Flight Review: Virgin Atlantic Business Class A330 - Atlanta to London

Feeling antsy, I made my way from the lounge to the gate in Atlanta's international terminal. Still fairly early, I wanted to be ready to board the first flight in a long line of great products coming up in this trip. From the departure gate, our plane was displayed outside of the window, ready to return home to London.

Airline: Virgin Atlantic

Aircraft: A330-300

Class: Business

Flight: 104

Route: ATL to LHR

After waiting for a short time, the business class section was called to start boarding, so I quickly made way for the aircraft.

Walking down to the plane, Virgin Atlantic does an impressive job of wowing you at first sight. On the other side of the entry door is the iconic lighting of the Virgin brand, pinks and purples flood the cabin, and style almost takes such a forward role that function kind of goes out the window. The immediate impact on you is impressive, nice little wow factor on first visual.

Missing Overhead Bins in Center Row of Seats

Missing Overhead Bins in Center Row of Seats

Look for a few more minutes, and the flaws start to come out. The most immediate to any passenger on the plane is the complete lack of overhead space for the middle seats. I understand the thought here is that there are fewer business class seats, so they should require far fewer overhead compartments. In practice however, the seats do not provide much storage space around them, so that extra hand bag or backpack many passengers carry needs to go overhead. While there may be fewer passengers in the forward section, there is a need for more luggage per person to go in the overhead. Our flight did run out of room for a few passengers and those bags needed to be placed in the coat closet instead. In my eyes this was a huge miss.

Upper Class Seat

Upper Class Seat

Seating was another miss in my opinion. Virgin Atlantic was definitely try to cram as many seats into the cabin as possible while still offering lie flat beds. Problem here is that the seats are placed at a pretty extreme angle, so window seats are actually hard to see out the window with.

Second and probably most annoying is how tight the seats are. Business class seats are not cheap, and if you are paying top dollar for these seats, then you are going to want a comfortable seat. Virgin attempted to get as much revenue as possible here and sacrificed passenger comfort. Honestly, I'd never pay full price for a business class seat in this arrangement, probably part of the reason this arrangement, while Virgin's newest, is already going away. Passengers just aren't happy with it. 

See Through Seat Dividers

See Through Seat Dividers

Sitting down, the artistic seat divider becomes an in your face element. Beautiful from a design aesthetic sense, the see through nature loses a sense of privacy that is a cornerstone of business class. Business customers want privacy to work, and sleep. Making the cabin feel more open air is a nice design choice, but beyond looks, the feel isn't right for the type of customers the airline is trying to attract.

Amenity Kit

Amenity Kit

Before the plane pushed back, the crew came around and offered amenity kits and sleep suits. Sleep suits are the British equivalent of pajamas. The flight attendant gave me a medium sized pajama. I was skeptical of the sizing since I normally wear a large to x-large, but the mediums ran so big they actually fit me quite well.

Amenity kits on Virgin were quite sparse as far as kits go. There was some useful stuff in them, but it seemed to be lacking the variety of most normal kits. The bags were also the least useful of all those I received on this trip. I find myself underwhelmed by this kit, it's not one I'll be inclined to reuse. 



Preflight champagne, orange juice or water was offered before takeoff. I chose the champagne, which was middling at best, nothing to write home about. Once again, the disclaimer here is that I'm not a big drinker, so take my alcohol recommendations with a grain of salt. I don't like alcohol, so I'm pretty picky on drinks that contain it.

As for the service crew, they were quite impressive. Friendly, attentive, laughing and joking. The crew brought a friendly and fun feeling to the cabin throughout the flight. Crew did strike a nice balance between being attentive and having fun. I would say service could have been a little faster, but they were always on top of things when they were needed.

Once we taxied out to the runway at Atlanta, the plane took to the sky for a nice 8 hours flight to London. 

Traffic in Atlanta

Traffic in Atlanta

Traffic in Atlanta

Traffic in Atlanta

Taking off from Atlanta

Taking off from Atlanta

After takeoff, food was ordered and served. I'll be doing a food review later this week, stay tuned for that. 

