Updated: Feb 11
I stumbled upon a Virgin Atlantic flight during a late night quest for reasonably priced tickets to Europe. For years it had been the mysterious east coast carrier that ferried fancy travelers to the United Kingdom when the Concorde wasn't available. Recently, the airline has begun to make its presence known on the west coast and those of us fed up with poor treatment from air carriers have breathed a sigh of relief. It is a joke now, of course... the way airlines treat their customers. The long delays, indifferent attendants, and lost luggage are just par for the course when it comes to air travel. For some mysterious reason we have just accepted it. "OK. Well, flight is a miracle. Let's be glad we aren't all dying of cholera on a steamer to China, I suppose" is what we say to ourselves when a flight is mysteriously canceled and you have to spend the night at the airport... because the offending airline has found a mysterious loophole that has let them off the hook for giving you an actual bed to sleep in for their mistake. We categorize the stories our grandparents told us of luxury economy flight the same way we do when we hear the stories of when "dime cost a nickle"... a lovely thing from a golden age when people actually got what they paid for.
Well, I am pleased to say that I have discovered an airline where you don't have to factor in "at least I didn't get cholera" when judging how well your flight went. Oh yes. I found it. I found it one night in a feverish haze, tired of my husband's toxic work schedule and desperately needing a vacation... I typed Seattle to London into an online flight scanner and there it was... Virgin Atlantic. The flawless red theme, cute tag lines, reasonable prices, and top notch customer service all said that this flight was going to be better than the rest.
So what is it like to fly Virgin Atlantic with kids? I don't know... what is it like to fly First Class with kids? Nice. Dreamy. You feel like a guest and you kind of forget you even have kids because the flight crew is taking such good care of all of you? Yeah. Like that.
Think I'm joking? If you were to tell me I could fly Virgin Atlantic economy to Paris or British-Airways-United-American-Airlines-Delta first class to Paris, I would pick the economy seat. Now you really must think I'm joking. Or perhaps I am too traumatized by economy seats on US carriers and under exposed to first class cabins to know any better... and perhaps that is true, but hear my experiences and I'll let you be the judge.
We bought our tickets online. Seattle to London. All four of us had a frequent flier account set up. There was extra security measures in place for the boy's accounts, requiring me to print out and sign a consent form. While this may seem overkill to some, I appreciated the extra level of precaution. Once we were all booked and confirmed I was given the opportunity to opt for kid's meals for the boys. Not knowing whether or not this would actually amount to anything on the airplane... I expected the worst and somewhat hoped for the macaroni and cheese.
Scott and I had a few questions with upgrading our seats (it didn't work out) and the staff on the other end of the line was very friendly and made us feel valued even in our up-graded-less state.
We braced ourselves for the usual emotional abuse from the ticket counter staff. We were shocked and delighted to meet a cheery young lady in a sharp red flight attendant uniform who made us feel incredibly welcome. Passports were checked, tickets issued, bags tagged, bags checked, and a list of eligible lounges were given to us without a hitch. Our shoulders relaxed considerably.
The boarding process was as smooth as the check-in. We found our seats with ease. The lighting and upholstery onboard the aircraft (a brand new Dreamliner- swoon) was in coordinating red, purple, and brown. I was a tiny bit nervous that the ergonomic seats would be dreadful, but they were quite comfortable for the 9 hour haul. (Of course, it helped that we had our "sky couch" of an entire row of seats to ourselves, I'm not going to lie.) The inflight entertainment was beautifully curated. The kids were very occupied with the child friendly options. I enjoyed finally getting to catch up on a few documentaries I had missed out on. Cocktails and snacks were served pretty quickly after takeoff.
The crew was around, asking if you needed anything in a sincere sort of way... not in that burned-out-I-feel-inconvenienced-by-my-job way. Dinner menus were handed out (Yes, menus in economy!) and the quality would have Jerry Seinfeld's joke about airplane food falling flat on its face. The kids, much to my surprise, were served their meal about a half hour before the adults. I was just as pleased to see a well rounded dinner of fresh carrot sticks, yogurt, bottled water, a pudding, and macaroni & cheese as I was to see that my request had been honored.
Scott, unfortunately, had that person in front of him who immediately would jam his seat into the reclining position as soon as we had reached the appropriate altitude. He prepared himself for a miserable dining experience. Shortly before dinner was served we noticed the crew made everyone put their seats up for meal time. I hadn't seen this done since I flew Korean Air. It is such a polite gesture that ensures everyone enjoys their meal. Shocked and delighted, again. Dinner was cleaned up, more cocktails were had, and soon it was time for bed. We did our best to sleep. Economy does have its limits. Bathrooms were kept clean. The staff was always around to see to any need. Breakfast was served, cleaned up, and we disembarked.
Our luggage was safe and sound on the baggage carousel. We made it through immigration and noted how great we felt. We weren't dizzy with the wicked combination of jetlag and stress. We were a tiny bit tired, but that was it. Compared to how we normally feel after disembarking on a British Airways flight, that one person once described as like "driving a jet ski through a mud puddle", we felt like kings.
The Homeward Bound Flight
Since we were on Virgin Atlantic's home turf in London we were sent to a gigantic floor of kiosks to check in. This was stressful considering the international nature of the flight. The gentleman checking our tickets and passports before we proceeded to the kiosk was less than friendly (yes, he was a Virgin Atlantic employee). The process was hectic a la Southwest airlines where you felt like you were just being herded through the line. It was just a shock and, to be fair, we were probably a little more sensitive than we normally would have been considering that we were heading home after a very dreamy vacation. We dropped off our bags and hoped they would make it to our home airport. (They did.)
The home-bound flight wasn't nearly as full as the outbound. We were able to spread the four of us over two rows of three seats. The staff was offering very reasonable upgrades to their economy plus cabin, which we declined considering our "sky couch". Our flight was during the day so we didn't get a lot of sleep. What we lacked in sleep, the crew immediately made up for in service. Drinks, snacks, drinks, ice cream... yes, ice cream. The entertainment kept us occupied for the entire 9 hours. (I finally saw Bohemian Rhapsody. It was good!) Dinner was handled the same way on the outbound flight. Kids served early, menus, adult meals a bit later. The flight attendant who was handling our side of the plane took quite a shine to Charlie and Oliver. She brought them cookies and hot chocolate with a compliment about how sweet they were. Charlie beamed. We were honestly sad to leave.
As we have said before- when it comes to travel the little things add up to big things. Most commercial airlines send us a steady drip, drip, drip of Chinese water torture of micro-aggressions and poor treatment. It adds up to everyone being stressed out and miserable. It really does. The crew is unhappy and the passengers are miserable. But a smile, a little hot chocolate on the side, a genuine check in to make sure you are ok, and coordinating cutlery really make a big difference when you travel. You are so vulnerable when you are away from home, and a little service goes a long way. Nobody is asking for massages or 1,000 thread count sleep sacks here... we just don't want to feel punished for giving someone our money.
If you get a chance to fly Virgin Atlantic, take it. That strange fear of "This flight is going to be miserable" fades away the moment you buy the tickets. You realize this is probably how your grandparents felt and air travel gains that romantic sense of adventure you knew of, but never experienced.
When we got off the plane we saw our friend from the check-in counter in Seattle. Her face registered that look of "Hey! I remember you guys!" and she asked us how our trip was. We told her how much we loved Virgin Atlantic and headed down the jet way.
(P.S. Thank you, Richard Branson.)