Saturday, January 05, 2008

Virgin America: W Hotel in the Air...But First Class Isn't

Swartz Brothers in First ClassMy brother, father and I flew to Vegas on Virgin America, the newly minted discount carrier loosely affiliated with Richard Branson's British Virgin Group.

Virgin's planes look very "hip" on the inside, not unlike a W Hotel, with "mood lighting" and a state-of-the-art "Red" entertainment system (which, alas, crashed once during our flight, but was still a neat way to watch movies or listen to music on demand). Much like JetBlue, they are catering to the Target crowd: cheap luxury.

Flying first class up in the sky...'Glamorous' on the Red Entertainment System
Our experience was all the more luxurious because we got (relatively) cheap first class tickets. I had never flown first class before, but my brother has some experience with other airlines, and pointed out the following shortcomings of Virgin's service:
  • Check in: Because there was only one customer service agent assigned to first class and a couple people were ahead of us in line, we ended up waiting longer than the folks in the coach line.
  • Welcome: My brother is accustomed to being greeted by name and immediately served drinks. Neither happened.
  • Amenities: There was nowhere to hang our jackets; the flight attendant did offer to take them, but just folded them up in the overhead compartment. Because of the oddly designed seats, there is nowhere to put one's smaller bag (e.g. a computer bag) during the flight. Finally, while the entertainment system screens are nice, they must be folded away during takeoff and landing--thus making them less useful for short flights than the ones in coach.
  • Baggage: Our bags were not given "priority" handling, and thus were near the end of the bags coming off of the conveyor.
Am I complaining? No, not really: it was still a neat experience being in first class for just a little more money. I'm the sort of cheapskate that always buys the least expensive ticket, after all! However, I would not recommend flying Virgin America first class unless the difference between it and a normal ticket is $50 or simply doesn't compare to "real" first class service on other airlines. Virgin America first class is merely coach with more room and free drinks.

Labels: ,

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Cheapskate Flying

What's the best way to find cheap airline tickets? There are a few options:

  • Multiple-Carrier Searches

    You've heard of most of these: Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity. Many of them return the exact same information; this is because they all use one of four Computer Reservation Systems (CRS). For example, Expedia, Orbitz, Hotwire, and Priceline all use Worldspan.

  • Multiple-Carrier Uncertain Searches

    A few of these websites offer you discounts if you're willing to sacrifice some amount of certainty (e.g. what carrier, what specific price). Witness Priceline's famous "name your own price" and Hotwire's last-minute deals and "Limited Rates". Lately I've been traveling home for just a weekend, so this isn't worth it (I don't want to fly in late Saturday and out early Sunday!).

  • Carrier Websites

    Once you have an idea which carriers offer what cheap flights when, it's often actually less expensive to get those flights directly from the carrier. For example, after doing an Orbitz search to figure out what carriers to try, I went on Alaska Airlines' website and found the same flights but without the extra Orbitz charges.

  • Budget Carrier Websites

    A few budget carriers, such as JetBlue, Southwest, and Virgin America, do not participate in any CRS and thus you have to search them individually.

  • Special Deals

    Airlines often give special discounts for flying at certain times, etc. Normally you'd have to sign up for their email notification service to get these deals...or you can go to sites like CheapAir, which shows you all the deals if you click "My dates are flexible." Of course, there are lots of blackout dates (e.g. my flight home for Thanksgiving was nearly $400 but if I didn't fly on 11/21 (the day before Thanksgiving) or 11/24-11/26 (the weekend after) then it would be $178 round-trip, even less ($158) flying into Oakland, as long as I booked 14 days in advance.

  • Kayak

    I recently learned about Kayak, which does a meta-search of various airlines (including the budget ones) and travel reservation sites. While it's probably still worthwhile to check out special deals elsewhere, it could just become my "one stop shop" for airline tickets...

THE BOTTOM LINE: If you're flexible, check out the CheapAir discounts and hotwire last-minute deals. If not, do a Kayak or Orbitz (or whatever other engine you like) search followed up by carrier searches (the ones that came up on Orbitz and the discount airlines).

Labels: ,