Maximize Monday: Virgin Atlantic Awards - Should You Transfer Amex Points To Virgin or Other Partners?
Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here.
With the current 30% Amex transfer bonus to Virgin Atlantic – which is available now through November 30, 2013 – I’ve had a lot of readers writing in and asking questions about whether transferring to Virgin makes sense for their flying needs. So I wanted to put together this post to discuss some other options for transferring Amex points into miles with other airlines who are partners with both Membership Rewards and Virgin Atlantic for flights on Virgin to help you compare your options and whether actually transferring to Virgin makes sense.
The main airlines partner that people seem to have questions about is Delta thanks to its recently launched partnership with Virgin Atlantic and the fact that Delta, too, is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards.
Here there is a slight tradeoff to using Delta miles versus Virgin miles. You are usually better off using Delta miles to book Virgin Atlantic awards to London since it can save you hundreds in taxes and surcharges. But the 30% transfer bonus skews the math a little bit.
A roundtrip business class award Virgin Atlantic from JFK to London, for example, would require either 100,000 Delta miles or 80,000 Virgin miles. However, with the transfer bonus, you'd only need 62,000 Amex points to transfer to Virgin Atlantic as opposed to the 100,000 you'd still need with Delta, so you'd be saving 38,000 Amex points with a Virgin transfer.
Here's where it gets tricky. As you can see from this sample booking from New York JFK to London Heathrow, though, the taxes and fees on such a ticket are over $1,100.
On the other hand, with Delta, you'd only be spending about $200-$300 in taxes and fees on such a ticket, though award availability for Virgin Upper class seats is much tighter through Delta than Virgin. That said, if you had a choice between which miles to use, you could either choose 62,000 Amex points to Virgin miles plus $1,100 or 100,000 Amex points to Delta plus $300. One way to look at this is that you'd be spending an additional 38,000 points to save $800. That breaks down to 2.1 cents per point. I value Amex points at slightly less than this - around 1.8-1.9 cents per point, so it's a bit of a toss up. I'd say if you're cash-strapped but have tons of extra points, you might still want to transfer to Delta, but otherwise, you should probably suck up the London taxes and surcharges and use Virgin miles.
A roundrip economy award on Virgin would cost you either 35,000 Virgin Atlantic miles (27,000 Amex points during this bonus) but a whopping $450 in taxes and fees.
By contrast, Delta would charge you 60,000 miles but only $190 in taxes and fees.
So in this case, I'd stick with Delta miles.
One extension to this example is if you wanted to use miles to fly Virgin to South Africa. You'd be looking at spending 154,000 Amex points to get the 200,000 Virgin miles necessary for a roundtrip Upper Class award ticket on Virgin from the east coast of North America to South Africa plus an additional $1,600 or so in taxes and fees.
By contrast, if you were to find award space using Delta miles, per the airline's award chart, you'd only need 140,000 miles roundtrip (and thus 140,000 Amex points) for the same ticket and your taxes and fees would only be around the $300-$400 mark. A much better deal.
So while during this transfer bonus it might still make sense to use Virgin miles despite the fees if you're just flying into and out of London, when it comes to transiting through London and using it as your hub, as well as some sweet spots in Delta's award chart that beat Virgin's hands down, it is can save you a lot of points and dollars to use Delta miles instead.
Another Amex transfer partner people have been asking about is ANA. ANA's awards are distance-based, so to fly from the east coast of the US to London, you only need 43,000 miles in economy or 68,000 miles in business class on partner Virgin Atlantic.
We saw that an Upper Class award on Virgin using Virgin miles would require 62,000 Amex points with this promo and about $1,100, and an economy ticket would require 35,000 Virgin miles (27,000 Amex points) but still an incredible $450 in taxes and fees.
Now, you can't book Virgin awards online using ANA's search engine, but I called into the airline about these flights and the economy award would cost 43,000 miles and a disappointing $680 in taxes and fees - a much worse deal than Virgin. An Upper Class ticket also in December would cost 68,000 miles (so you're using just 6,000 more Amex points than you would be during this promo if transferring to Virgin) and an equivalent $1,140 in taxes and fees.
