British Airways versus Virgin Atlantic Economy. Let the battle begin.

Take a deep breath, sit back and relax. We’re going to make this scientific. We’ve weighed and measured every inch, reward, meal and buck you’ll need to spend, to have a blissfully smooth experience, flying with either of these fiercely competitive airlines. Will British Airways provide the better experience for your tastes, or is it Virgin Atlantic?

You may be surprised when we break it down. If you’re going to hop on a plane for a seemingly endless amount of hours, you want all the perks (and snacks) you can get. Here’s your best bet.

Pricing

Most customers buy tickets based on price – and that makes perfect sense. The airlines are consistently even on price with most routes such as New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and have offered virtually identical sales recently.

They each also offer “holidays”, where you can combine flight and hotel into one package, which can yield fantastic savings. British Airways offers more destinations, but the offerings are very similar. This is a draw. Use these tips to always find the best prices. One point each.

British Airways 1 – Virgin Atlantic 1

Seat Selection

Both airlines now offer “basic economy” fares, which do not include a checked bag or complimentary seat assignment. Virgin calls these fares “light” while British Airways calls them “basic”. If you book a “light” or “basic” fare, a seating assignment will cost £30 each way and up, depending on row.

Each airline allows elite members to select seats in advance for free. British Airways allows Silver and Gold members to select seats for free at any time. Bronze BA members may select seats seven days in advance.

Virgin Atlantic Gold members may select seats for free at any time, Silver members can reserve for free within 14 days of their flight. Red members (anyone) can reserve seats before the general public, 72 hours in advance of the flight, compared to 24 for everyone else. Another draw.

British Airways: 2 – Virgin Atlantic: 2

Checked Baggage Allowance

Both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic offer first bag free on long haul flights except when travelling on a “light” or “basic” fare. Basically, if you’re traveling on the cheapest ticket, no checked bag will be included. If you need one, it’s usually cheaper to pay for the “standard” economy fare.

For most flights both airlines are tired at 23kg/50lbs of baggage allowance, but there are subtle differences in pricing. Virgin Atlantic charges £45 for your first extra bag and this must be booked at the airport. A second bag is £65.

British Airways charges £40 online or £45 at the airport, giving a £5 discount if you book online before check in. British Airways charges £60 for a second bag if you reserve online when travelling on basic economy tickets.

British Airways gets a point for being £5 cheaper if you book your bag online.

British Airways: 3 – Virgin Atlantic: 2.

Check In + Bag Drop

Both airlines offer mobile boarding passes, bag drop kiosks and other tech advancements. The airlines are a virtual dead heat in this regard.

Be sure to allow a minimum of one hour before your flight is due to depart for check in. If you’re checking a bag, you’ll want to leave even more time. Both Virgin Atlantic and British Airways now offer access to TSA PreCheck for eligible members travelling from the USA. British Airways is the first to offer expanded biometric boarding, but since it’s early days and most customers won’t realise a difference – this is a draw. One point each.

British Airways: 4 – Virgin Atlantic: 3

Planes

Most passengers don’t pay enough attention to the plane they are flying on. Newer planes can reduce jet lag and offer more natural air, giving the feeling of life back on the ground. Both have plenty of old planes, but both also fly the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. British Airways has 30 of them delivered and Virgin Atlantic has 14, though some planes for both airlines are not in service due to engine issues.

British Airways also offers the Airbus A380 and both airlines are expecting orders of the A350, which is fantastic. Virgin Atlantic and British Airways will receive their first A350-1000 aircraft in mid 2019. On your specific route, if one offers an old plane and the other offers new, we’d opt for the better plane. For now, this is a tie. One point each.

British Airways: 5 – Virgin Atlantic: 4

The Seat

There’s a bit more ambiance in the Virgin Atlantic economy cabin, thanks to differing seat colors, but as to the seats – they’re honestly identical in dimension whichever airline you fly. Both airlines have opted for 31” of seat pitch and 17.5” width on all their major aircraft.

