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One of the most frustrating situations is realizing that a loyalty program you previously overlooked actually offers significant value. Until recently, I thought Virgin Atlantic Flying Club offered poor-value partner bookings and imposed ridiculous carrier-imposed surcharges on award tickets. Even though I knew there were some niche spots that could be valuable to a minority of award travelers, I largely ignored the program.
Spurred by 2017’s transfer bonus from American Express, I turned my attention back to Flying Club and have since recognized the incredible value it’s offered all along. Today I’ll cover some of the basics of the program along with the sweet spots that should make Virgin Atlantic Flying Club a top transfer destination for your points.
Earn Flying Club Miles
Often when you find great award redemptions, earning enough miles to utilize the sweet spots can be a challenge. That’s not the case here. You can transfer American Express, Chase and Citi points to Flying Club, all at a 1:1 ratio. That should immediately make a large majority of you able to easily get six figures of Flying Club miles, more than enough to book the sweet spots below. If American Express re-hashes its transfer bonus from last year, I would immediately take advantage of it.
Besides transferable points, you can utilize the Bank of America Virgin Atlantic World Elite Mastercard, which has previously offered sign up bonuses up to 90,000 miles (though it took a full year to earn the entire bonus). Even with a now-meager bonus of 20,000 miles after your first purchase, you still earn 1.5 miles for every dollar spent, which is rare for airline co-branded cards. You can also earn a 15,000-mile anniversary bonus and 5,000 miles for adding an authorized user.
Other options to earn miles include Marriott Hotel and Air packages, crediting paid flights to your Flying Club account (check your operating carrier and fare class on wheretocredit.com) and converting SPG Starpoints to Flying Club miles at a 1:1 ratio with a 5,000 mile bonus for every 20,000 Starpoints transferred.
You can easily redeem miles for Virgin Atlantic operated flights on the main booking page of VirginAtlantic.com. Select the radio button that says pay with miles and complete your search:
I really like the five-week flexible date search option and the calendar of results displayed. You can easily find availability and switch between economy, premium economy and Upper Class results and scan even more dates.
While this process seems incredibly easy, that’s not always the case. When it comes to partner award searches with the engine, the site is very buggy.
You can use the Virgin Atlantic engine to find and book Delta-operated flights, but when you go to search routes, you’ll find the city you want will not always appear in the search engine as an option. In the following example, if I want to search for a Delta flight using miles from Atlanta to San Francisco, if I type SFO as the destination the website will say no matches found:
You have to force the engine to populate San Francisco by selecting the purple bubble icon in the destination box and then manually selecting US & Canada, then California, then San Francisco:
Not all cities and countries are available in the drop-down list and there’s no further workaround. If you wan to fly a Delta route with Virgin Atlantic miles that’s not able to be populated by manually selecting the city, you have to call a Flying Club agent to find availability and book the route.
The next problem with the engine happens after forcing it to populate your desired route (if available). The option to select “pay with miles” is often grayed out and cannot be selected:
I haven’t found a fool-proof process to ensure you’ll always be able to select “pay with miles.” My best practice is to complete an award search on a Virgin Atlantic route like New York to London where you can always select “pay with miles,” then click the “refine search” option in the upper-right portion of the screen and input the route you want to fly:
Even after completing the initial award search with “pay with miles” selected, sometimes when you force-input the routing you want, the engine will revert back to “pay with card.” You just have to keep refining searches or starting over until the website allows you to select “pay with miles.” Incredibly frustrating, but worth the effort.
Redeeming for Virgin Atlantic-Operated Flights
As you can see from the above search examples, when you find flights operated by Virgin Atlantic (IATA code VS), the fuel surcharges are outrageous. I won’t pay $500 in taxes and fees for an economy-class flight — and you probably shouldn’t, either. Throughout the year, you can easily find economy revenue flights to Europe for less than the taxes and fees VS puts on award tickets. This is one reason I long ignored the program, and it’s why I still don’t recommend flying VS with the airline’s own miles.
The only exception I’d recommend is looking at premium economy award tickets from the Northeast to London/Manchester. For 17,500 miles per person, you can fly premium economy from Boston, Newark, JFK and Washington Dulles to the UK. That’s an excellent mileage rate for a well-reviewed premium economy flight allowing you to be comfortable on your hop across the pond.
