Europe Via SkyTeam, Take Two: A Mini-Trip Report

Filed Under: Delta, Virgin Atlantic

Happy New Year!

Last year was my biggest travel year ever. I woke up on January 1, 2015 in Buenos Aires, Argentina and spent the last hours of December 31, 2015 in Aix-en-Provence, France.

In between I went to, among other places, Madrid, Amsterdam, London, New York, and Tokyo. I flew SkyTeam a lot — and wrote about my experiences on Virgin Atlantic in Upper Class on the A340, and Delta’s Delta One business class on the 767.

For New Year’s Eve, I went on a last minute jaunt to the South of France using Delta SkyMiles. I booked a one-way award ticket from Los Angeles to London Heathrow in business class using 62,500 miles, but finding a decent return was tricky.

Ultimately I could cross the Atlantic in business class for another 62,500 miles out of London again (I had found availability to Washington and Miami on Virgin, and to Las Vegas on Virgin out of Gatwick). But tickets to and from continental Europe, especially France, to London were outrageous — $800 and up, in economy. So I would be paying through the nose simply for a positioning flight, and I’d have to pay again for another flight to take me from my U.S. gateway to Los Angeles (which, on New Year’s weekend, wouldn’t have been cheap). And that would be two connections.

In the end, I decided convenience — especially for a short trip — was paramount, and I paid 147,500 miles (Ben would kill me, but he’s too busy flying a Gulf carrier for the thousandth time) for a more direct return to Los Angeles from Nice, France — which was very close to where I spent my New Year’s — via New York, since Delta operates a fairly one-off JFK-Nice nonstop.

Since I’d reviewed all these products before, I didn’t set out to travel with the intention of logging a series of trip reports. However, I wanted to share with you some “updates,” if you will, on these tried-and-true products, as well as some other notes from my trip.

1. Virgin Atlantic’s A340s have been refreshed

When I flew Virgin Atlantic out of LAX in July, I was massively disappointed by the Upper Class cabin in the A340, which was showing its age. I expected the same thing this time around.

To Virgin’s credit, the A340s — or at least this particular one — have been refreshed. The cabin felt sleek and new, and the seats, televisions and surfaces had all been replaced. Color me impressed. (Nota bene, the seats still don’t have standard outlets, so you’ll need to ask for an adapter as you board.)

Virgin's refreshed A340
Virgin’s refreshed A340
Virgin adds a little pizzazz to the A340
Virgin adds a little pizzazz to the A340

As for the food, it was decidedly middling, as I’ve come to expect on Virgin. Service was generally delightful if a bit brash and unpolished. The bed remained as dreamy as ever.

So my New-For-2016 update is: The interior of the A340 is vastly improved. Now if they could only install real outlets and equip the planes for Wifi…

2. The No. 1 Traveller’s Lounge at Heathrow Terminal 3 is a very decent option

We didn’t have to change terminals at Heathrow, but we were flying onward to Marseille via British Airways on a paid economy ticket, without access to the Galleries Lounge. Instead, my Priority Pass card got us complimentary access for two to the No. 1 Traveller’s Lounge, which is a terrible name but actually a pretty terrific option for a paid lounge.

No. 1 Traveller's Lounge, Heathrow terminal 3
No. 1 Traveller’s Lounge, Heathrow terminal 3

Showers were wonderful, the lounge spaces were ample, well-designed and stylish, the food selections were fairly impressive and the bar served its purpose.

So my New-For-2016 update is: The Galleries Lounge is easy, but often crowded, and the bathrooms are showing their age. If you’ve got a Priority Pass card, it’s worth checking out the No. 1 Traveller’s Lounge for fancier showers and a bit less of a zoo atmosphere, though Champagne enthusiasts will note that you have to pay for bubbly at this lounge, while it’s free at BA’s Galleries.

3. That Delta Nice-JFK flight is pretty handy

France is a large country with many dynamic cities outside of Paris, but for the most part you’ll have to fly through dreaded Charles de Gaulle-Roissy airport to reach them (though Air France is introducing a JFK-Paris Orly route) — or worse, Heathrow.

Delta offers the one and only nonstop between the U.S. and anywhere else in France on its Nice-JFK route. The flight’s on the less-than-ideal 767, but it doesn’t have to be on anything nicer: the route itself is so novel and so convenient that it pretty much sells itself (and does; saver award space is nearly impossible to find and the flight was completely full).

Cheers to avoiding CDG
Cheers to avoiding CDG
Rainy, but convenient, Nice-Côte d'Azur Airport
Rainy, but convenient, Nice-Côte d’Azur Airport

As someone who loves France but hates CDG, this is good news. Delta has carved out somewhat of a niche market flying to “boutique” European cities nonstop from the United States. In season, Delta is the only carrier to fly to Pisa (Florence), Prague and Malaga, and the only U.S. carrier to fly to Reykjavik and Copenhagen.

So my New-For-2016 update is: There’s something to be said about not flying through a huge European hub. Nice-Côte d’Azur Airport is small, manageable, easy to get to and not at all prone to delays.

4. Delta really does have the best food… even if its wine list leaves something to be desired

I’ve actually been somewhat underwhelmed by last few meals in Delta One, so my expectations were fairly low when I settled in. As menus were distributed, though, I was impressed not only with how “upgraded” the menus themselves seemed, but also the choices on offer.

