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TPG Contributor Jason Steele returns to tell us how to take advantage of Virgin Atlantic miles without getting hit with huge fuel surcharges and fees
The American Express Membership Rewards program is offering a 30% bonus on points transfers to the Virgin Atlantic Flying Club program through May 31. While this could be a terrific deal, award flights on Virgin Atlantic typically offer poor value due to the high cost of government taxes and fees, as well as fuel surcharges imposed by Virgin Atlantic. However, Virgin Atlantic has 14 different airline partners, so there are some opportunities to utilize this transfer bonus while avoiding fuel surcharges.
Here are some ways to use Virgin Atlantic miles without fuel surcharges. Note that all numbers below are listed in Amex Membership Rewards points (before the transfer bonus) rounded up to the nearest 1,000, which is the minimum increment you can transfer.
- Hawaiian Airlines. Virgin Atlantic points can be redeemed for flights on Hawaiian Airlines with no fuel surcharges. Flights from the United States mainland are 31,000 points in coach and 62,000 points in first class. Inter-island flights are not a great deal at 12,000 Membership Rewards points roundtrip for coach, considering that United offers one-way inter-island flights for 6,000 miles. These Virgin-Atlantic awards are roundtrip only, but open-jaws are permitted.
- Delta. Reports indicate that fuel surcharges are not being added to Delta awards. Considering the massive increases in Delta’s own mileage chart, these partner awards can be a bargain. Roundtrip flights between Europe and the United States cost just 70,000 Membership Rewards points, and first class flights to Hawaii are only 58,000 points. In fact, many of these deals would be great even without the 30% transfer bonus. That said, travelers must find Delta Awards at the sometimes scarce Low level.
- ANA Domestic. Roundtrip domestic awards work out to 12,000 Membership Rewards points, and ANA domestic availability is plentiful and easy to search.
- Virgin America. Here there are a lot of good deals, although their award chart is route-specific. For example, flights up and down the west coast are 8-12,000 points in economy and 16-24,000 points in first class. Transcontinental flights and service to Mexico runs between 20,000 points for economy, 40,000 for premium economy, and 60,000 for first class. As far as award availability is concerned, Virgin America’s own program is based on the price of the ticket, so they have created special buckets for these awards. Virgin Atlantic customer service has to call Virgin America and request award seats (in 2014!), but reports indicate that award availability is respectable, and those with some flexibility seem to find the awards they request.
- Virgin Australia domestic. While fuel surcharges are a factor in Virgin Australia’s international flights, reports indicate that they are not added to domestic flights, which run between 13,000 and 31,000 points round-trip. Furthermore, this is the only Virgin Atlantic partner that can be booked as a one-way ticket for half the mileage.
- South African domestic and short-haul. According to Virgin Atlantic’s UK site: “Travel within South Africa as well as between South Africa & Beira, Blantyre, Bulawayo, Gaborone, Harare, Lilongwe, Livingstone, Lusaka, Maputo, Maseru, Matsapa, Ndola, Victoria Falls, Walvis Bay and Winhoek” costs only 16,000 points for economy and 24,000 for first class. Open jaws are permitted so long as you return to your origination point. South African Airlines award space is searchable at United.com.
- Cyprus Airways. Round trip flights between Cyprus and Tel Aviv are only 4,000 points, which is almost nothing. Since Cyprus is part of the Europe zone on most airline award charts, and Tel Aviv is part of the much more expensive middle east zone, this could be an easy way to save points and miles and visit Cyprus as well.
- Other partners. Jet Airways
Tips for booking partner awards with Virgin Atlantic:
- Look for partner award charts on the UK site. For some reason, Virgin Atlantic’s web developers didn’t bother to post their award charts on the US version of the site. To look up the partner award mileage charts, check the UK site.
- You will have to call Virgin Atlantic to book partner awards. Virgin Atlantic offers no way to book partner awards online, so don’t even bother clicking on “How to book”, since it will always say “Please contact the Virgin Atlantic Flying Club team to check availability and mileage required.”
- Virgin Atlantic may have to call to check partner award availability. Virgin Atlantic’s customer service systems are so antiquated that their representatives will often put you on hold to call partner airlines and ask for award availability. If the award is not available for the dates you want, they will have to call back and ask for different dates, so don’t expect the process to be quick and easy.
- Confirm award availability first. These deals can be great, but only if the partner airline is offering the award seats you need. Therefore you will want to find the award space you need before making the transfer. Since transfers from American Express Membership Rewards to Virgin Atlantic can take a day or two, it would be wise to find multiple flights that suit your needs in case your award is taken before your miles post.
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