My Virgin America Elevate Gold Status Ends – So What?

by on May 20, 2013 · 12 comments

in Elite Status, Virgin America

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Back in December, Virgin America was offering status matches to the elite flyers of America and United, so I was able to match from my Executive Platinum status on American to Elevate’s highest (of two) status tier, Gold.

Virgin America Elevate

My new status was good for four months, until April 30, 2013. In order to have extended it beyond that point, I would have needed to earn 12,000 status points (to do so I would have needed to spend $2,400 on the airline) – or just 5,000 status points if I had had the Virgin America Visa. Normal Gold qualification requires earning 50,000 Elevate status points ($10,000 in flight purchases) within a calendar year.

Well, even with the lower spending requirement, because of all my international travels and award tickets so far this year – and the fact that I didn’t try or even get the chance to experience Virgin America as a Gold member, I was just informed that my status with the airline has now officially ended.

Although I am disappointed that I didn’t get to test it out, I’m not too upset because I also have Executive Platinum status with American, Premier Platinum with United and am a Platinum Medallion with Delta. And the bottom line is that as someone who values the ability to fly business/first class while paying coach fares, Virgin America just isn’t the airline for me.

Some of the benefits for each level of Virgin America elite status.

Some of the benefits for each level of Virgin America elite status.

As a reminder, here Elevate elite perks include:
-Priority check-in, security clearance and boarding
-Points-earning bonuses (25% for Silver, 100% for Gold)
-Free checked bag allowances (1 for Silver, 3 for Gold)
-An expanded advance-purchase upgrade window for First Class (12 hours for Silver, 24 hours for Gold)
-Complimentary space-available upgrades to Main Cabin Select (12 hours for Silver, 24 hours for Gold)
-Complimentary access to newly designated enhanced seat assignments within Main -Cabin (rows 5, 6 & 9 on the A319, and 5,-7 & 9 on the A320), which will be called “Main Cabin Express” (other members will just have to purchase them for $20)
-Enhanced digital/social media rewards (such as earning double points by checking in at airports and other locations through Facebook, Instagram and Foursquare)
-15% discount on Main Cabin tickets (1 per year for Silver, 2 per year for Gold)
-No Elevate points redeposit fee for Gold
-No call center service fee

The Main Reasons I Didn’t Retain Virgin America Status
1. Route Network:
Although Virgin is growing its route network with new flights between hubs like Newark and Los Angeles where I tend to fly a lot, its route map just isn’t extensive enough for my needs and it doesn’t serve my home airport of Miami MIA at all (though it does fly from Ft. Lauderdale FLL to nine destinations at the moment). With United’s dominance at Newark (it seems to be trying to put Virgin out of business there), American increasing transcontinental routes from JFK, and major investments in LGA and JFK from Delta, I’m still much more likely to fly these carriers.

2. Spending Requirements: Elevate is a revenue-based program where you earn miles based on how much you spend (5 points per $1 base spending on fares) rather than how far you fly. That means you’ve got to spend a certain amount to achieve status – $4,000 for Silver and $10,000 for Gold. The only other frequent flyer program I have elite status in that has a similar requirement is Delta, which recently introduced a revenue-based element to its Medallion program and which means that I’ll have to spend either $7,500 on airfare or $25,000 on my new Platinum Delta Amex in order to requalify for Platinum – in addition to flying the 75,000 miles necessary. American and United have no such spending requirements (for now), so qualification is based on miles/segments only or points with American, which are based on the ticket fare classes you buy.

Main Cabin Select has more leg room and comes with priority boarding.

Main Cabin Select has more leg room and comes with priority boarding.

3. Upgrades: The only complimentary upgrades available to members are to Main Cabin Express rows and to Main Cabin Select just 24 hours in advance – no shot at First Class. By contrast, the upgrade window for me on American as an Executive Platinum is 100 hours and 72 hours on United as a Platinum. Delta processes elite upgrades at the gate and they are getting increasingly harder to score. With American, I’m almost guaranteed an upgrade, and if I don’t get one, I can same-day confirm to a flight with open upgrade seats by buying Choice Plus or Choice Essential fares – or I can use British Airways Avios to book an award ticket on American or United miles transferred from my Chase Ultimate Rewards account to score a premium award ticket on United at the last minute. Although the Systemwide Upgrades with United and Delta (especially) are a bit restrictive because you have to buy certain (pricier) fare classes, the 8 SWU’s I get each year from American thanks to Executive Platinum status (with the potential for more thanks to the airline’s new Elite Rewards structure) are much easier to use and on any fare class with no co-pays anywhere the airline flies. That’s practically enough in itself to keep me loyal.

