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Yesterday, we saw the return of a 30% transfer bonus when transferring American Express Membership Rewards to Virgin Atlantic Flying Club. Understandably this isn’t generating much interest. However, if you’re interested in flying to Japan in style, don’t miss this opportunity.
There are excellent Flying Club redemptions on Virgin Atlantic’s Japan-based partner ANA. First-class round-trip redemptions from the US to Japan start at just 90,000 Flying Club miles from Honolulu (HNL) — which will soon feature ANA’s new A380 — or 110,000 miles from the contiguous states. United charges 110,000 miles for a first-class one-way from the US to Japan, so you’re getting a round-trip for around the price other programs charge for a one-way.
Flying Club used to hide this ANA redemption chart, but you can confirm these rates right on the Flying Club website:
However, this chart or its footnotes don’t designate what’s Western vs. Central/Eastern. The last time we were able to confirm mileage with Flying Club, here are the distance bands for the different tiers:
|Total round-trip mileage||Economy||Business||First|
And, the good news doesn’t end there.
Taxes and fees are reasonable: Usually when award redemption levels are low, fuel surcharges are high. Exhibit 1: Virgin Atlantic’s off-peak award chart. The good news here is that isn’t the case for ANA awards — at least those between the US and Tokyo. The Virgin Atlantic Flying Club agent I spoke with in April said most of these cost less than $100 round-trip. He probably meant for economy flights; most premium cabin options we checked seem to be around $200 round-trip.
Hold before you transfer: ANA award flights can be held by Virgin Atlantic for up to 48 hours. This should be plenty of time to transfer your American Express Membership Rewards to Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club. In TPG testing, the points transferred between these programs immediately. This is great so that you don’t have to speculatively transfer points to Virgin Atlantic and hope award availability opens up.
But, before you get too excited, there are some limitations to keep in mind:
Only round-trips are allowed: Unfortunately, you can’t book one-way flights on ANA using Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles.
No domestic connections allowed: You can’t connect inside the US or Japan as part of the transpacific award flight. Specifically, the Virgin Atlantic chart states: “If a journey requires a connecting flight or stopover to reach the destination, miles are charged for each sector.” If you need a connection in the US, Virgin Atlantic also partners with Delta. US domestic one-way flights cost 12,500 Flying Club miles — requiring a transfer of just 10,000 Membership Rewards during the 30% transfer bonus (MR points must be transferred in increments of 1,000 points)
With all of that in mind, the most relevant award redemptions for US-based travelers are going to be on ANA’s transpacific flights from its nine US gateways to ANA’s hub in Tokyo (NRT/HND). Here’s how much each round-trip option will cost, both in Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles and Membership Rewards utilizing the 30% transfer bonus. Membership Rewards amounts are rounded up to the next 1,000, as transfers must be in 1,000-point increments.
|Round-trip to/from Tokyo (NRT/HND)||Economy||Business||First Class|
|From||Virgin Atlantic miles||Amex Membership Rewards||Virgin Atlantic miles||Amex Membership Rewards||Virgin Atlantic miles||Amex Membership Rewards|
|San Francisco (SFO)||60,000||47,000||90,000||70,000||110,000||85,000|
|San Jose (SJC)||60,000||47,000||90,000||70,000||110,000||85,000|
|Los Angeles (LAX)||60,000||47,000||90,000||70,000||110,000||85,000|
|New York City (JFK)||65,000||50,000||95,000||74,000||120,000||93,000|
|Washington, D.C. (IAD)||65,000||50,000||95,000||74,000||120,000||93,000|
In case it needs emphasis, this is simply incredible — particularly for business and first-class flights. Flights from the East Coast (like JFK and IAD) take around 14 hours on the outbound to Japan and 13 hours on the return. So, you can get around 27 hours of ANA’s exceptional first-class product for just 93,000 Membership Rewards points. Mind you, it would cost 150,000 Membership Rewards if you were to transfer points directly to ANA to book these flights. Booking the same flights with United MileagePlus miles would set you back a whopping 220,000 miles.
Let’s say you’re sold. Next you need to find award availability. As I mentioned above, you can’t book these awards through the Virgin Atlantic website. And, you can’t check availability on Virgin Atlantic’s website either. There’s a few ways to search for ANA award availability: United’s website, ExpertFlyer [premium subscription], ANA’s website [membership required] or Air Canada’s Aeroplan website.
So, I did a few test searches. While United’s nonstop search option is helpful, United also operates some flights on this route itself — leading to false positives on the calendar. ExpertFlyer‘s search function took quite a while to search ANA’s availability — especially searching +/- 3 days — but at least you could see for sure whether or not ANA had availability on a flight.
Searching for awards on ANA’s website itself requires a ANA Mileage Club account. While you can search 7 days of availability at a time, “Seats available” might indicate that there’s United award availability instead of ANA availability. Similarly, Aeroplan requires you to log in to your account, will show flexible date searching and has false positives from United availability.
Utilizing this American Express Membership Rewards transfer bonus can yield excellent redemptions for premium-cabin flights from the US to Tokyo. However, you’re going to have to start at one of ANA’s gateways, fly round-trip and do some digging to find award availability.
Note: This article was originally published April 24 during a prior transfer bonus. With the new Membership Rewards to Virgin Atlantic Flying Club transfer bonus, this sweet spot has opened back up.
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