Hawaiian and Virgin America Partnership: Potentially Lucrative Award Opportunities
Virgin America and Hawaiian Airlines just announced a new partnership and codeshare agreement that allows members of both frequent flyer programs to book flights on the other carrier. This is great news for members of both programs: Hawaiian members (and thus those with American Express Membership Rewards points because they are a 1:1 transfer partner), because you can now redeem for Virgin America flights at potentially cheaper ratios than directly through the Virgin America Elevate program. Hawaiian has a distance based award chart for Virgin America flights, which can be more generous than redeeming directly with Virgin America Elevate, which assigns a fixed value (1.6-2.1 cents per point) for redemptions- meaning expensive flights require a lot more points. Not so with Hawaiian- the cost of the flight does not factor into the redemption- simply the distance of the flight.
This new partnership also creates an opportunity for Virgin America members to redeem for Hawaiian flights, which are also calculated based on distance.
Sample Virgin America awards using Hawaiian Miles:
New York to Los Angeles in first class is 90,000 Hawaiian miles roundtrip. That same flight, using dates January 16-20th would cost $3,729 roundtrip or 172,466 Elevate points and $5 in taxes/fees. However, when I called Hawaiian to check availability, I was told, curtly, that their systems were not set up yet and to call back "next week". We will have to wait and see what award availability is actually like using Hawaiian miles, but if it's any Virgin America flight, this could be a great way to book those pricey first class awards for a fraction of the points (especially if transferring from Amex).
Sample Hawaiian roundtrip awards using Elevate Points:
New York- Honolulu (on Hawaiian's newish non-stop flight)= 35,000 Elevate points+$5 for roundtrip economy and 80,000 Elevate points + $5 for business class.
Oakland- Maui= 20,000 Elevate points +$5 for roundtrip economy and 50,000 Elevate points + $5 for business class
Honolulu- Lihue= 6,000 Elevate points + $5 for roundtrip economy (business/first not available)
Honolulu- Sydney= 45,000 Elevate points +$130 for roundtrip economy and 100,000 Elevate points + $130 for business class
Searching for Availability
Awards are not bookable online, so you have to call Virgin America at 1-877-359-8474 to book them. I called them to book a sample Los Angeles- Honolulu award and the rep was more than helpful and was able to pull up flights without any issues. There is no phone booking fee, but sadly you cannot put awards on hold.
Hawaiian has three main types of availability: Flex, Saver and Partner. Only partner awards are bookable with Elevate points and the only way (to my knowledge) of finding Partner availability is by calling or using ExpertFlyer (which only lets you search for economy partner availability). ExpertFlyer also gives the ability to create alerts so when Hawaiian releases more award availability on your desired dates of travel, you'll get an instant email so you can book it before anyone else. Hawaiian awards over peak times can be difficult to snag at the partner level, so this service can easily pay for itself many times over by giving you the edge over other travelers.
At most, Elevate points are worth about 2.1 cents a piece when redeeming for Virgin America flights. So using that valuation, a roundtrip from Oakland to Maui in business class at 50,000 points would be the equivalent of $1,050 in Virgin America fares. I'd probably rather have that roundtrip business class flight, but it all depends on your preference. New York to Honolulu roundtrip in coach at 35,000 points equates to $735, which is a reasonable price to pay for that trip. Not earth shattering value, but not a complete ripoff.
As for Hawaiian miles, they have a lot of partners, like Delta, Korean, JetBlue and ANA so it really depends on what type of travel you value. The Virgin America award chart in itself isn't really amazing compared to other partners. However, it can be a huge savings vs. booking Virgin America flights using Elevate points and could be a smarter option than transferring Amex points to Virgin America at a dismal 2:1 ratio. However, until Hawaiian can confirm how much Virgin America availability they are able to book, I won't hold out hope that this is a hugely successful redemption opportunity.
American Express Membership Rewards
Both Virgin America and Hawaiian Airlines are transfer partners of American Express Membership Rewards. Hawaiian is at a 1:1 (Amex to Miles) ratio and Virgin America at 2:1 (but there are frequent transfer bonuses, like the current targeted 50% bonus).
So in general, transferring to Hawaiian makes the most sense. Let's take that New York to Honolulu roundtrip. Hawaiian charges 40,000 miles (40,000 Amex) roundtrip for economy and 80,000 miles (80,000 Amex) for business saver awards. Elevate charges 35,000 Elevate (70,000 Amex) for roundtrip for economy and 80,000 Elevate (160,000 Amex) for business class. Even with a 50% transfer bonus from Amex to Elevate, the coach award would cost 46,667 Amex points with Elevate vs. 40,000 with Hawaiian.
Overall, its great to have more options- especially for us with American Express points who have balked at the often huge amount of points needed when transferring to Elevate at 2:1.