4. Redemptions: Virgin America’s Elevate points are fixed-value points usually redeemable for between about 1.6-2.3 cents in value, I’ve been considering the program more lately because of American Express transfer bonuses, including the recent 50% one from the winter, so options for premium fares are limited since they can require so many more points. That said, there are no blackout dates and you can redeem for any open seat just as if you were paying for it, so it could be a good option for folks with no flexibility or who must travel at specific times in coach. However, most of my redemptions are international premium awards, which would be prohibitively expensive with a fixed-value program, but which are within reach using traditional distance-based miles like those of my other three elite programs. Not only that, but…

5. Airline Partners: You can use Virgin America points to redeem on both Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia, as well as taking advantage of some potentially valuable redemptions on new partner Hawaiian Airlines. However, the airline isn’t part of any alliance, which does limit the options. American is a member of Oneworld, so you can both earn and redeem miles on any of those partners, including British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Qantas – but you can also use miles from those carriers’ programs to redeem for awards on American. So if I need a first class ticket on American at the last-minute, I’m actually more likely to use BA Avios because there are no last-minute fees, and I take advantage of fairly frequent Amex Membership Rewards transfer bonuses (like the current 35% one) to maximize my miles. I did this last August to fly first class at the last minute on American from Miami to Los Angeles when tickets were extremely expensive. And my American miles came in handy when SWISS decided not to honor an award ticket to Europe when I got to the airport in Miami, and I was able to make a last-minute redemption of American miles to fly British Airways via London instead.

The same is true of United, which is a member of Star Alliance, so you can earn and redeem miles on and from its 26 other airline partners like Aeroplan, ANA, Lufthansa, Singapore and Turkish Airlines. For its part, Delta is a member of SkyTeam, so its partners include Air France/KLM, Alitalia, Korean Air and Aerolineas Argentinas. The fact that each of my legacy carriers of choice is a member of one of the major alliances, and partners with airlines (or are themselves partners) that are transfer partners of credit card programs like Amex Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards makes them much more versatile and cost-effective for the types of awards I’m interested in. For example, I recently used my Ultimate Rewards at the last minute to snag the last first class seat available on one of the last flights out of Newark before a huge snowstorm in February so I could make it to the Grammy’s.

Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 11.30.24 PM

6. Credit Cards: The Virgin America credit card is only offering a current sign-up bonus of up to 15,000 Elevate Points (10,000 with first purchase and 5,000 for a balance transfer within 30 days). That’s worth roughly $370, which is not a huge selling point in my opinion. On the plus side, Virgin America is also a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards at a ratio of 2:1, although there are sometimes transfer bonuses, so it is an option for using the points I earn with my Premier Rewards Gold and new Mercedes-Benz Platinum Amex.

However, those pickings are slim compared to the co-braded credit cards of my other three programs. Delta not only has three co-branded Amex cards with some lucrative targeted offers out there on the moment like the 60,000-mile one I just got, but it is also a transfer partner of Amex Membership Rewards at a 1:1 ratio. American is not, but there is a full line of Citi AAdvantage cards including the Citi Executive AAdvantage Mastercard that even has the potential to earn elite-qualifying miles and includes Admirals Club membership, as well as the Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage Visa which carries the usual slate of perks like free checked bags and early boarding as well as a 10% mileage redemption refund. American is a transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest as well.

For its part, United has the United Club Card with lounge access and elite-style perks, as well as the more basic United Explorer card, which has offered targeted bonuses of up to 60,000 miles as well. Not only that, but United is also a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards and a 2:1 transfer partner (not a great rate) of Starwood, so there are some good redemption opportunities here.

Although Virgin is a popular choice with a lot of travelers thanks to a cool vibe, clean new planes with personal entertainment and WiFi, a decent domestic route network, and an easy-to-understand loyalty program, the elite perks of Elevate don’t compare to those I get from the legacy programs I’ve been flying, so I’m not quite ready to change my flying habits just yet!

