The Luxury Wanderer team tested out British Airways’ short-haul business class product (Club Europe) on a set of flights from Heathrow to Inverness and back to see if paying the premium to upgrade is worth the cost.
A few years ago, British Airways reintroduced their short-haul business class product (Club Europe) on most mainline domestic flights within the United Kingdom. BA gushingly described the product as “Our feature-packed UK and European business class, a perfect combination of efficiency, convenience and comfort. Who says you can't mix business with pleasure.”
Setting aside the sad irony of the product name in a post-Brexit world The Luxury Wanderer team tested out the offering on a recent set of flights from Heathrow to Inverness (one of the ‘longest’ flights at just over an hour) and back to see if paying the premium to upgrade is worth the cost.
We’ve broken down the different elements of what’s on offer to help you form your own view on mixing business and pleasure.
Domestic Club Europe passengers get to use the Club World / Europe check-in at Heathrow Terminal 5. For those with luggage you should anticipate longer and slower queues due to all the extra paper-work required thanks to COVID requirements (not currently required on domestic flights, but you’re stuck in the same line anyway.)
The Club line was only marginally shorter than the World Traveller lines, and I was lucky enough to be waved into the more exclusive First Wing for check-in (typically only accessible by Emerald / Gold Frequent Flyers, and those travelling First) where lines were non-existent. Bags were tagged with priority labels but this was purely for show (more on this later) and Fast-Track security access meant security was cleared in a stress-free five minutes.
Verdict: not worth it. Low mid-tier (Ruby / Bronze) One World Frequent Flyers enjoy Club check-in and fast-track access regardless of class of travel at Heathrow–so if you hold even modest One World status upgrading will make no difference to your landside experience travelling Club Europe Domestic–only those without any One World status will experience a difference. It’s also worth noting you need to pay to pre-seat even when flying Club unless you have One World Status (BA charges £16 for domestic seat assignment). Some may find the additional luggage allowance in Club compelling–but unless you’re heavily laden, or again don’t have any frequent flier status this is unlikely to be especially motivating.
Club Europe Domestic allows access to the Club lounges at LHR Terminal 5 – both the North and South Lounges have re-opened. The North lounge was heaving with no seats to spare; I managed to find a barstool in the South Lounge but it was a loud, hot and underwhelming experience. As highlighted in the TLW Qatar trip report from December food & drink is now ordered online–service is efficient but the food selection is more corporate canteen (see screenshot of the menu) than luxury lounge, so manage your expectations and don’t arrive hungry. Non-vintage champagne is more freely available than previously in the Club lounge–but be warned the glasses are tiny so you may want to order two at once.
Verdict: again, not worth the upgrade. For any Frequent Flyer with mid-tier One World Status or above where Club lounge access is included regardless of class of travel (and top-tier holders have access to the Galleries First lounge, but not the coveted Concorde Room which is reserved for First Class and BA’s most rarefied upper echelon frequent travellers). The lounges themselves consistently underwhelm especially compared to the other One World lounges in T3 / 4 at LHR (Cathay, Qantas and Qatar–though these remain closed at this time) so no need to arrive at the airport early, and don’t come hungry.
Verdict: possibly worth it: BA have reverted to boarding by group number (during the height of the pandemic they strictly boarded from back to front of the plane) and Club Europe is Group 1 on Domestic flights, so you’ll be first to board. Again depending on your Frequent Flyer Status you could automatically have preferential boarding privileges so this is unlikely to be a compelling value proposition for many.
Onboard – the Seat
“Euro Business Class” has been a race to the bottom amongst all the major airlines and it’s hard to tell the difference between BA, Lufthansa, TAP, SWISS and so on as all essentially offer the same seat for their short haul flights–and for those used to the luxury of Middle Eastern, or Asian business class on even short flights you’ll be sorely disappointed. The dark blue leather seats are identical to Economy in width and pitch, the only difference is the middle seat is blocked (with an attachment in place covering the seat and turning it into a bigger arm-rest) so there’s no-one sitting next to you, meaning everyone has either a window or aisle seat.
On a short flight, you don’t really need a great deal of space, but it’s hard to feel like it’s a luxurious experience when you’re sitting in the same seat as everyone else. Also important to note is that there is no entertainment available in BA short haul, and pay as you go Wi-Fi is intermittently available to all.
Verdict: ordinarily – not worth it – in the era of COVID, space is at a premium and however modest not having a stranger next to you is essentially the ultimate luxury, so perhaps this tips into ‘worth it’ due to the extraordinary circumstances of travel right now.
