Greetings from sunny Southern California! There’s no place like home, and this week the spectacular weather made it even more special. I will show you some pics of my fun week, including the Hermosa Beach Open (volleyball), along with a trip report of Virgin America’s newest route: Toronto to LAX/SFO.
VIRGIN AMERICA GOES INTERNATIONAL
A couple weeks ago, Virgin America, the San Francisco-based airline, added its first international destination when they started service between Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO), and Toronto (YYZ). They aren’t stopping there, either, as they just announced that later this year they will begin flights between SFO and San José del Cabo (SJD), SFO, and Cancún (CUN), and LAX and CUN.
VIRGIN AMERICA’S TORONTO SCHEDULE
-YYZ-SFO: one nonstop daily flight and one daily through flight. The nonstop flight leaves at 8:15 A.M. and arrives into SFO at 10:40 A.M. The through flight departs YYZ at 5 P.M. and arrives in SFO at 9:45 P.M. after stopping in LAX. -YYZ-LAX: one nonstop daily flight and one daily through flight. The nonstop flight leaves at 5 P.M. and arrives in LAX at 7:15 P.M. The through flight departs YYZ at 8:15 A.M. and arrives in LAX at 1:10 P.M. after stopping in SFO (this is the one I took). -SFO-YYZ: one nonstop daily flight and one daily through flight. The nonstop flight leaves at 8:30 A.M. and arrives in YYZ at 4 P.M. The through flight departs SFO at 7:05 P.M. and arrives in YYZ at 7 A.M. after stopping in LAX. -LAX-YYZ: one nonstop daily flight and one daily through flight. The nonstop leaves at 11:15 P.M. and arrives in YYZ at 7 A.M. The through flight leaves LAX at 6:30 A.M. and arrives in YYZ at 3:59 P.M. after stopping in SFO.
VIRGIN AMERICA & ATLANTIC
Just so you are clear: Virgin America (VX) and Virgin Atlantic (British-based) are two completely separate airlines, although Sir Richard Branson has his fingers (or shall we say pockets) in both. Actually, Branson’s Virgin Group only has a minority share invested in Virgin America, so it won’t go against U.S. foreign-ownership and -control laws.
MY FLIGHTS ON VX
Virgin America began service in 2007, and since then I’ve been on their planes at least once a year. All those stories are below:
-2007 Virgin America Preview, including an interview with Sir Richard Branson
-2009 Fort Lauderdale-LAX
-2010 LAX-Las Vegas on a special charter flight with their Fly Girls
This trip began when I arrived at Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ) 90 minutes before my flight. The check-in line wasn’t long (just one person in front of me), but it moved slowly (I waited about five minutes). TIP: While waiting, grab a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Declaration Form 6059B from the check-in desk and fill it out while standing in line.
I pack light, so I didn’t check a bag. But for those that do, it costs $25 a piece. Actually, Virgin America passengers may check up to 10 bags at $25 each. The first bag can weigh up to 70 lbs. Bags two through ten may weigh up to 50 lbs.
What’s nice is that the U.S. government has set up pre-clearance in most major Canadian airports (including YYZ) for travelers headed to the U.S. FYI: The U.S. also operates border pre-clearance facilities at some airports in Bermuda, The Bahamas, Aruba, and Ireland.
It’s nice that the U.S. has this service, but they only had about half (7) of their agents working and there were more than 150 people in front of me. Wait time took exactly 30 minutes and I was kicking myself that I’ve never gotten around to filling out the paper work for the NEXUS Pass. The pre-approved pass (costs $50 for five years) expedites border clearances for low-risk travelers into Canada and the United States. For more info see cbsa-asfc.gc.ca.
After passport control and customs, we went through Canada’s security check. For U.S.-bound passengers, the TSA’s rules apply. However, unlike in the U.S., Canada has an agent working a machine that randomly determines which security line you go through. Just my luck, I got picked for secondary screening, so I had to wait another 20 minutes as they carefully screened and patted down the passengers in front of me. Helpful links: Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) rules and the U.S.’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) carry-on rules.
MAIN CABIN SELECT
I was a guest of Virgin America, so at the last minute I got a space-available upgrade to Main Cabin Select. The seats in MCS are regular coach seats, but with six more inches of legroom (38″ total). There are three rows for MCS: one in the bulkhead and two at the exit rows. I don’t think MCS is normally worth the advance purchase price (they charge up to $500 more), but upgrading is a good deal (if available) when checking in online 24 hours in advance. Prices vary depending on the route, but my seatmate(s) from YYZ to SFO spent an extra $110, while my seatmate from SFO to LAX spent $30 more. Both told me it was well worth the price; it was especially true for the LAX-bound passenger, as she actually saved money because MCS customers get one free checked bag and all the free food and drink they want. The upgrade also comes with other perks like priority check-in/boarding, designated overhead bin space, and an all-access pass to Virgin’s in-flight entertainment system (free movies).
When I walked on the plane, the pilot, who was standing next to the lead flight attendant, greeted me with a “Johnny Jet?!” It turns out we met on the Fly Girls Vegas charter a few months ago, so he brought me up to the cockpit to meet his first officer. Pretty cool!
WI-FI IN THE SKY
On the flight to SFO I sat in seat 3D (bulkhead aisle) and my seatmate was in 3F (window). We had an empty seat in between, so we had a ton of space. I was so comfortable that I could’ve flown to Asia and been happy. What really made the 2,250-mile flight fly by was having in-flight Wi-Fi (powered by GoGo). Flight time was just under five hours (4:57), so Wi-Fi only cost $9.95. If the flight had been longer than five hours it would’ve been $12.95.