So in this case, it's much better to transfer to Virgin. Just looking ahead to when Amex transfer ratios go back to normal and you'll need 80,000 points for that Virgin award, since the taxes and fees are pretty much at parity whether you use Virgin or ANA miles, better to transfer to ANA and save yourself the 12,000 Amex points.
One of Virgin Atlantic's other US-based partners that's also an Amex transfer partner is Virgin America. Here is the Virgin America Elevate points redemption chart for Virgin Atlantic's flights from the east coast to London.
Amex points transfer to Virgin America at a ratio of 2:1, so for awards, you're looking at using the following amounts of Amex points:
Economy: 15,000 Elevate points = 30,000 Amex points
Premium Economy: 25,000 Elevate points = 50,000 Amex points
Upper Class: 35,000 Elevate points = 70,000 Amex points
The taxes and fees on these tickets are approximately the same as what redeeming Virgin Atlantic miles would incur. Now here are the redemption levels from JFK-LHR using Virgin Atlantic miles and the amount of Amex points you'd need during the current transfer bonus:
Economy: 35,000 miles = 27,000 Amex points
Premium Economy: 55,000 miles = 43,000 Amex points
Upper Class: 80,000 miles = 62,000 Amex points
So while it might make sense sometimes to transfer to Virgin America instead of Virgin Atlantic when there is no transfer bonus, while this bonus is going on, there's absolutely no reason to go through Virgin America and use Elevate points since the taxes and fees are the same and you can use many thousands of fewer points with Virgin Atlantic.
The final major Amex transfer partner I wanted to cover was Singapore Airlines since it also partners with Virgin Atlantic. Per its VA award chart, for roundtrip award tickets on Virgin Atlantic, Singapore would require:
Economy: 50,000 miles
Premium Economy: 65,000 miles
Upper Class: 100,000 miles
Virgin's redemption levels blow Singapore's away without a transfer bonus, but with this current transfer bonus, you're literally saving anywhere from 38-46% of your Amex points. Not only that, but Singapore also imposes carrier fees and surcharges on partner awards, which means if you're flying to/from London, you're still getting hit with hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in fees even on award tickets. I called into KrisFlyer to book a sample Upper Class award (you cannot book Virgin Atlantic awards online through Singapore) and was quoted taxes and fees of about $500 on an economy ticket and $1,200 on an Upper Class ticket - pretty much on par with Virgin's own pricing - so I'd avoid this option as well.
With the current transfer bonus, using Virgin miles is looking like an attractive option if you want to fly Virgin Atlantic itself to/from London. That's because many of its partners impose similar taxes and fees on their award tickets on the airline, so you might as well use fewer miles if you're still going to have to pay hundreds of dollars for your award.
The one question mark might be transferring to Delta, where you can literally save nearly $1,000 by booking an Upper Class award using Delta miles instead of Virgin miles, though you'll be spending tens of thousands more Amex points in order to do so - you'll just have to consider whether you'd rather use the Amex points or spend the cash - and that award availability via Delta tends to be a lot tighter than booking using Virgin's own miles.
Just one brief final note if you're considering using Starwood Preferred Guest points instead. It's true that you get a 25% bonus on transfers of 20,000 points, but I didn't really consider this as a great option for these redemptions because for Virgin Atlantic itself, you're getting a better bonus through Amex Membership Rewards at 30% and you can transfer in increments of 1,000 points instead of 20,000 points.
You could consider making these transfers to Delta or ANA, though again, there's not as much flexibility in terms of the number points you'd have to transfer to accrue the miles necessary for these redemptions. It's true that you would only need to transfer 58,000 Starpoints to ANA to get that Upper Class award ticket on Virgin, which even beats the 62,000 Amex points you'd need to transfer to Virgin Atlantic during this promo, but I personally get a lot more value out of my Starpoints from hotel redemptions instead of airline awards, so I'd suggest saving your Starpoints for something else.
So if you've been thinking about booking a Virgin Atlantic award, I'd suggest taking advantage of this current Amex transfer bonus because we haven't seen a similar one since last November, when the bonus was 35%, and that one was higher than any other Virgin Atlantic transfer bonus in the past few years, so a 30% bonus is pretty decent.