Once meals were done I watched some TV since it was still a little early to go to sleep in the US. Pulling out the in flight entertainment screen, the selection was up to date, but lacked depth. Once you saw the newest films, there wasn't a huge back catalog to choose from beyond that. Being that this was only an 8 hour flight, the entertainment selection wasn't a huge deal, but I could see it being a bit boring for the longer flights. 

As a note, the screen is controlled by a separate remote. Like many modern products, this remote has a built in screen. The screen allows you to view the flight maps while still watching something on the main entertainment screen. My unit had some issues at first. The maps froze the handheld unit's screen for much of the beginning of the flight. I did not notice when, but the unit did eventually load the maps later on in the flight after I just ignored it for a while. This just highlights that the plane and product is showing a little age. Dings and bangs showed all over the cabin, nothing major, but minor things that did make the cabin feel aged. 

After watching some movies, I got ready for bed. A flight attendant helped make my bed, and for good reason. Virgin's seating is not like most lie flat beds. Most other products allow you to stay in the seat and just go along for the ride as it converts to a bed, but not the Virgin Atlantic seats. These you need to bring to a full upright position and then unlock the back of the seat, which then folds down to a flat position. This is not intuitive and really I'm not sure I still know how to do it.

Similarly this is a problem when waking up. Getting ready for breakfast, we hit some turbulence. This meant I could not unbuckle and get up from my seat to convert back to a seat. In the mean time I just sat up in my bed until the ride smoothed out enough that the flight attendant could convert it back to a seat and give me my morning meal. 

Landing in London

Landing in London

After a quick meal, we prepared to land in London. As always, London was cool and breezy but a beautiful day otherwise. The captain touched us down and before you knew it we were through immigration and on to British soil.

Virgin Atlantic was a beautiful product, but suffered from being too highly focused on that beauty. Design was put before function here and the seat was tight, difficult to convert to and from a bed, and see through dividers sacrificed a lot of privacy. At the end of the day I was happy to be in business class seat over economy, but the seat was a little lackluster. I look forward to seeing what the new updated business class product will be from Virgin, 

Destination: Aix En Provence, France

Three to four times a year, I make a work pilgrimage to Southern France. Located in the hills south of the alps is where we are building a new plant. Almost every time that we make this trip, the preferred place to stay during our time in France is the town of Aix-En-Provence, well known for the landscapes and focal point for many impressionist painters.

Today Aix En Provence is the known as the judiciary city of this area of Southern France, as well as a major arts town for college bound students. Aix forms an interesting mix of a fairly young population, old architecture, and a travel destination for many foreign travelers. Since I do spend a lot of time in Aix, I've gotten to know it fairly well over the past few years.

If you goal is to purely visit Aix, then you'll want to get there by one of two methods. France's high speed train system, the TGV, stops about 10-15 minutes outside of the city at the Aix TGV Station. Your other option is to make use of the Marseille Airport, which is my preferred option. Both the airport and the TGV station are serviced by the same bus. Extra buses run to the TGV station, but you can easily grab a bus from the airport every 30 minutes. If you plan to visit more than just Aix, you may want to rent a car. In this case, I suggest going to the airport where rental cars are available.

Once arriving in Aix by bus or other means, you'll want to get settled in. The city boasts many options for lodging. Personally my preferred place to stay is the Renaissance Hotel, this is pretty much the only major hotel chain located in the center of the city. Other options exist outside the city for major chains, but are rarely have easy access to downtown where most people would like to explore. If you don't mind giving up your hotel points, there are some small boutique hotels to try.

I often stay at the Hotel Rotonde when my first option is too expensive. Hotel Rotonde is small, and wouldn't be a good option normally in my opinion. The problems start with cleaning staff who rarely are consistent on the way rooms are cleaned, or even if you get soap refilled. Secondly, and my most major grip, is that you are required to leave your room key with the front desk... though they ask for no identification when you return and ask for the key... this doesn't make me exactly feel safe about my belongings in the room. One the positive side, there is a breakfast setup every morning in the lobby.

