Transcontinental Series: Virgin America
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This is a post in my new Transcontinental Series aimed at helping flyers choose the best options while flying coast-to-coast, as well as strategies on leveraging elite status and miles to get the most valuable upgrades possible. Other posts include: American Airlines, Delta and United. Today I’ll be talking about Virgin America’s transcontinental routes from LAX/SFO to JFK.
Planes and Classes of Service
Virgin America flies a fleet of A320’s between JFK and Los Angeles/ San Francisco. They currently have 6 daily flights to/from LAX and 6 daily flights to/from SFO. The A320 has 8 First Class seats, 12 Main Cabin Select seats, and 129 Main Cabin seats and occasionally an A319 will fly this route which offers the same number of First and Main Cabin Select seats, but only 99 Main Cabin seats. Their planes are probably best known for their sleek/futuristic interiors that feature mood lighting and are equipped with Gogo Wifi on-board. All of the seats feature audio visual on demand touchscreen seatback TV’s and personal power plugs.
Virgin America’s First Class cabin features white leather recliner seats with 55 inches of pitch, 21 inches of width and 165 degrees of recline. First Class passengers receive complimentary food, drinks and entertainment, two free checked bags and priority boarding.
Main Cabin Select seats are the same black leather ones as the regular Main Cabin seats, but they are in the bulkhead and exit rows and have 38 inches of legroom (6 more than Main Cabin) and come with complimentary food, drinks and entertainment, one free checked bag and priority boarding.
Main Cabin seats have 32 inches of pitch, and are just shy of 20 inches wide, with just 3-5 inches of recline. Movies cost $5-$8 and TV shows cost $2-$7 to view, and passengers in this class of service have to pay for food and drinks other than soda, juice, coffee, tea and water.
Passengers on Virgin America with Main Cabin seats have a couple different upgrade options.
When purchasing tickets, customers can also select an Instant Upgrade option to Main Cabin Select. This is a little misleading since it’s really just a non-refundable Main Cabin Select seat. You will get your fare back (minus a $100 change fee) to a TravelBank account, whereas when just purchasing a Main Cabin Select fare, you get your fare refunded to your original form of payment minus the $100 change fee. Selecting an Instant Upgrade is usually between $250-$500 cheaper than purchasing a Main Cabin Select fare during the flight booking process.
If it’s more than 24 hours before their flight and they want to upgrade from Main Cabin to Main Cabin Select, they must go through the “Change Flight” process by clicking the “Change” tab on the Virgin America homepage, entering their last name and confirmation code or ticket number, click on “Change Flight,” and select Main Cabin Select as their new cabin of service. With this option, they’ll have to pay the difference in fare if applicable. They can do the same thing to upgrade from Main Cabin or Main Cabin Select to First Class if it’s more than 6 hours before their flight. Upgrades can only be purchased with a credit card.
However, there is also a last-minute upgrade option where passengers can snag seats in Main Cabin Select up to 24 hours before departure, or First Class 6 hours before departure. The cost of upgrading depends on the length of the flight.
For the airline’s long-haul transcontinental routes, the price to upgrade from Main Cabin to Main Cabin Select is $129, from Main Cabin Select to First Class is $169, and from Main Cabin to First Class is $299 each way. These options can be much more affordable than purchasing First Class or even Main Cabin Select outright.
For instance, a roundtrip flight from SFO-JFK in September costs about $360 for Main Cabin, while Main Cabin Select would cost $2,500 and a First Class seat would cost a jaw-dropping $4,000! So even if you paid an extra $600 to upgrade from Main Cabin to First Class both ways, you’d still be way ahead. Of course, fares fluctuate and I’ve seen both main cabin select and first class for cheaper.
You can get one of these upgrades in a few different ways. Beginning 6 hours prior to departure, you can upgrade when you check-in at the airport or online. To upgrade while checking in online, you should enter your travel information and select the flight you’re checking into. You will have to choose a seat in your current cabin before starting the upgrade process. Then you will see an option to upgrade to Main Cabin Select or First Class if available, at which point you can pay for the upgrade along with any baggage or clubhouse fees. Note, if there are no remaining seats available in your current cabin, you will not be able to upgrade online and will have to try at the airport.
