Virgin Atlantic Airways 17
Passenger Jennifer V. Cole
Aircraft Airbus A340-600
Seat No. 60A
Route Heathrow to Newark
Departure Time 8:30 p.m.
Check-in/boarding Grade: C
Although great in theory, the check-in kiosks did little to expedite the check-in process. After getting my boarding pass in less than five minutes, I still had to wait in line for an hour and a half to check my bag. Also, I didn't appreciate that the large check-in screen had no privacy guard and prominently displayed—think of the third line of the eye exam chart—my name, date of birth, and passport number for anyone who cared to steal a look.
Cabin Grade: B-
With its distinctively young, hip look (brightly colored seats in red, yellow, and purple), the cabin seems to have been cooked up by one of the contestants on Sir Richard Branson's Rebel Billionaire TV series. Unfortunately, as I wedged myself into the cramped, ramrod-straight seat, all feelings of "cool" vanished. The adjustable headrests were a nice addition, as was the thoughtful amenity kit, which is standard in Virgin's economy class.
Service Grade: A
Decked out in their formfitting John Rocha–designed uniforms, the pert, mostly early-thirties flight attendants echoed the airline's overall youthful aesthetic. They hit the right combination of friendly (but not folksy) and efficient (but not brusque). The food and beverage service was particularly commendable, and special requests—such as extra milk for coffee or another glass of wine—were handled quickly and with a smile.
Food and Drink Grade: B
The traditional English Sunday roast served on board was less than memorable (gastropub fare this was not), but I found the snack toward the end of the flight a refreshing surprise. The thick slices of bread used for the chunky chicken salad sandwich were nice and moist, and the Del Monte fruit cup with tangy apple wedges and plump grapes was from-the-orchard fresh. And who doesn't like Walkers' buttery shortbread?
Tech/Entertainment Grade: A
This is where Virgin really shines and makes the seven-hour flight enjoyable. Each seat has its own on-demand video system with 42 movie choices, 32 television shows (the whole first season of Little Britain!), games, and a library of songs from which you can create your own playlist. Since I was traveling alone, I didn't try the onboard text-messaging feature, though I was tempted to flirt with the passenger in seat 58C.
Overall Grade: B+
This isn't your grandfather's airline. Virgin Atlantic, in the spirit of its founder, challenges the old-school notions of what a flight experience should be, from the cheeky quips in the in-flight magazine to the state-of-the-art entertainment system. It does suffer from sardine-style seating in economy and somewhat lackluster dining options, but if you're stuck in steerage, you could certainly do a lot worse.
Hotels in many European countries demand your passport before handing over the room keys. Here's the reason
Several European countries, including Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany, are required by law to record your personal information (name, birth date, country of origin, duration of stay, and/or passport number) and turn it over regularly to the proper authorities—the police, tourism officials, or government officers. In Switzerland, for example, your personal data is used to gather tourism statistics. German law requires the data to maintain security and locate missing people. In Austria, it's used to calculate hotel taxes, broken down by guest. And in Italy, this information is used to keep tabs on who is coming and going across its borders.
Although it is not unheard of for smaller pensiones, particularly in Italy, to hold on to your passport overnight, you have no legal obligation to turn it over for such a long period of time. One suggestion: pack a photocopy of the document and ask the front desk clerk to keep that—and not your passport—overnight.