If any of this doesn't sound appealing, there is another option in the Hotel des Augustines, which is a converted chapel. Personally I have not stayed here, but I will consider it on my next visit since the Rotonde has not been a good experience lately. Hotel des Augustines is a place many of my co-workers stay at and with the old stonework throughout the building, it is supposed to be a beautiful place to stay inside and out. 

Downtown Aix is beautiful, starting at the main roundabout at the center of the city. A huge fountain graces the center of the roundabout, while busy this fountain looks amazing during the winter when water is replaced by Christmas lights mimicking the flow of water.

Surrounding the fountain is a plethora of restaurants. The French are well known for their food, and with good reason, it is incredible. Almost any option is offered in this area. Explore the side streets and alleys here as they continue on like a labyrinth, continuing off in all directions, but still full of shops and restaurants. From hamburgers in crepes, to tapas, to pizza, just walk in any direction to find amazing food.

On the east side of the foutain is a street called Cours Mirabeau. During the evening hours, be sure to get there before 7pm though, the streets are lined with wooden booths where vendors sell anything from incredibly detailed chocolate, to Russian nesting dolls. This is where you can buy from local vendors, and some very unique items. Really this is the place to go at least one night to see all of the wares.

The 7pm thing has held very true over the many times I've visited. Now I tend to go around the winter, so I'm not sure if the longer days bring later hours, but almost every store is closed by 7pm. Grocery stores stay open a little later, but make sure you check the hours since these hours are nothing like what you would see in the United States. Restaurants are also open late as French dining is filled with conversation and often stretches more than 2 hours.

Aix promises an experience for any visitng southern France. Alps to the north, museums in the city, old arcitechture and amazing back street alleys. If you are thinking about southern France, make Aix a stop on the trip, or even the place you come back to every night. 

Food Review: American Business Class 787-8 PEK to ORD

Airline: American Airlines

Flight: 186

Route: PEK - ORD

Aircraft: Boeing 787-8

Class: Business

Booking my trip to Beijing, I had taken advantage of a very cheap fare out of Chicago, only $500 for a round trip to the other side of the world. One issue with that is the length of the flight. Chicago to Beijing is a route that takes you over the North Pole and requires about 13 hours in the air. If I can at all help it, I want to stay out of economy class as much as possible these days, it gets more and more uncomfortable every time a new seat configuration is added. Business class is quite the opposite, so while business class was full on the way to China, the return trip had some open seats available, so I took advantage. Using some points and a little bit of cash, I upgraded to an open business class seat.

One minor issue here is that you only upgrade at the airport if seats are open. You can upgrade prior if there are upgrade seats open, but they were already taken on this flight, so I had to wait until at the airport to see if any seats were open, or if someone was upgraded ahead of me. Luckily I got the seat, but waiting until the last minute means you don’t get your requested meal if you ordered prior to the flight.

Boarding the aircraft, I was in seat 1H in the middle section, I’d prefer to have the seat next to a window, but I wasn’t going to complain about getting a lie flat seat for a 12 hours return flight. When the flight attendants came around with a menu, my flight attendant mentioned they had boarded a special meal for me… awesome, they had just told me they hadn’t back in the terminal. This was actually a half truth, they boarded 1 main dish that was vegetarian, the rest I was on my own. This sucks if you are vegan, but I do sometimes go off script for these reviews, so it was fine seeing as they always seem to carry a vegetarian option anyways.

The menu read as follows:

Before takeoff we were offered drinks. I chose the champagne here, though I’m not a big drinker, and this was the only alcohol I had the entire flight. The pre-departure champagne wasn’t too bad. Something I wouldn’t mind normally drinking at an event or celebration of some sort.

