but then we flew out with a lot of people on business and on a weeknight, so maybe that could be why.
LHR-SFO A380-800 & Heathrow Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse Lounge
Returning home, our flight was on the A380, which felt less worn than the 747 and was a bit nicer of an Upper Class product. Since ours was an afternoon flight, we got lunch and later on afternoon tea (which was lovely and came with tea trays!) and ice cream. Aside from the seats being a bit nicer, service was the same; pleasant, efficient, and I felt we were well taken care of. I definitely like the A380 over 747, though I really want to get seats next time on the new 787 product and see how that is.
But the best part about the return trip was the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at Heathrow. It's large, with showers, spas, bar, hanging seats, and everything and more I could want in an airport lounge. We snacked on some food and drinks and relaxed, and if we had more time I would have definitely made some use of the spa services. If you can and have the chance to use the Virgin Clubhouse at Heathrow, do it. It's definitely a worthwhile experience.
Overall, while we were on a more outdated aircraft and cabin temp aside, I genuinely liked our experience with Virgin Atlantic Upper Class and would book it again. I've heard Premium Economy isn't bad either if you don't quite have enough points for Upper Class, but for long hauls I think if I can and have the points, I'd choose Upper Class.
British Airways will soon be flying direct San Jose to London, so if miles or money aligns sometime in the future, I would like to compare their two business class products, but for now my loyalty tilts towards Virgin.
And hopefully next time I backup my photos. ;)