Hi Frugalistas! Many readers will know I’m a regular traveller on Virgin Australia. I’m a big fan, and have reviewed both the International and Coast to Coast Business Class previously. In January I was joined by MissG and Mr Frugalfirstclass on a family trip to Phuket. Options to fly from Sydney directly to Phuket are limited to Jetstar (which we are not fans of). So we went with our favourite domestic carrier, and went Virgin Australia via Perth to Phuket. Having experienced the Virgin Australia 777 Business Class, and knowing that their short haul offering is a Boeing 737 (so the same as the domestic Business Class) I was interested to see how Virgin Australia international B737 handled the 6hour flight from Perth to Phuket.
Virgin Australia B737 on the ground
We checked in and received our boarding passes in Sydney. This made our on the ground experience in Perth a bit different. Firstly, we had the (relatively) long drive to transfer from the Domestic to the International Terminal. And we didn’t need to check in in Perth. I did note, however, the check in was very quiet, so it should have been a prompt and efficient experience. We were given Express Lane Cards to use in Perth, but the Immigration area was very quiet and the Express Lane was not open. We were through and on our way in minutes. We had not been advised about Lounge access, but spotted the Singapore Airlines Lounge right near our gate. We had no invitation, but our names were on a printed list, and we were admitted immediately and without question. The lounge itself is quite small, but comfortable and not overly full. A reasonable range of food and drink was available, consistent with mid morning. The staff were very pleasant and all amenities were spotless and well appointed.
In Phuket, Virgin Australia uses the Thai lounge (along with everyone else I think!) It was crowded and ordinary, with a limited range of food and drink on offer. There was no toilet in the lounge and the attendant at the front desk spent our entire stay on her phone. Nuff said…….. Boarding was prompt and organised in Perth. We had done our seating in advance and were quickly settled down into seats 1A, 1C and 1D in the 2 + 2 configuration. We were offered a choice of orange juice or water prior to take off. Unfortunately on the return leg boarding was chaotic. Despite there being a priority boarding for Business and Premium status passengers it was not operational, and we were greeted with a messy and delayed process.
Virgin Australia B737 Business Class in flight
Virgin Australia service never fails to impress me. I love the casual and sunny attitude of their staff. It’s very Australian, and lacks the formulaic scripting you see on some airlines (beef or chicken Madam? Beef or chicken Madam?) Sitting next to MissG on the Perth to Phuket leg, I loved how they made a real point of making sure she was comfortable, hydrated and supplied with the inordinant number of snacks 12 year olds seem to need. Meal service was prompt, friendly and attentive.
Entertainment on the B737 is via the Virgin Australia inflight app. Economy passengers need to download the app and use their own phone or tablet. In Business Class we are supplied with Samsung tablets and ear plugs. The entertainment is well laid out and easy to navigate. There are a reasonable choice of movies, TV shows and podcasts, as well as flight map data. The tablets are in cases that allow them to be stood on the seat tray table. The only downside is the lack of space during meal service, where they need a bit of fiddling around with to find somewhere to put them where they can be watched while eating.
Virgin Australia works with well known Australian chef Luke Mangan and their food is always interesting and innovative. Business Class passengers are provided with a written menu and separate wine list. The menu is a set one with a choice for only Main Course (Entrée). The menu includes a choice of three mains, however, only two are available on the 737, which is a bit of a let down. The entire family goes for the lamb meat balls with spicy tomato sauce (vaguely Middle Eastern or North African in inspiration) and even the picky MissG enjoys it. I’m not impressed with the serving of the dessert in a box, rather than properly plated. But when I open it I change my mind completely – a mandarin cake with a sticky glaze, it is delicious. The only thing that is missing is a dollop of cream. A cheese platter completes my meal. On the Perth to Phuket leg we are also offered a range of snacks prior to landing. My fruit platter is standard airline fare, but again, served with efficiency and panache.
Our flight home from Phuket to Perth is a night time flight, leaving Phuket at 22.50hrs. We are offered a supper service with a coriander soup on offer. We all pass on the food, and I just go for a couple of glasses of Australian sangiovese, which see me off to sleep nicely…… Prior to arrival in Perth breakfast is served, consisting of fruit, croissant and Burcher muesli, along with some much needed coffee. The Burcher muesli is not only delicious, it looks almost too pretty to eat – the attention to detail is definitely very upmarket. The croissant is the real let down. Dry and bready and served without jam, none of us bother to finish it
Amenity kits are not provided on the Perth to Phuket leg, which is a bit of a disappointment. This is exacerbated by a distinct lack of amenities in the toilet. Business Class has a designated toilet at the front of the plane, however, apart from some handwash, tissues and the hardest paper handtowels imaginable that is it. Pillows and fleece blankets are provided on both legs. They are comfortable, and most importantly the blanket doesn’t leave fluff on my clothes (which regular readers will know is one of my real pet peeves). An amenity kit is provided on the night leg from Phuket to Perth with socks, ear plugs, eye shade, pen, tissues, tooth brush and a two to three use toothpaste. It is presented in a good sized draw string bag which is perfect for wrangling dirty underwear for future trips.
The Business Class seat in the B737 is very comfortable, but quite small and restricted. In fact, it is more like a premium economy seat than a Business Class seat. No foot rest at all, and only a 9-10 inch recline. It’s not at all like an International Business Class seat that I’m used to. Despite my fears, I do sleep well on the night leg. Even though it doesn’t recline fully and there is no footrest I can’t complain about my sleep. I don’t even wake up with a stiff neck.
What do I think of the Virgin Australia International B737 Business Class?
I’ve got mixed feelings about the Virgin Australia International B737 Business Class. What it does, it does extremely well. But I just don’t think it does enough compared to its competition. The food and service is wonderful, but food choices were somewhat limited, and apart from the lamb meatballs, Miss G lived on bread and snacks. There just wasn’t enough choice to tempt a fussy child, who’s too old to order a child’s meal. The tablet-based entertainment system works well and offers a good range of options, but is clumsy when trying to eat. The seat is the real let down for me. Yes, it’s comfortable, but for a 6 hour night time flight in Business Class, I do think at least a footrest would be in order. Despite the short flights both Mr Frugalfirstclass and I arrived at our destination with puffy ankles. I can’t tell you the last time that happened to me in Business Class……
So would I fly Virgin Australia B737 Business Class again?
Well, it depends. Virgin Australia uses this plane for flights to Phuket, Bali, New Zealand and the South Pacific. For the short day time flights to New Zealand and the South Pacific, yes, I would. It does enough. To Phuket again, probably yes, given the other options – either the nasty Jetstar, or very expensive-to- lie-flat on Thai, Singapore or Malaysian. But to Bali, no. With a night time return flight, I would definitely be going for the cheaper lie flat seat on Garuda. To me, it’s a much better value option based on my experience of both airlines. With Air Asia now offering lie flat Business Class, I think Virgin Australia has competition on its hands.