The entertainment systems are mostly the same, which leaves things down to movie and television selection. You can compare current offering for British Airways and Virgin Atlantic to make up your mind. British Airways tend to have a more extensive selection, but Virgin gains access to exclusives. With the seat itself a tie and entertainment fleeting, this is yet another draw.

British Airways: 6 – Virgin Atlantic: 5

Food & Drinks

We’ll be honest – your best bet is always to eat in the airport before hand, but we get it – a “free” meal is a free meal. British Airways has squeaked in an extra course, technically offering a “four course meal” and then a later snack.

Virgin Atlantic offers a “three course meal” and also a later snack. Both have new partnerships and food quality is up for both airlines. The big deal breaker though, is Virgin Atlantic’s afternoon tea from Eric Lanlard, served in every cabin, including economy. This is a great feature which makes the Virgin economy dining experience just a bit more exciting.

One interesting side aspect is “premium meals”. British Airways customers can pay £15-£18 for a “premium meal” offering a definitively upgraded food experience. Virgin Atlantic customers cannot. But Virgin customers can pay £14 per (mini bottle) for a champagne toast, complete with flutes, which BA customers cannot. Both offer complimentary standard wine, beer and spirits as well.

Virgin gets half a point for raising the bar with an afternoon tea service.

British Airways 6 – Virgin Atlantic: 5.5

Wifi

Virgin Atlantic was an early adaptor of in flight wifi, and offers it aboard all of its aircraft. On the other hand, British Airways has lagged behind – and is only just beginning to install wifi across its long haul fleet.

Many would argue that British Airways will have newer faster wifi systems once installed. But for now, Virgin Atlantic is the only of the two which can guarantee an internet connection on long haul flights. Point for Virgin Atlantic. This score is subject to change, when British Airways completes its wifi install.

British Airways: 6 – Virgin Atlantic: 6.5

Rewards

Both airlines reward economy passengers with roughly 50% of the miles they’ve actually flown. So for a London to New York round trip, you could expect to come away with 3,457 miles, the one way distance between cities.

One-way short haul flights with British Airways and partners in most of the world start at 4,500 points, so it’s easier to use a small amount of British Airways points to cash in a free flight than with Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles.

Both airlines feature partners with whom you can cash in your miles in regions all around the world. We value British Airways points slightly higher than Virgin Atlantic points, so BA wins here. It’s also slightly easier to earn elite status with British Airways in economy. You’d need 7 round trips and a one way with British Airways versus 8 round trips on Virgin Atlantic.

Due to the easier ability to redeem points with less travel, British Airways gets a point here.

END RESULT: British Airways: 7 – Virgin Atlantic: 6.5

In our estimation: British Airways wins by a point. But depending on your needs, like not caring about wifi, or extra bags it can go either way. We’ve had great experiences on both and love Virgin Atlantic’s flair – but by the numbers, this is how it goes. 

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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18 Comments

  1. Virgin are also getting A350’s which isn’t mentioned here, BA also have Dreamliner issues too which you failed to mention.

    Probably the biggest difference and what makes Virgin Atlantic a far better experience is the service provided by the crew. Hands down Virgin nail this, much better than BA.

    1. Virgins dependence on Dreamliners is far more significant than BA’s hence why it’s not so much an issue for BA. See: Virgin Atlantic leases Airberlin planes. Noted re A350 for Virgin. But in this contest it was a draw on this discipline, so it’s a moot point.

      And it would’ve been handy to mention that you work for Virgin Atlantic in your comment. Just saying…

  2. You did not not mention the OUTRAGEOUS YQ BA charges for award tickets. We paid close to $500 on a MUC-LHR-ATL oneway award last month. It’s insane.

    If you add in BA’s customer service (or lack there of), then BA compares with Ryanair, not VA.