Onboard – Service
Brutal honesty would reveal that flying short-haul on BA is much like flying a low-cost carrier these days.
Want to check a bag? You’ll pay for that.
Want to reserve a seat? You’ll pay for that.
Want a cup of coffee onboard? You’ll pay for that.
Want friendly service? Don’t fly short-haul in Europe.
The cabin-crew serving economy have essentially been turned into Ryanair-style sales assistants, rushing up and down the aisle flogging over-priced catering; there’s very little rapport or sense of service (and you can hardly blame them, it’s not what they signed up to do.) In Club something of the old BA prevails–the service is attentive (proactively offering drinks and refills) and efficient–but somewhat impersonal, partially due to the short nature of the flight.
Verdict: possibly worth it – the experience is elevated above that of a low-cost carrier which is saying something given that the other side of the curtain it’s essentially EasyJet.
Onboard – Catering
With much fanfare British Airways transitioned to catering from Do&Co in late 2018, which represented a significant upgrade from Gate Gourmet. Do&Co are well known for some of the best catering in the sky, serving airlines like Turkish, Austrian and Cathay Pacific. The upgrade for the short-haul business class offering seemed quite modest. A mid-afternoon outbound flight saw finger sandwiches (with fillings like chicken or cheese) served with a warm scone & clotted cream and accompanied by a full bar service.
Wine was served in small bottles; other than the champagne the selection was embarrassingly cheap with wines on offer that retail for less than £10 for a full bottle. The early evening flight saw a Tapas-style plate of parma ham accompanied by various tapas, and an inventive deconstructed Do&Co Eton Mess, the latter using fresh English strawberries to delicious effect and was the highlight of both flights.
Verdict: the jury’s still out but leaning towards not really worth it. The catering provided was tasty enough for a short-haul flight with one or two highlights, but for £18 you could bring aboard something far tastier and substantial from Gordon Ramsay’s Plane Food restaurant in the main terminal. Clearly the ‘complimentary’ snack in Club is a substantial upgrade to having to buy a soggy sandwich in Economy but one you’re paying a real premium for.
Typically, Club Europe passengers are the first off the plane (though in Inverness rear stairs were used as well, so this wasn’t strictly true) however this is meaningless if you have checked luggage as the great short-fall of the Club Europe Domestic experience is revealed–there is no priority luggage delivery for business class passengers regardless of tags on your luggage. Anecdotally the Club Europe bags seemed to be in the final one third of bags delivered–unacceptable for a product that charges a premium for convenience.
Verdict: definitely not worth it – it’s hard not to feel conned by British Airways when the priority bags come off near last.
The return flight from Inverness made an even weaker case for the Club Europe Domestic proposition. No priority check-in lines were available, no security Fast track was provided (which is less of an issue at a quieter airport like Inverness) and the contract lounge that BA uses (Aspire) was closed on Saturdays. Until you step onto the plane your experience is the same as passengers who have paid for the cheapest economy experience.
On arrival at Heathrow (following a spectacular view of Windsor Castle on approach) we used one of the close domestic gates which allows you to bypass immigration, allowing us to get from plane to luggage conveyer belt in 3 minutes, which is a record.
From there things fell apart, and it took 45 minutes for bags to be delivered–unacceptable when the flight itself was only an hour.
It’s hard to make any kind of rational case to spend much extra on Club Europe for a Domestic flight on British Airways as you really get very little of intrinsic value. For mid-tier and above One World frequent flyers in particular, there is almost complete overlap of benefits – leaving the onboard experience as the only differentiator for most. In the era of COVID not having a stranger directly next to you becomes disproportionately valuable so perhaps that would swing it for some, but just don’t expect to be wowed by the catering or onboard experience – you’re sitting in the same seat as everyone else.
If you’re lucky and are redeeming Avios for flights you may find the upgrade is about 5750 miles more than economy (9250 miles vs 15000 miles each way). With a value of around 1p per Avios that’s an upgrade cost of around £57 per sector which would be the absolute maximum we’d recommend paying. When buying tickets for cash the upgrade typically starts at around £90 which substantially dilutes the attractiveness of the offer. At this price, it’s IAG shareholders and not TLW readers who are smiling. In most cases, you’ll feel less ripped-off spending the difference on a lovely meal at your destination, or put another way, business and pleasure don’t really mix that compellingly in Club Europe so caveat emptor.