Shortly after, we all took our seats, made a really fast taxi to the runway and took to the skies. We climbed out of Beijing and made our way to cruising altitude. The ride was a bit bumpy, but soon we were cruising along with service starting.

Starters were brought out that consisted of a salad, bread and duck spring rolls. This is where I first got a feel that they didn’t actually board full vegetarian meals. I immediately had her take the duck back, and stuck with the salad. Dressing on the salad was between a honey mustard and something the flight attendant couldn’t actually figure out. Not a great sign when your server doesn’t know what's being offered. I stuck with the honey mustard and it was actually very good, along with a well made salad. As always, the pretzel bread was fantastic.

Next up was the main course. This was the only thing that was boarded as a vegetarian special meal. Not exactly sure why this option was offered and nothing else on the entire plane unless it was left from a previous business class passenger on the outbound flight since it seems they don’t cater much out of Beijing anymore due to very poor past experience with their catering services.

Plated was a pasta dish… *groan* the vegetarian go to for airlines. It was well cooked but had the most confusing sauce I’d ever seen. What was expected was a tomato based sauce, it sort of was, but it seems like they were attempting an Asian flair. Tasting the sauce immediately told you it wasn’t exactly tomato, it was more of a sweet and sour sauce, maybe, sort of… I really don’t know what it was, just that it was weird and I would never have ordered it on the ground, nor would I want to. Not that it was terrible, but it certainly wasn’t good. Food purgatory if you will.

Last up was dessert, I grabbed the berry tart, seemed to be the least dairy based option. Personally, and I know this is subjective, I like berries to be tart, or sour. Overly sweetened berries ruins a dessert for me, and this berry tart was a little too sweet. The sugar content didn’t completely ruin the food, but it was riding the border for me.

After this, the table was cleared and I settled in for some sleep, a lie flat seat can never be overstated, this is all I want for my flights anymore. Soon after lying back, I fell asleep… for many hours. When I awoke, all I heard was the plates of other passengers being cleaned up, I guess I missed the mid flight snack. Flight attendants handle midflight or even pre-arrival meals very differently depending on who you get. This flight attendant never woke anyone for anything. My preference is for an attendant to ask if I want to be awoken, as I review food and want to try what is offered so I can pass that on to everyone here. Needless to say, I was mixed on my feelings here, as I wanted to try some of it… but there were no fully vegetarian options available, so I would have had to have them custom make it without meat for this one. Maybe better I slept through this meal. Back to sleep I went.

Waking just before landing, the flight attendant asked what I wanted to try. The only option that was vegetarian was the quiche. Now no matter if I am giving in from vegan a little to review these meals or not, I still never want eggs, never have been a big fan, still don’t want them now that I don’t eat meat.

Only option is the only option though and I tried it. Actually a very, very good quiche, fairly close to some of the best I’ve had. This is quite impressive seeing as this may have been catered in Chicago, flown to Beijing, sat overnight and flown all the way back to Chicago before it was ever served and it still was on point. Well done American, good show.

Alongside the quiche was some grilled squash, potatoes, and a side salad. All of these were pretty great, though I always find a salad for breakfast weird. Last up was dessert, a sour cream ginger cake. I think I’ve mentioned how I’m not a huge ginger fan if it is prominent. Personally, ginger is a subtle added ingredient, not in your face and this cake was dense and in your face with ginger. Once again, not terrible, but I would have preferred something else.

Soon we were on the ground and performing a normal Chicago taxi fo roughly the same length as your flight time. Overall the food was actually pretty good with the exception of the main course for the first meal. Other than that misstep, the food was very well done. Nicely put together American, as a vegetarian meal goes it was something I actually quite enjoyed.

Is Buenos Aires My Least Favorite Destination?

Time to look back on my trip to Buenos Aires a few weeks ago and what I thought of the city, the title may spoil my overall thoughts on the trip, but let’s jump into the details.