Delta One's new menu
Delta One’s new menu
Delta One's new menu
Delta One’s new menu
Delta One's new menu
Delta One’s new menu

The beef tenderloin starter was tasty, but what really stood out was my roast chicken dish, which was — I kid you not — exceptional. I would have been impressed had I ordered it at a bistro in France, and it was essentially a really terrific coq au vin. The sauce was delicious, the chicken was perfectly cooked and moist, and the parsnip mash was wonderful without being too unhealthy.

Similarly, my food in Delta One from JFK-Los Angeles was also superb. I don’t think there’s any comparison, domestically speaking.

That all said, I noticed that while on the ground at Nice the flight attendants were carrying trays of sparkling wine up and down the aisles, asking if we’d like Champagne or orange juice. Because I was sitting in the back row, near the preparation area, I noticed they were pouring Segura de Viudas Reserva cava. I casually mentioned it to the flight attendant and she confided, “yeah, we’re not allowed to serve the good stuff until we’re up in the air.”

Mind you, the good stuff is Champagne Gardet, which is also what Virgin Atlantic serves (including on the ground). It’s fine, and not especially pricey. It’s fairly irritating that Delta won’t open the Gardet on the ground because of duty reasons. It’s, frankly, cheap of them, and they’re counting on no one noticing.

Delta's wine list, except that they don't serve the Gardet on the ground - they serve cava instead
Delta’s wine list, except that they don’t serve the Gardet on the ground – they serve cava instead

To that point, Delta serves the Segura de Viudas Reserva cava on its JFK-LAX route, and actually lists the sparkling wine — which is, to be clear, not from Champagne — as a “Champagne” in the wine list. That’s not only misleading and false advertising (they’re trying to genericize the word “Champagne” to take attention away from the fact they’re not serving it), but it remains incredibly cheap of the airline — especially when American Airlines serves the real stuff on its JFK-LAX route.

So my New-For-2016 update isDelta’s food service remains unparalleled. You’ll get a great business class meal; among the best. Delta’s been skimping on the wine list lately and “Master Sommelier” Andrea Robinson needs to up her game — and Delta needs to man up and pay the duties required to serve French Champagne on the ground, in France, of all places!

  1. I was on one of those outdated Virgin Atlantic upper class cabins for work in early December. I wasn’t impressed. There was a crack on the housing around the tv. The seat was showing past its age.

  2. “Ben would kill me, but he’s too busy flying a Gulf carrier for the thousandth time” – I liked the playful shot at Ben. It would be nice to see more dueling opinions on this blog. Like when Ben compared Etihad and Emirates F. It would’ve been nice to pull in other contributors’ opinions who maybe would have differed.

  3. Should you buy something you don’t need because it’s cheap?

    Should I care about global warming considering that I won’t be around and it’s your kids that will suffer anyway.

    So much confusion.

  4. Who would spend 147,500 miles !? Just take the train. How ridiculous. I guess when people like you buy the 147,000 miles tickets they will continue to raise prices.

  5. France is a large country with many dynamic cities outside of Paris, but for the most part you’ll have to fly through dreaded Charles de Gaulle-Roissy airport to reach them (though Air France is introducing a JFK-Paris Orly route)

    Ahem. Openskies. Been flying JFK/EWR-ORY for years.

  6. Nick, is there a reason you didn’t consider the train (as per the poster two above) or flying through ORY? Or a train to ORY? 😉

    Also, there’s the OneWorld/BA option of domestic award flights in Europe often being a good deal at 7,500 miles o/w. Did you consider any such option?

  7. Might not work for December but don’t forget you can fly from Canada to many destinations in France with non-stop flights via Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City. Air Canada fly to Paris and Nice (via Rouge) and will resume Lyon service in June and Air Transat (though not part of any alliance and does not offer any business class) fly to Paris, Nantes, Lyon, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Mulhouse, Marseille and Nice (most are however seasonnal) as well as multiple other destinations in Europe.

  8. I have always highly enjoyed your posts, Nick. I’m glad you’re back and hope to be reading more from you in 2016.

    But this post was such a tease! I wanted more. I have been toying with the idea of visiting Aix-en-Provence and would have loved to read of your impressions.

  9. Just take the Eurostar between France and London; unlike ye old great USA, public transport in Europe is sooooo much better.

  10. I’m confused what is new about that A340? Unless you were on one of the truly ancient (and I believe now all retired) A340-300s the last time, that’s pretty much what they all look like. The wall with the lit-up sparkly panel has been there for many years.

  11. @BigDaddyJ @Ryan: It was New Year’s weekend. Train prices were extremely high and comparable to plane tickets… and since I landed at Heathrow, it was a lot easier to just leave from Heathrow rather than transit into London to jump on a Eurostar.

    Also, sadly no award space on BA for the short hop to France — again, it being New Year’s weekend. I considered 147,500 for a direct Nice-to-USA routing, personally, to be superior to spending $600+ to position myself in London.

  12. CX is using the No. 1 Travellers Lounge for their F customers while their lounge is being renovated. Peversely, this is a very poor option as you are escorted to a tiny separate library-themed ‘Reserved’ room which appears to have maximum occupancy of 5 or 6 (no exaggeration!) although there was just me and one other on my visit. A glass of champagne and a time-appropriate meal from the menu is bought to you, and that’s the last you see of any service. You can wander out into the general area for signs of life if you wish, but I thought it pretty uninspiring. Instead, I headed off to the BA F lounge, having to convince the door dragon I was eligible for entry (educate your reception people BA !!) It was OK, not great, and had a buffet breakfast with chilled champagne. Bottom Line: Can’t wait for the new CX F lounge to finally open!

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