We were travelling on a package organised by the Holiday Place. I previously wrote about this package – when a great deal turns out to be just an average deal.
I’d previously selected what I think are the best economy seats on the aircraft outbound and some reasonable seats inbound. These are chargeable and quite expensive (£25 – £40 per seat) unless you have a Virgin Gold Card – so it’s worth trying to obtain one beforehand, perhaps using the Little Red status match scheme.
So what are the best economy seats on the aircraft?
The upper deck used to be reserved for premium economy. For some odd reason, Virgin reconfigured this so that the front set of seats are premium and rear are economy. The result is that the six seats at the front of economy have so much legroom, you can’t reach the back of the premium seat in front of you, even with your leg outstretched. In addition, there is a nice cupboard, that doubles as a shelf, next to the window seat, where you can store stuff and rest drinks. The only downsides are; these seats are three across and so if you are travelling as a couple, you’re likely to have someone in your row and the armrests are fixed and so you can’t lay across the seats. I actually booked the window and the aisle, in the hope that if the flight wasn’t full the middle seat would be empty. Note that the upper deck is accessed by a small winding staircase and isn’t suitable for those with limited mobility. Overhead lockers are also smaller, but there is a storage area at the rear of the upper deck for oversized bags.
And what is a reasonable economy seat for a couple, if the above seats aren’t available/not suitable?
At the rear of the aircraft, where the fuselage narrows, the seat configuration changes from 3/5/3 to 2/5/3. This results in a large gap between the window and the fuselage. So if you choose a seat pair that is two rows back from the start of 2/5/2, the window-seated passenger can stretch their legs along the gap. You also won’t have anyone else sitting in your row. The downside of these seats are; you will be one of the last to be served food and not all the choices may be available, you’ll be one of the last to disembark and you’re close to the lavatories.
We went to the Upper Class check-in as that is available to Gold card holders. I was surprised to see that they had assigned a trainee to the check-in desk. I guess they decided that as that check in wasn’t busy, a trainee would have more time to follow the process. It was fine with us, but I suspect some Upper Class passengers might prefer an experienced operator. After we were checked in to Economy and it was apparent that we weren’t likely to be upgraded, I asked if there were any paid for upgrades available. Sadly the aircraft was completely full and there was only one seat in Upper Class for £1000 – which isn’t really that good an offer. The full aircraft also meant that my ‘keep the middle seat free’ plan had failed.
Our boarding cards had the Premium security stickers and so we used that. It was a complete shambles and probably slower than the regular security. I think part of the reason is that they filter those who are infirm and those with children through this channel and nice as that is, the result is that the entire process is slowed down.
When you exit security, it is slightly confusing as to how to get to the lounge. If you take the escalator down, you end up in lower concourse – you need to keep left, head into the upper concourse and around to the Virgin lounge.
The Virgin lounge was the usual oasis of calm, champagne and cooked-to-order food. I had the excellent Eggs Royal, which is a take on Eggs Benedict, substituting smoked salmon for ham. It was so good I ordered another.
There was a long line for boarding, which we are able to skip with the Gold card and were soon on the upper deck. Later our middle seat passenger arrived. This was a very nice petite lady and so I was happy to swap seats so she could be next to her husband who was in the other aisle seat. Departure was on time. Everyone was provided with hot towels. We had the free headphones but no amenity kit – didn’t ask as assumed as this wasn’t available in economy, but then found we had one on the return.
The economy food was pretty good and extra drinks were available throughout the flight until there was an announcement that they had run out of alcohol and no more would be served – I’m guessing this didn’t apply to Upper Class.
The entertainment system had a good choice of movies and other content. The touch screen system was a little clunky and unresponsive when compared to an iPad.
I’m not sure if Virgin have a policy, similar to BA, of personally visiting and greeting Gold card holders by name – but that didn’t happen in either direction.
We landed on time and didn’t have to wait that long for immigration and baggage delivery. We weren’t asked to prove that we had travel insurance as we’d been warned.
There was a Holiday Place rep waiting landside and we were whisked away to our hotel (Iberostar Parque Central) in Havana in a late model Audi.
There was an Upper Class check in which we could use. Another full aircraft and only one seat available in Premium Economy for less than £200 – which was actually a good deal. I said I would definitely pay for two seats if they became available and they said they would let me know – I never heard anything after that. A Virgin rep also collected our 25CUC per person, complete rip-off departure tax levied by Cuba. 1CUC = 1USD. Apparently this will be built into airfares now. Our boarding passes had VIP written on them in biro and I asked about fast track and lounge. The check-in attendant advised that there was a fast track and a lounge.
We walked to security, where there was a line plus only one other option that said ‘Diplomats and Cabin Crew’. We were turned away from that entrance and joined the standard line.
Security was a complete joke, lines not managed, no advice as to what should be removed from bags, some bags falling off the conveyor at the other end. I decided to just put my bag through with liquids and iPad still within, then let them tell me what to take out – it sailed through. I beeped on the scanner and was half-heartedly frisked, with shoes still on, before I was told to proceed.
The airport concourse was small and lacking air conditioning. There were a few shops selling duty free and cigars. The cigars were less expensive than the cigar shop in our hotel. As a price check, Romeo & Juliet No.3 cigars were 6 CUC each – UK price about £11.50.
The lounge was probably the worst lounge I’d ever visited, so much so that I’ve dedicated a separate report on the facilities.
I suspect many of the people in the premium boarding line weren’t eligible. This line was boarded first and we found our duo of seats at the rear of the cabin.
This time we had amenity packs (ear plugs, eye shades, toothbrush and toothpaste) plus headphones and small bottles of water. We even managed to get our first choice of food, although I saw that the next row back didn’t.
We landed slightly early. Gatwick immigration was overrun and it didn’t help that we were one of the last to disembark. It took maybe 40 minutes to clear immigration. We still had to wait another five minutes at the baggage carousel for our bags – tagged with Upper Class Priority stickers. So not a good experience, although I blame London Gatwick for this.
Overall, as economy flights go, this was pretty good. But then we did benefit from fast track checkin, boarding and outbound fast track security and Virgin lounge. I always say I’ll never do a long haul economy again, but who knows what will happen when the price is right.