Qantas vs Virgin Australia – Which Airline Is Best?

If you’re heading Down Under, chances are you’ll be using either Qantas or Virgin Australia to get around. While 61 international airlines fly into Australia, Qantas and Virgin Australia have 89% of the domestic market wrapped up in a cosy duopoly.

Which airline is best? Well that’s a loaded question guaranteed to get any Australian frequent flyer hot under the collar. Both airlines have their respective fanboys and cheergirls.

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Qantas or Virgin Australia? Both have their strong points. Photo: Andrew Curran

I am a member of the loyalty schemes attached to both airlines. I use both. I like to say I am agnostic, but I do lean towards using Virgin Australia when travelling business class, or using the Qantas low cost off shot Jetstar, when travelling short sector domestic economy.

Both airlines have their strengths and weaknesses. Qantas has the best lounges and the better frequency between key capital cities. Their access into the bigger regional centres in the bush is also unmatched by Virgin Australia.

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Virgin Australia probably has a better 737 business class product, but their economy class is average at best. That’s my subjective view.

The best frequency?

Qantas serves the big five mainland capital cities really well. They have the edge on Virgin Australia with frequency. They also have the most frequent services into Canberra.

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On busy routes, such as Melbourne-Sydney, Qantas has very good frequency. Source: Qantas

Another positive aspect of Qantas is their regional offshoot, QantasLink. They’ve got pretty good coverage in regional New South Wales and Queensland, including Cape York. They also fly some interesting routes like Adelaide-Kangaroo Island-Melbourne, opening up access to destinations like the sublime Southern Ocean Lodge.

Qantas is weak on services into Tasmania and the big regional cities of Newcastle and the Gold Coast. They’ll tell you they run plenty of Jetstar services into these airports – they do, but Jetstar is a low cost carrier and a distinct product offering from Qantas proper.

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At some airports, like the Gold Coast, Virgin Australia has the edge. Source: Gold Coast Airport

Qantas has a habit of handing over its leisure heavy routes to Jetstar, while keeping the business and government heavy routes to itself. 

Virgin Australia is weaker than Qantas on frequency. This isn’t a hard and fast rule but the general trend is that Qantas has the edge. Key airports where I notice the Qantas edge are Adelaide, Townsville and Darwin.

On the other hand, Virgin Australia is all over Qantas at the Gold Coast and offers the only full service product on the Gold Coast-Canberra, Gold Coast-Adelaide, and Gold Coast-Perth routes. Backing up this, Virgin Australia also has the best lounge at Gold Coast Airport.

I’d also argue that Virgin Australia offers better frequency out of Tasmania than Qantas, including offering a direct Hobart-Perth service. What lets Virgin Australia down in Tasmania is their absence of lounges there. It’s an ongoing sore point with Virgin’s Tasmanian travellers.

In-flight service

I’ve flown business class on both Qantas and Virgin Australia 737s recently. I lean towards the Virgin Australia product. I like the smaller cabin, the fresher look of it, and the in-flight service.

The general consensus is the Virgin’s business class food has the edge over the Qantas food offering. Many feel the the Qantas Neil Perry food partnership has run its course. I tend to agree.

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A simple but fresh afternoon snack served in Virgin Australia business class – a BLT, side salad and Sauvignon Blanc. Photo : Andrew Curran / Simple Flying

On my recent Qantas business class flight I though the seats and cabin looked tired, food and drinks came off the trolley rather than being brought out individually and while the food was fine (poached chicken breast with a chilli sauce and Asian greens), it lacked the pizzaz, freshness and presentation of Virgin’s food.

The service on both flights was great – friendly personable male FA’s who were a credit to their employer. Both offer priority boarding for business class. It’s a bit of a mess with Qantas but Virgin Australia does it right. 

In economy, the winner is Qantas.

I find Virgin’s economy product really average. The food is better in Qantas economy and the service almost always friendlier. I always feel that Virgin’s economy FA’s make it clear they’d rather be working up the front. Just my impressions of course.

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If travelling economy, I’d always prefer Qantas. Photo: Qantas

Qantas economy is usually marginally more expensive than Virgin’s economy. If I am travelling economy on flights under 2 hours, I often elect to use Jetstar. Jetstar has a lot of detractors but its base fares are cheap and I rarely have a problem with the airline. 

I add a bag, select a decent seat, buy a wine, cheese and olives snack pack and almost always have a reasonable flight at about half the price of Qantas or Virgin Australia economy.

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Not universally loved, but Jetstar is fine for short economy sectors. Photo: John via Flickr

The big minus with Jetstar for me is, while I have Qantas lounge access, Jetstar departures from Sydney and Melbourne don’t use the Qantas terminals. Furthermore, in airports where Qantas and Jetstar share terminals and there’s a Qantas lounge available, the lounge doesn’t stay open to accommodate Jetstar passengers after the last Qantas departure. 