From the moment I stepped off the Turkish Airlines flight, I’d have to say that this trip ranks somewhere in the bottom of all the destinations I’ve visited to date. After clearing customs, you walk through an area with a bunch of taxi companies who immediately badger you to come make use of their company over the guy next to them. This was a hint to how I would be treated for much of the trip. After passing through into the main part of the arrivals area, I quickly located my taxi company.

Hitting up the ATM, I took out some money to pay for the taxi. The taxi is all pre-paid and can only be done in cash. Right after this, I was led out to the taxi and jumped into a really crappy car, Taxi Ezezia, and the man stood with his hand out waiting for me to tip him… I’ve never experienced this any other place. It’s this odd situation of trying to make you feel awkward enough to pay him for his service of grabbing my luggage out of my hands and walking me 50ft to the taxi stand. The entire interchange was uncomfortable, but at least my driver was good. The same cannot be said about the insane driver I had on the return to the airport.

After and evening in the hotel, the next day was rainy and I limited my walking around for some time. When I did go out, it immediately struck me that sidewalks were poorly maintained, buildings were old and run down. The entire city had a feeling or uncomfort for me. I can’t place it since Seoul was similary run down in certain areas but I never felt uncomfortable in Seoul. The only conclusion I could come to was the difference in how people treat you.

As an example, while walking through a downtown shopping area, I stopped in a store to look at some post cards. As you may recall, I get a postcard in every city I visit for my niece. As I was looking, a woman approached me and said something to me in Spanish. I removed my headphones and she repeated it. At that time I tried to explain that I don’t speak Spanish. At the point she was really annoyed and repeated it again. At that point I just turned around and walked out feeling like I was no longer welcome there.

This exchange in a little shop, this exemplified how I felt the entire trip, just like people were not happy, they weren’t willing to work with me, and were just generally rude. I can’t say everyone is that way, hotel staff were fantastic, but outside of that I felt like everyone was annoyed with me everywhere I went. An odd feeling to have, and one that ruins the entire experience.

There are some nice areas of Buenos Aires, but I really must say that the city attempting to tout itself as the Paris of South America is roughly equivalent to me calling my apartment the Taj Mahal of North America, it’s a huge stretch. Buenos Aires does have the European feel, if you focus on really small sections of the city, a block or two here, but turn onto the huge main road through the center of the city and you run into 90% of the buildings being run down. Roads are lined by little convenience store, not the shopping you see in France. As much time as I spend in France, I can definitively say that Buenos Aires does not feel like France.

On my way back to the airport I was with a crazy driver in start of rush hour traffic and he was not a good driver. Fast driving, shoving into small spaces, and going really really fast. Once I arrived at the airport, that was a relief and finally it was time to leave the city. I’ve never before wanted to leave a place like I did with Buenos Aires. My suggestion to avoid the city, while I did find some minor gems, the overall experience was unappealing. Avoid if you can.

Hotel Review: Park Tower - Buenos Aires

After landing in Buenos Aires, I made my way to passport control and customs, through winding hallways and a terminal that looked like it was straight out of the 1970’s… not sure it had actually been cleaned since then. Don’t despair though, terminal A is actually quite nice on the way back to the US. After clearing customs, my taxi was called for me by some of the most rude people I’ve interacted with, and this really started a trend in Buenos Aires. More on my thoughts about the city later thought.

Arriving at the Park Tower is a little bit of an odd experience. When booking the hotel, I came across the discription from many people that the Sheraton and Park Tower were attached. Hearing this description I had expected a mutual lobby, or connecting hallway on the ground floor, but this wasn’t the case. Park Tower and the Sheraton Convention Center hotel are literally the same building. Separated by a door on every level, the only difference is the decor in each of the hotels.

Once I got out of the taxi, someone offered to help me immediately, there was a good level of service here for the most part. I declined and made my way to the front desk. Design for the hotel is meant to be upscale, this is an SPG Luxury Collection hotel after all. Finding the front desk is almost a confusing thing, I am used to a counter and a few employees checking in guests. Park Tower uses desks like you might find in a CEO/Executives office, these are lined along the left side of the lobby. While the aesthetic is well executed, there really isn’t any waiting area, I can see this causing a lot of confusion during a busy check in time...though the building is fairly small as are the number of rooms, so the influx a check in may be fairly tame.