Those checking in at the airport can upgrade at a kiosk or the counter, or for the procrastinators out there, you can even do it onboard. If there is a Main Cabin Select or First Class seat available that you’re interested in, point it out to the flight attendant to confirm it’s available, and he or she should be able to seat you there and you can then upgrade by swiping your credit card through the new seat’s RED personal entertainment system.
If you booked a ticket using Elevate points, upgrades work similarly to those on paid tickets. You can pay to upgrade to Main Cabin Select within 24 hours of departure or First Class within 6 hours of departure, or you can do it on the day of departure when you check in online or at the airport. You cannot use more Elevate points to pay for an upgrade.
Note: If you check into your flight and you decide you want to upgrade within 6 hours of departure, you won’t be able to do so either online or at an airport kiosk. Instead, you’ll have to call the airline’s call center at 877-359-8474 or talk to an airport agent. You can also wait until you’re onboard and upgrade then as mentioned above.
Virgin America has Clubhouses at SFO and JFK (and Washington Dulles). Confirmed First Class, Main Cabin Select and Elevate customers can purchase access to the lounge at SFO (either at online check-in or at the airport) for $35. Only Confirmed First Class and Main Cabin Select passengers can purchase access to the Clubhouse at JFK for $75. Guests must be flying a Virgin America flight within 90 minutes of the hours of operation of the clubhouse to use the facilities.
The SFO Clubhouse is a 10-minute walk from the new home of Virgin America at Terminal 2 so keep that in mind. The JFK Clubhouse is located in the A-Concourse and above boarding gates A4 and A5
Travelers earn 5 Elevate points per $1 spent on travel on Virgin America itself, and cardholders of the Virgin America Visa Signature earn an additional 3 points per $1 on the airline. Elevate points can normally be redeemed for any Virgin America flight for about 1.6-2.3 cents each in value toward airfare. That same $360 roundtrip itinerary in Main Cabin from San Francisco to New York in September, for instance, priced out at 16,830 Elevate points plus $5 in fees, working out to a value of 2.14 cents per point.
A roundtrip itinerary in Main Cabin Select from LAX-JFK in September is going for around $2,030 or 93,400 Elevate points plus $5, meaning your points would be worth about 2.17 cents each. If you were willing to take a chance, though, and use Elevate points to pay for a Main Cabin ticket on this itinerary, it would cost you just 14,326 Elevate points plus $5. Then, if there were Main Cabin Select seats available within the 24-hour departure window, you could upgrade for $129 each way. So spending $258 would save you about 79,000 points! So be sure to weigh all your options and consider what chances you’re willing to take.
Elevate is also a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards at a ratio of 2 Amex Membership Rewards points to 1 Virgin America Elevate point with minimum transfer increments of 200 Amex points, so it’s not the best opportunity out there, but if you’re just looking to top up your account for an award flight, it’s nice to have this option.
Virgin America recently announced their new Elite Status Program which will be rolled out on August 8, 2012. It will offer two levels: Silver and Gold. Elevate members who earn 20,000 Elevate status points ($4,000 in flight purchases) within a calendar year will get Silver status, while those who earn 50,000 status points ($10,000 in flight purchases) in a full calendar year will achieve Elevate Gold status. Members with elite status will get priority check-in, security clearance and boarding along with free checked bag allowances (1 for Silver, 3 for Gold). Golds will also not have to pay an Elevate points redeposit fee if they cancel an itinerary.
There will be an expanded advance-purchase upgrade window for First Class (12 hours for Silver, 24 hours for Gold) and complimentary space-available upgrades to Main Cabin Select (12 hours for Silver, 24 hours for Gold). Silver and Gold members will receive complimentary access to newly designated enhanced seat assignments within Main Cabin (rows 5-7 & 9 on the A320), which will be called “Main Cabin Express” (other members can purchase them for $20). So if you’re been a loyal Virgin America flyer but have been disappointed by the lack of upgrade opportunities, this could be a game-changer for you.
Overall, I think Virgin America offers a nicer in-flight product in economy experience than the legacy carriers, though their loyalty program is much less lucrative- especially for very frequent flyers. I’m glad they announced an elite program, but their complimentary upgrades to main cabin select don’t quite compare to the business class upgrades on the other carriers and Elevate points are generally much less useful than other airlines frequent flyer programs due to the lack of international redemption opportunities and alliance benefits.