    As a friend of my said, BA is a national disgrace. Just like AC

    1. They both charge virtually identical surcharges. Both offer ways to avoid these surcharges, which we recommend. And we’re talking about the economy cabin. Did you pay $500 for a one way economy cabin surcharge? No, you did not. Your frustrations, regardless of airline have very little bearing on the subject of the post. Just saying.

  3. Yes, it was J, but the surcharges are outrageous in Y as well.
    How would you avoid the surcharge on MUC-ATL when flying BA?
    You also did not measure/evaluate customer service. How does BA handle overbookings/IRROPS/invol downgrades etc etc vs VA?

    It wasn’t that long ago that a trip on BA was aspirational and desirable. Now it provokes cold sweats and depression

    1. I only have one question for you: when was the last time you flew economy on either airline?

      This is like someone posing the question chocolate or vanilla? And talking about soccer balls.

      On both airlines, the surcharges are outrageous. Yes.
      Neither have a significant margin or impactful metric versus the other on lost bags, IRROPS. Both have suffered IT glitches. Cancellations are similar given location.

  4. You’ve got the “likeability” factor of Virgin though….I’d choose VS over BA, but it’s a very long time since \i’ve been in Y….

  5. I have never flown VA in any cabin. 90% of my travels are in Y. Last BA flight in Y was in Dec 2017. I won’t say I will never fly BA again, but their product is so shoddy across most categories that while we still have competition, I’ll use other carriers. And seriously, BA is not that different from Ryanair anymore. With the exception that Ryanair is more honest about the level of service and comfort they deliver.

  6. Virgin is far better than BA , Sorry to say but BA does not treat people right and have some very patronising staff. Wish VA still flight to Kingston.
    Still enjoying flying to the US with them, would recommend VA Any day.

  7. As someone who fly with to the states a lot a always choose to fly virgin as the staff and pilots on board are absolutely fantastic and make all the difference. Unfortunately last year I had to fly BA and I found the staff rude sarcastic and very un helpful. Virgin Atlantic all the way for me as I will never fly BA again even if it costs me more!

  8. I travel on virgin fantastic service love every minute.cant comments on BA but I m looking to book flight with them this year, that’s if I can find one all I see AA operates these routes

  9. Post flight support…
    BA minus several hundred for their truly astounding attitudes and bare faced lies wrt service delivery and recovery.
    VA are no angels but at least they try and have the courtesy to reply./ answer the phone

  10. The seat charges listed here are incorrect. Virgin charges $63-93 for an exit row seat. BA charges $80. For regular seats BA charges $70+

  11. I don’t think this article is accurate anymore e.g. BA’s densification programme shrinking seat width and pitch and on the midhaul airbuses, the lowest seatpitch in the industry at an inch LESS than Ryanair. Whilst thre’s been lots of hype, they still rarely load adequate catering for economy on either short or longhaul so there is likely to be no choice or if you’re one of the unlucky ones no food at all. BA also still havent’ sorted cleaning in longhaul as the CEO himself has admitted in a Business traveller review,

  12. Goddamn, this kid is easily butt hurt over people pointing out facts about how atrocious BA is and spewing his opinion and claiming everything word he spits is fact. Way to make people reading your piece welcome. It all makes sense, you must be a BA fan boy; you make others feel as welcome as BA does, and feel you are the center of the universe. BA and VA do not belong in the same blog. Ryanair and BA are comparable. Virgin is leaps and bounds better than BA when it comes to international travel.

  13. Flying regularly on Lufthansa, Swiss, LOT, EasyJet, Ryanair, Wizzair. I once happened to book a shorthauld BA flight LHR-AMS-LHR. They cancelled my onwards flight on the day of departure, and then informed me that they are cancelling my return flight because I am not flying onwards, I decided I will never fly with them. Yes, they later reimbursed the cost and paid compensation, but I missed an important meeting and had trouble getting a convenient return flight. Then I gave them another chance, and the flight was delayed, aircraft shoddy, staff dishevelled, no food, and seat pitch same as on Ryanair. At least Ryanair flies on time.

    I never flew VA, but I can’t believe they can be as bad as BA.

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