How To Book Award Flights with Virgin America
Earning points and miles is the surprisingly easy part of award travel; it’s learning how to maximize value when redeeming that takes practice. In this post, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele explains how to use Virgin America Elevate miles to book the flights you want.
It's hard to believe that it's been eight years since Virgin America began operations in the United States. But after some initial setbacks, the carrier is going strong, with a compelling frequent flyer program called Elevate.
Today, I'll take a closer look at how to book award flights with Virgin America's Elevate program, continuing my series on award flight booking from previous guides for Alaska, Delta, American, United and Air Canada's Aeroplan.
Earning Miles with Virgin America Elevate
Virgin America Elevate offers a revenue-based program for earning miles, which means that you earn points from flying based on how much your ticket costs, not the distance you travel. Travelers earn five points per dollar spent on their base fare for Virgin America flights.
Virgin America isn't part of any of the major airline alliances, but it does have five airline partners that you can earn and redeem points with:
- Virgin Atlantic
- Virgin Australia
- Hawaiian Airlines (redeem only)
- Singapore Airlines
With each of these carriers, you earn points based on both the fare class and class of service. Note that you won't earn points on Hawaiian, though you can redeem Elevate points for flights on this carrier. Virgin America also offers points in conjunction with partners in categories including car rentals, hotels, shopping and vacation packages.
Credit Cards, Transfers and Other Partners
Virgin America offers two different credit cards issued by Comenity Capital Bank.
The standard Virgin America Visa Signature card features:
- A sign-up bonus of 10,000 points after making $1,000 worth of purchases within 90 days of account opening.
- 3 points per dollar spent on Virgin America purchases, and 1 point per dollar spent elsewhere.
- Free first checked bag.
- $150 off a companion ticket every year (for more information, read my post on How to Fly with a Friend Using Credit Card Companion Tickets).
- 20% off of in-flight purchases.
- $49 annual fee.
The Virgin America Premium Visa Signature card improves on the standard card by offering:
- A sign-up bonus of 15,000 points after making $1,000 worth of purchases within 90 days of account opening.
- The ability to earn 5,000 status points for ever $10,000 in purchases, up to 15,000 status points each year.
- No change or cancellation fees.
- $149 annual fee.
You can also earn Virgin America Elevate points by transferring rewards from two other credit reward programs. Virgin America is a partner of the American Express Membership Rewards program, and it was just added as the first US-based carrier in Citi's ThankYou Rewards program.
In fact, both these programs are currently offering transfer bonuses. When you transfer American Express Membership Rewards points to Virgin America before October 8th, you get a 25% transfer bonus. However, the normal transfer rate of Membership Rewards to Elevate is only one 2:1, so the bonus brings that up to a ratio 200:125. You also get Virgin America Gold status for a year when you transfer 80,000 points by the end of the 2015.
Citi's ThankYou Rewards program offers the same standard transfer rate of 2:1, and a 25% bonus through October 21, also bringing the ratio to 200:125. According to TPG's latest monthly valuations, Virgin America's points are worth 1.5-2.3 cents apiece.
Award Chart and Sweet Spots
Virgin America uses a revenue-based redemption system for awards on its own flights, and fixed award pricing for each partner flight that it offers. Rather than a traditional award chart, it has an award calculator tool to look up pricing on each route. Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your points:
1. Look for fare sales on Virgin America — The number of points you need to book an award flight depends on whether it's operated by Virgin America or one of its partners. For Virgin America flights, the amount of points needed varies based on the current price of a ticket, with each point being worth about 2-2.3 cents each.
Like with JetBlue and Southwest Airlines, there aren't any blackouts or restrictions, and there isn't a huge difference in value per point from one flight to another. Instead, you get the best value for your points by looking for fare sales, just like you would if you were paying with cash.
2. Consider Hawaiian — Virgin America partner Hawaiian doesn't add fuel surcharges to award tickets. You can use your points for flights to Hawaii to and from the mainland; inter-island flights; and flights to destinations in Asia and the South Pacific. These awards can be reasonable, and since each leg is priced separately, there's no penalty for stopping over in Hawaii. On the other hand, Hawaiian Airlines first class is just a larger seat, much like domestic first class, and might not be worth the extra points to redeem.
3. Singapore awards in coach — Singapore is another partner carrier that doesn't impose fuel surcharges, but don't get your hopes up about business and first class awards, as these are rarely (if ever) released to its partners. Nevertheless, Singapore is widely regarded as having one of the best economy-class products, which may be perfectly sufficient for your short- and medium-haul needs around Southeast Asia.
4. Virgin Australia — These awards can be a stunningly good deal at 80,000 points round-trip in business class between the US and Australia, with no fuel surcharges. Even the carrier's 40,000-mile round-trip economy class ticket makes sense, but I'd spring for business class (if available) rather than spending 60,000 on a premium economy award.
Award flights operated by Virgin America can be booked online, much like revenue tickets, but partner awards must be booked over the phone at 877-359-8474. Also, note that there's a $20 phone-booking fee per reservation.
1. Use stopovers — Virgin America uses segment-by-segment pricing, so you can essentially add as many stopovers as you want. That means you could spend a few days in London, Singapore, Honolulu or anywhere else on the way to or from your destination.
2. Research award space first — Most customers report that Virgin America's phone representatives typically do a good job, and that they're able to see the same award availability that you'll find on other airline's websites and third-party search programs like Expert Flyer. Nevertheless, they'll never be as motivated as you are to find available flights. So take advantage of other airline websites that show award space for Virgin America's partners. For example, Alaska's website show's space on Emirates, ANA shows space on Singapore and Delta shows both Virgin Atlantic and Virgin America award space.
3. Avoid Emirates and Virgin Atlantic, especially in economy class — Virgin America's fuel surcharges on awards operated by Emirates and Virgin Atlantic are so bad that they approach the price of an economy-class ticket! While you could argue that the value of business and first-class awards is greater than the fuel surcharges (up to $1,410 round-trip), you're almost always better off just buying an economy ticket and earning miles, rather than paying for it in both miles and dollars. You can also use Alaska or JAL miles to book Emirates flights with no fuel surcharges, or you can still get good value from your Delta SkyMiles by booking Virgin Atlantic. For more information, see TPG contributor Richard Kerr's post on 3 Ways to Book Emirates First Class Awards.
4. Daydream about Virgin Limited Edition — Have some fun checking out the exclusive award opportunities offered by Virgin Limited Edition including exotic safaris and remote lodges, as well as trip to Necker Island, Sir Richard Branson's private retreat, for only 1,750,000 points. On the more realistic and affordable side, you can redeem points at the Babylon Restaurant in London. A three-course set lunch for two during the week (Monday-Thursday) is 10,000 points for two, and dinner for two is 17,500.
Virgin America's Elevate program can offer competitive value for awards on its flights and with some of its partners, but only when you take the time to consider fuel surcharges and the applicable point transfer ratios. However, once you get a feel for where the best values lie, it's easy to use your Elevate points for award travel in style.
What's your favorite use of Elevate points?