I was kicked out of the Qantas business lounge at Brisbane Airport one night earlier this year an hour before my Jetstar departure to Townsville. The lounge closed after the last Qantas departure. It didn’t kill me but I wasn’t overly thrilled. First world issue, I know.

The lounges

I confess, I am a bit of a lounge lizard. There’s nothing I enjoy better than an hour or two in a good airline lounge. Both airlines have very good lounges. If you are used to domestic lounges in the US or Europe, the calibre of Australian domestic airport lounges will impress you.

Virgin Australia wins with the best lounges in Darwin, Cairns, Alice Springs and Gold Coast airports. Elsewhere, Qantas wins easily. Just on numbers alone, Qantas wins.

There are 24 Qantas Club lounges in Australian domestic airports, including three in Tasmania (Virgin has none there) and several at regional airports. In addition, Qantas operates business class lounges for domestic passengers at Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra and Perth. I passed through the Melbourne business class lounge last week and it was superb – the best domestic lounge in Australia in my opinion.

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The seriously good domestic business class lounge at Melbourne. Photo: Qantas

The lounges, especially the Qantas Club lounges in the big cities at peak times can get hectic. Not for nothing is Qantas Club often referred to by frequent flyers as the QP (the Qantas Pub)

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The bar at the Melbourne domestic Qantas Club: Photo: Qantas

Virgin Australia has just 11 lounges in domestic airports around Australia. It’s got the big capital city airports covered but I view its absence of lounges in Tasmania and airports like Townsville as a key competitive weakness. 

I also find the aesthetic of the Virgin lounges somewhat jarring. It works okay in the smaller lounges like Cairns and Gold Coast where there is a lot of natural light, but I find the lounges at Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth very white, very clinical.

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The Virgin lounges, like this one at Cairns, have an entirely different look. Photo: Virgin Australia

At all lounges you’ll find complimentary alcohol from lunchtime, as well as snacks and more substantial food at mealtimes. At the bigger lounges there is usually a coffee bar with a barista doing proper coffee.

One more thing

This article has been focused on flyers jetting around Australia on the workhorse of both Qantas and Virgin Australia – the 737. 

But, they also operate A330s on domestic routes. You’ll see them on Qantas running from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane over to Perth. Qantas also runs an A330 between Melbourne and Sydney most nights (QF464, ex MEL 19.30). 

Virgin Australia has them mostly on services between Sydney – Perth, Melbourne – Perth and occasionally Brisbane – Perth.

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Taking either the Qantas or Virgin Australia A330’s to Perth in business class is a fine way to travel. Photo: Virgin Australia

Even in economy you’ll enjoy vastly upgraded food and service on the A330 flights. The business class product on both Qantas and Virgin Australia’s A330s is a knockout. It is arguably the world’s best domestic business class product. The fares are the same as the 737 product.

If you’re going to Perth and you’ve got the points to spare, it’s a nice way to fly. I’ve also sometimes scored Virgin Australia A330 business class trips for less than AUD$600 using their upgrade me bids. The walk up cash fare for J flights from the east coast capitals to Perth is often AUD$3,000 plus.

Overall

In economy, Qantas has the advantage. I find their economy in-flight service much better than Virgin’s. I also like their lounge infrastructure. If you hold the equivalent of Oneworld Sapphire on any Oneworld airline you can use the Qantas Club lounges prior to your Qantas or Jetstar departure.

In business class, I tend to lean towards Virgin Australia. I like the smaller cabins, the fresher look, and the in-flight service.

If I’m going to Perth, I always aim for A330. It’s an international standard flight for the same price as a 737 flight. Both Qantas and Virgin Australia offer a fantastic A330 product.

For short sector domestic economy, Jetstar shouldn’t be overlooked.

Got any other thoughts on the Qantas vs Virgin Australia argument? Post a comment, we’d be interested to hear your view.

6 comments
  1. Interesting that you prefer Jetstar for shorter flights under 2 hours. Yes, there is a monetary saving, but I’ve heard of many instances where Jetstar flights are cancelled at short (sometimes very short) notice. Seems that for instance on a Sydney-Adelaide-Sydney rotation, if there are insufficient bookings to make a profit, it’s cancelled. Of course, Qantas (Jetstar’s owners) will deny and put it down to a “technical issue”, but it doesn’t seem to happen nearly so often on those flights that are regularly well patronised.

    1. Hi David

      I’ve had a pretty good run on Jetstar lately but I guess like most things, if I have a really bad experience with them I will switch back to Qantas. I started out on Jetstar because I fly a lot or routes not serviced (or not well serviced) by either Qantas or Virgin and I found them fine and have now use them a fair bit. Weirdly enough, I also find them very efficient at unloading baggage and getting them out onto the belts.

  2. This is one of the better reviews I’ve read comparing the two as others are usually very biased. Appreciate the honesty and your admiration for both carriers.

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