My Virgin America Elevate Gold Status Ends – So What?

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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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