Redeem Your Virgin America Points for Flights, Not Virgin Limited Edition Travel Packages
Virgin America just announced a new promotion called "Take your points on vacation with Virgin Limited Edition", which listed travel packages that you can use your points on not only for flights but also to stay in places that look pretty great including safari camps in Kenya and South Africa, an alpine lodge in Switzerland, even Sir Richard Branson's own Necker Island. Curious if any of these packages would be good deals, I priced them out in cash versus Virgin America Elevate points, as well as looking at it through the angle of transfer partner American Express Membership Rewards Points.
The verdict: Save your points for booking flights only. The redemption ratios for Virgin Limited Edition packages are, to put it frankly, awful.
One of Virgin's listed deals is for a 3-night stay in a double-occupancy tent at Mahali Mzuri, a luxury-tent safari camp in Kenya's Maasai Mara. This package includes all taxes, food and drinks, round-trip Mara North Airstrip transfers, twice-daily game drives, and access to business facilities.
Based on the annual pattern of the Great Migration, the Mahali Mzuri has seasonal rates, so a 3-night stay in a double-occupancy tent has three different prices throughout the year: low season, $1,860; mid-season, $2,670, or high season, $3,135
Virgin Limited Edition Package
The package requires a redemption of 300,000 Elevate points - but you can regularly get values of over 2 cents per Virgin America Elevate point, so in my estimation, that would be the equivalent of $6,000 - roughly double what you'd be paying in cash.
In a nutshell, this redemption rate works out to spending just shy of twice the amount of a high-season stay at Mahali Mzuri.
Amex Membership Rewards Transfer
If you wanted to transfer Amex points to book this package, you would have to transfer 600,000 Amex Membership Rewards points (at a rate of 2:1), which equals 300,000 Virgin America Elevate Points . I can't think of a single reason to justify using such a high number of Amex Membership Rewards to purchase this package at such an already terrible rate.
Other Virgin Limited Edition packages fare better, but still not well: 3 nights in a Superior Room at Morocco's hilltop Kasbah Tamadot will set you back between $1,737 and $2,067, but with a redemption rate of 125,000 Elevate points, you'll actually be using the equivalent of $2,500 in Elevate points. A 3-night stay in a guestroom at The Lodge at Verbier, a chalet in the Swiss Alps, costs $3,006, but requires a redemption of 175,000 Elevate points - or $3,500 in value.
Consulting Virgin America's Elevate points calculator, as well as flight aggregator search sites ITA Matrix, Kayak and Hipmunk, I researched some high-end flights, comparing points-redemption rates to cash values for round-trips between April and June. Among other scenarios, I determined that I could use 50,000 points+$1,130 ($2,130 value total) for a Virgin Atlantic Upper Class round-trip from Los Angeles to London's Heathrow, which is averaging $6,100; and I could use 95,000 points+$70 ($1,970) for Business Class round-trip flights from Los Angeles to Tokyo on Singapore Airlines (another Virgin America flight partner), which is averaging $4,300 to purchase outright.
The upshot is that Virgin America Elevate points can offer decent savings when booking premium flights - though you'll still be spending a fair amount of cash in surcharges. However, at best, they barely break even when used for travel packages with Virgin Limited Edition. Save your American Express Membership Rewards for partners that offer better redemption ratios (or wait till a transfer bonus comes along), and save those Elevate points for flights!