Many years ago before the trains cost an arm & a leg, and I lived in Lincoln for university. I used to have to take a 3 & a half hour journey home at least once every half term. I could get tickets up to a few days before for less than £20 return (and back then I found that expensive!) But the best part? For an extra £5-£10 I could travel first class, and I won’t lie; I loved it. When Virgin bought East Coast and train fares rocketed (that and the points system that you could exchange for free tickets became well.. pointless) I could no longer afford First Class. It became £25+ each way and I just couldn’t justify it. It’s now been years since I travelled First Class, that was until May when I lucked out and ended up with two First Class tickets. Well when I say lucked out, what I mean is I had a horrific journey back in January so not only was I compensated but I was sent two free return tickets that were for First Class. I used on to go to London for the Tale as Old as Time afternoon tea, and another for our most recent trip to London and Disneyland Paris. Because of this I decided to throw together a post about the benefits of travelling First Class on Virgin East Coast and whether or not it’s worth the eye watering price.
Virgin have recently redesigned most of their trains on the East Coast route, both Standard and First Class. I’ve always been impressed by the Standard upgrade which definitely offers much more comfortable seats even if they aren’t any bigger. In First Class you’re presented with large roomy almost arm chair like seats that also recline. They’re made of a leather like fabric without the sticky feel if the carriage gets too warm (as it did as I travelled during some of the warmest days in May). I like that you get more leg room in first class, perfect for keeping your bags close by or if you just happen to have long legs (not a problem for me). The aisle between the seats is also bigger due to the fact there are only three seats across, a two then a one, which I love! I hate sitting next to a stranger when I’m travelling alone. There are also blinds on the window if you fancy a cheeky nap. Over all it’s an A+ for comfort, although with the new fitted Standard being so good this alone doesn’t feel worth the price.
I’m so torn when it comes to food in First Class, torn between how awesome the week days are but how tragic the weekend is. During the week you have a menu for breakfast and dinner, I was lucky and travelled across both so can fill you in. For breakfast as standard you can have toast, a pastry & fruit, along with a main dish. I went with a bacon roll, but there was also a sausage roll, a full breakfast and a veggie option which I think was granola. You let a member of staff know what you’d like and the main dish is cooked to order. It works the same with dinner and above I’ve posted a photo of the menu. Can I just say, the fish smelt amazing! But I went with the mac & cheese followed by the cheesecake. You also got some crisps and biscuits to snack on. Drinks were unlimited and you can have another every time the trolley passed and in the evening it included alcohol. For me, what you get food wise combined with the level of comfort showed me that the First Class price during the week was well worth it.
Unfortunately it’s a different case at the weekend and after a little research the prices are nearly the same and you don’t even get close to the level of food. For breakfast you get offered a pre-packed pastry (our only choice of pan au chocolat), pre-packed muffin, a piece of fruit and a yoghurt. Don’t get me wrong, the yoghurt and muffin were delicious but for a £25+ extra on your ticket it’s not really worth it when you can get the same from the buffet car for less than half. For lunch and dinner you get the choice of two sandwiches, one veggie and one non, crisps and biscuits. Again the sandwiches (cream cheese and roasted peppers) tasted good but nothing different to what I could get in Standard and pay separately from my ticket.
The food offerings on Virgin East Coast is put together by chef James Martin and you can definitely see and taste the difference from when I last travelled first class. The menu changes weekly and seasonally so if you often travel you do get some variety. I would 100% pay the extra money for the food during the week, not so much at the weekend which is incredibly disappointing.
The service itself was great but not really what I pay for as I’d expect good service and polite members of staff whether I was in first or standard class. The drinks trolley came around about once an hour and we were encouraged to have addition drinks. Even though LM was sleeping they left her some food for when she woke up. The food cooked to order was prompt, hot and delicious so the staff in the kitchen must have really been doing his job.
Virgin East Coast also now have a new app called BEAM which is full of entertainment options from things to read, games and even movies. In first class everyone gets free Internet so you can happily use BEAM. However if you’re on a busy train be prepared for it to cut out as it appears to have a usability cap which is a bit disappointing. As it’s just a new launch I hope it’ll improve over time. The free Internet used to be a fab bonus for First Class, not so much now as if you book through the Virgin East Coast website you’ll be given a code for free Wifi even in Standard! And since I want to collect Nectar points I pretty much always do use that website, meaning free Wifi for me anyway.
The service of the trains and railway is still pretty dreadful. My first journey arrived 2 hours late into London due to a million factors (meaning they ran out of complimentary food & drink!) and going home we had to ride on a Cross Country train as they didn’t have a Virgin East Coast available which frustratingly meant not seat reservations and full blown arguments between customers due to the fact everyone just sat anywhere, it was quiet upsetting to my 5 year old. I’ve come to accept that until money is invested in the rails and they stop privatising them there are going to be major delays. It doesn’t change how upsetting it can be if you need to be somewhere on time and the train is delayed.
Over all, is the extra cost worth it for First Class? Yes and no. If you travel during the week, you will get your money’s worth in food and therefore the comfort is just a happy bonus. However, if you travel on the weekend I don’t feel the perks are big enough. The food is similar to what can be bought from the cafe bar in Standard, you get free Wifi if you book through the Virgin East Coast website and now that the trains are all being refurbished the seats are comfortable anyway. More leg room for me, isn’t worth an extra £50 per return journey, I’m happy to just make do even on a 3 hour trip to London.
For a special occassion and a week day journey I could be tempted back to First Class, however until then, I’ll stick to Standard, especially since there is a high chance i’ll be delayed anyway, and who wants to fork out insane money for train tickets if you won’t reach your destination on time?