Did You Know: In 2009 Virgin America became the first airline to offer Wi-Fi fleetwide?
As soon as we reached 10,000 feet, my seatmate and I booted up our laptops. We tweeted about each other before getting enthralled in our work. It turns out that he (@Bob_Richards) was the CEO of Odyssey Moon Ventures (OdysseyMoon.com), a space company that partners with NASA for Lunar Lander Development.
We were on an Airbus A319 (Virgin America also flies A320s) and we had three friendly flight attendants working. (I don’t think I’ve ever had a grumpy Virgin flight attendant, have you?) As soon as it was safe for them to roam about the cabin they came down the aisle with the carts, passing out drinks and delivering food orders. Soft drinks and water are free, but they charge a fee for alcohol, premium drinks like iced tea, and food.
What’s cool is that passengers on Virgin America can order food and drinks on demand throughout the flight by using RED (their in-flight entertainment system, which I will tell you more about in a minute). I didn’t realize there were two pages of meal choices, so I just ordered two yogurts with oatmeal bits and a small side of fruit (for passengers not in Main Cabin Select it costs $7.50). It was OK the first time but not great towards the end of the flight. They also had NY pastrami sandwiches on pumpernickel ($10), a grilled Japanese eggplant sandwich ($9), a fresh tapas plate ($9), a tuna food cube, and a couple food packs from GoDeli. (I’m not sure of the prices of the last two, sorry).
VX also has a bunch of snack choices like Chex Mix ($4), Pringles potato chips ($3), Emerald mixed nuts ($3), chocolate chip cookies ($3), and a slew of drink choices from Heineken ($6) to Patrón Tequila ($8.99). In the back of the plane near the bathrooms, the flight attendants set up a water bar so passengers could grab a free bottle of water anytime. Why can’t all the airlines do this?
FYI: The flight crew comes down the aisle with the drink/food cart twice. They don’t take cash, so have the plastic ready.
RED ENTERTAINMENT SYSTEM
The best part about flying VX, besides the comfortable, clean brand-new planes, is that in each of the seat backs is a nine-inch video touch screen with the most advanced in-flight entertainment system of any domestic airline. They come with a handheld remote to turn on the 24 live channels of satellite TV (KTLA, CBS NY, CNN, ESPN, Cartoon Network, BBC…), a variety of video games, music videos, radio, MP3 music files, and pay-per-view on-demand movies. They also offer premium TV shows for 99 cents an episode.
On the flip side of the remote is a keypad so passengers can type; either messages to fellow passengers[Please check this sentence; either messages to passengers or?]. As a frequent flier, I really appreciate the 110-volt power ports at each seat, so I’ll never run out of juice.
TIME FLIES ON VX
When our captain announced that we were descending into SFO (20 minutes early), Bob and I looked at each other and said, “Already?!” With Virgin America’s Wi-Fi, power ports, on-demand food and drink, friendly service, and the extra space in Main Cabin Select, time really flew by (no pun intended).
No wonder Virgin has been winning all kinds of awards, like Condé Nast Traveler‘s Readers Choice Awards for Best Domestic Airline. and one of Travel + Leisure‘s World’s Best awards.
Although the same plane and flight number (203) would continue on to LAX, all passengers needed to deplane and bring their carry-on bags with them. The plane was cleaned and inspected, and a new flight crew came on. FYI: My layover in SFO was an hour-long because we arrived 20 minutes early. I spent the time wandering down the hallways admiring the artwork, museum pieces, stores, and other aircraft.
Before reboarding I grabbed an orzo pasta salad ($4.99) from the Firewood Café and ate in their table area. I wasn’t even that hungry, but it looked good, and I thought that I could later tweet that I had had breakfast in Toronto, lunch in San Francisco, and dinner in Los Angeles, but I didn’t tweet about it anyway. Flight time to LAX was the usual 58 minutes for the 338-mile flight. This time I sat in 3B (a middle seat) and next to another cool passenger. She was so interesting I didn’t even bother to fire up my laptop—we talked the whole time.
Virgin America’s Toronto main cabin fares start at US$178 ($174 Canadian) for SFO-YYZ and US$187 ($182 Canadian for LAX-YYZ. Visit VirginAmerica.com or check out their deals on Travelocity.com.
An hour after I landed in L.A., the marine layer (coastal fog) cleared up and the sun came out. I didn’t think much of it until my neighbor said, Thank you for bringing the sunny weather! I thought she was kidding, but the next morning the local weatherman said summer had finally arrived, as temperatures were going to be average or above normal for the first time in 27 days. Perfect timing, eh?
The only bummer is that this time of year I usually run and jump in the water after jogging on the beach or playing volleyball, but the stingrays are out in full force. I saw one while wading out of the water after a swim and then my cousin Joe confirmed my sighting when he inadvertently caught two (and released them) a few minutes later. A good way to prevent getting stung is to shuffle your feet when entering the water (stingrays like shallow warm water) because the vibrations from your steps will spook them. For more tips and facts read this L.A. Times story.
This past weekend, the AVP Hermosa Beach Open took place. It’s always a good time, especially when the weather is clear. My favorite part, besides watching matches up close on the side courts on Friday or early in the morning on Saturday, is checking out all the free swag. What caught my attention this year were the Rockstar girls as they passed out free cans of their energy drink, the Lärabar tent, and the Cascadian Farms organic granola. Making a loop through there promotional area with all this stuff I didn’t even need to grab lunch. FYI: Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers, who won the gold in the Beijing Olympics, added to their trophy case by picking up another title. On the women’s side, Jennifer Kessy and April Ross won.
Note: This trip was sponsored by Virgin America
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