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  • Andrew

    Maybe it’s different for your extra-long legs, TPG, but as a regular sized 5’9″ guy I’d take Virgin America Main Cabin Select over any of the legacy carriers’ “first class” every time. New planes, Wifi, in-seat power, good food, and super friendly crews > nasty, ratty old leather seats and the nastiness that passes for “customer service” on UA, AA, and DL.

  • janakj

    Good points, but Main Cabin Select is expensive as it’s a separate premium economy class. On AA (as a frequent flier), I get the Main Cabin Extra extra-legroom seats for free. Admittedly, that doesn’t get me free meals, but overall for me it’s a better deal.

    As a rule of thumb, I recommend Virgin (and JetBlue) to casual travelers who can’t rack up enough miles in a year to benefit from the legacy airlines’ frequent flier programs. However, if you get into one of those FF programs, they have a number of benefits that neutralizes Virgin’s new planes.

    Moreover, the new plane advantage will only last for about one more year. By that point, AA will have a nearly all-new fleet, and most of their transcontinental flights will have the same amenities as Virgin.

  • Penn Dalton

    It’s worth noting that Virgin America’s program beats even British Airways’ for Short Haul flights (ie, LAX-SFO).

    A ticket using Avios will be 4,500 if you can get it, whereas Virgin starts at 2,500 for the comparable flight. Granted there is some fluxuation, but if you mainly get your points/miles from credit cards, I can get a round trip on Virgin to SFO for barely more than a one way would cost me on AA using Avios.

  • Andrew

    I’m talking about free upgrades to MCS vs. free upgrades to legacy first. TPG says legacy first is better, I say MCS is better. Expense doesn’t come into the equation for free upgrades. :)

  • janakj

    OK, fair enough, but… the big difference here is that extra-legroom seats on e.g., American, aren’t an upgrade that clear 12 hours out. Rather, I can pick them at booking time, and don’t have to hope that I get them, I have them.

    In my experience (I flew Virgin *a lot* SFO-JFK years ago, albeit before they implemented their frequent flier system), MCS availability at the 24-hour mark is pretty limited, often down to just the middle seats. Occasionally, a few open up at the 6-hour First Class upgrade window when those MCS fliers clear for First Class, but it’s a crapshoot. In general, the problem here is that the allocation is so small (12 and 8, respectively, or 8 and 8 if you don’t want middle seats), that you’re playing the numbers.

    How successful have you been at getting free MCS upgrades? I suspect it also depends on the route you’re flying; SFO-JFK is one of their popular routes and is often full.

    (As an aside, I find the bulkhead MCS seats far superior to the exit row ones, which feel stuck in the middle of a pretty crowded cabin.)

  • thepointsguy

    Interesting take. I really just need to suck it up and try it one of these days!

  • thepointsguy

    Not necessarily- a short haul flight that costs $400 is way more than 2,500 points. 2,500 points = a $50 flight, which is maybe SFO-LAX if you’re lucky

  • thepointsguy

    Good point janakj… having a regular coach seat up until the day before would be stressful. Knowing I’m in a premium/exit row at time of booking is why I stay with AA/DL/UA, etc

  • Pingback: What Is The Best US Airline? Virgin America Apparently (According to Consumer Reports) | The Points Guy()

  • Penn Dalton

    It’s all about variables though. VX you can book any seat, BA/AA only has limited, so there are upsides to both.

  • Penn Dalton

    I flew Virgin once a month ago, best coach experience ever. I’m going to try to fly with Virgin’s three airlines whenever possible from now on.

  • Private Joker

    Interesting points (har har)… I have been travelling more heavily the past 18 months, and VA happens to cover my destinations well – out of SF to New York, Boston, DC, Seattle, LA, San Diego, and Chicago. I am right on the edge of earning Silver, and was pleased to read of the 12-hour First Class advance as I have to admit to setting my alarm a few times at 3am to pick up an upgrade for a 9am flight. I did pick up the VA credit card as I needed a suitable non-amex backup to my SPG amex which is flooded with points at the moment. I am a little unclear as to whether or not there is any status-point benefit at all to the card though?

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