Decorations all around the lobby do remind you of a lavish style, with marble tile floors, gold accents everywhere and employees in full business suits. The upscale feel is pulled off fairly well. Staff was pleasant, clearly described how to use the internet and how my status would allow me certain perks… so on and so forth, normal check in speech.

After a few moments, I was on my way up the elevators to my room. Stepping off the lavish elevator on the 16th floor, I stepped into my room which was the first one on the left. Stepping through the door it was a beautiful room to see. On the right was a gorgeous display of wine, glassed, and then a really awkward snack selection… why would I need an entire jar of dulce de leche?

The room was  beautiful, the desk was set up in the far corner, and everything was fantastic to walk into. Really it hits you as a great room right off the bat. Turning around and walking into the bathroom, the beautiful marble with gold trimming around the room is carried into the bathroom as well. Here the setup is interesting, but something I liked. Dual sinks and a bathtub are present walking into the main part of the bathroom. Two doors with frosted glass are on the left, one for the toilet, and one for the shower. The separated rooms for each was nice. Had my girlfriend been traveling with me, having the separated spaces would have been nice. Getting ready would not mean someone else didn’t have privacy in the bathroom should they need to use it.

Overall the room was beautiful, but live in the room for a few days and the negatives start to show. This place was obviously old, and everything in the room showed that age. Lamps were plugged in with old wiring that I wasn’t entirely convinced wouldn’t flame up at any moment. Also, there was no convenient place to plug in electronics at night. Shorts of unplugging everything, the next closest outlet was at the foot of my bed. Outlets were, however, well set up by the desk.

Moving into the bathroom, things became obvious that they needed a better maintenance crew. The shower leaked into the main bathroom, a lot! At the bottom of the door was a bad seal and if no one was in the shower while it warmed it, there was no issue. As soon as someone gets under the water and some splashed toward the door, it held nothing back. Stepping out of the shower looked like Lake Erie had let loose on the floor, and I had to start keeping multiple towels on the floor to contain the flood.

Amenities in the bathroom was another point where things were well intentioned, but poorly executed. On the first night when I walked in, I thought the idea to base a soap line on wine was a great idea. Shampoos, conditioner, lotions and shower gels were all named after different wines. One was Pinot Grigio for example, and the grape smell was appealing. Give that one shower and the fake grape smell starts to remind you of all the bad, fake gum flavors and medicine like flavors you’ve ever tasted. The smell quickly went from pleasant to near cringe inducing. Even the hand soap was this way, shaped like a bunch of grapes, it had the same smell to it.

This hotel touts itself as having a butler on every floor. As described earlier, there aren’t many rooms here, I’d estimate 8 -10 per floor, which seems like having a butler on every floor would be impractical. Well I’d have to say that the hotel thinks the same thing, as there was no butler that I ever saw. Service was great when I ordered room service, and a chocolate + bottled water were brought by the room every night, so I can’t complain about the service I did receive.

Breakfast was included every morning, and this is probably the only place I can say the service was terrible in the hotel. No one came by to seat you except on random days, don’t know how those days were determined. Half the time, no one ever checked that I was supposed to have free breakfast or not. Getting a refill on juice or water was basically a fools errand, and the buffet was terrible for a vegan. There was some fruit available, but half was canned and super sweet. Really the food was unimpressive for a place that is supposed to be so upscale.

Really, the take away here was to just stay at the Sheraton Convention Center which was on the other side of the wall. While the Park Tower wasn’t overly expensive, the extra money it did cost was not worth it in my opinion. While I did not actually stay at the Sheraton, it did share the same building, and from what I did see of the Sheraton, seemed to be a fine hotel. At the end of the day, opulence isn’t really my thing, but it was fun to check out the hotel.