Taxes and fees at the time of writing were $173.90. Round-trip premium economy fares on Virgin Atlantic are ~$1,600, giving you 4 cents per mile. A one-way premium economy ticket is over $3,112 on almost any day this year, giving you a staggering 16.8 cents-per-mile redemption value. What great value for a comfortable transatlantic flight.
Here are a few general notes for award flights booked with Virgin Atlantic miles, including partner-operated flights:
- You can change your travel date, routing, and class of service for $50 (plus mileage difference)
- You can cancel your ticket and receive all your miles back for a cancellation fee of $50.
- You can put award seats on hold, even with partners, for 48 hours with no miles in your account
Unlock Incredible Value With Partners
While Virgin Atlantic isn’t in an alliance, there are nine different airlines you can book flights on utilizing Virgin Atlantic miles: Air China, Air New Zealand, ANA, Delta,Hawaiian Airlines, Jet Airways, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways and Virgin Australia. Note you can earn Virgin Atlantic miles with SAS, but can’t redeem miles for SAS flights.
Each partner has a different award chart — some are distance-based and others zone-based. Check each partner airline’s page for full details and terms and conditions. Besides Delta (and even for some Delta routes), you must call Flying Club at 1-800-365-9500 to find partner availability and book tickets.
Air New Zealand, Hawaiian and Singapore Airlines don’t offer much value due to poor availability (I’m looking at you, Air New Zealand) and pricing that’s in line or worse than what’s available through other partners. You should study the charts to see if your particular routing is competitive with your other award-booking options.
Now, let’s look at the partners that do offer incredible value:
ANA (All Nippon Airways)
Virgin Atlantic’s wonderful redemption rates for ANA-operated flights have been well documented here on TPG, especially with the Amex transfer bonus from last year. Even without that transfer bonus, ANA awards booked through Virgin Atlantic should always be a consideration if you’re looking to get to Asia. The following prices are for round-trip travel — one-way awards aren’t allowed.
There’s exactly one route you can book on Air China using VS miles: Beijing to London Heathrow. Even with significant fuel surcharges on a round-trip ticket (~$600), the premium-class redemption options shouldn’t be ignored:
75,000 miles for round-trip Asia to Europe in Air China’s 777-300ER Forbidden Pavilion First Class or 63,000 miles in a 2 x 2 x 2 layout for business class is incredible.
I could write an entire article about the greatness of booking Delta-operated flights with Virgin Atlantic, but I’ll make this concise and to the point:
- You can book Delta-operated flights using Virgin Atlantic miles with no fuel surcharges, including transatlantic and transpacific routes with the exception of flights to or from the UK. Virgin Atlantic imposes stiff surcharges on these routes ranging from $500 to $1300 round trip.
- Virgin Atlantic has access to additional Delta award space other partners cannot see. Traditionally, you have to find a Delta flight with the lowest level of availability in order to use a partner program to book the flight. That’s not the case when using Virgin Atlantic miles to book Delta flights. I haven’t been able to determine the parameters that define when a Delta flight is bookable with VS miles.
- You can book domestic Delta economy segments for 12,500 miles or domestic first-class segments for 22,500 miles. Availability when looking more than 3 weeks out from departure is fantastic. You can book these flights on Virgin Atlantic’s website, and all have just $5.60 in taxes and fees. You’re charged per segment, so this is typically only a good deal on nonstop domestic flights.
Here are a few examples of the savings on both mileage required (compared to booking Delta using SkyMiles) and fuel surcharges (compared to flying Virgin Atlantic transatlantic) if you book Delta using Virgin Atlantic miles.
Delta Flight 2344, economy, Atlanta – San Francisco, March 8
23,000 SkyMiles or 12,500 Virgin Atlantic Miles
Delta Flight 296, Delta One, Tokyo Narita – Atlanta, September 25
130,000 SkyMiles or 60,000 Virgin Atlantic Miles
Delta Flight 98, Delta One, Detroit – Paris, October 30
70,000 SkyMiles or 50,000 Virgin Atlantic Miles
There are plenty of examples across the board that show you should always first look at booking Delta flights with Virgin Atlantic miles before turning to SkyMiles. Availability is not always great for certain international routes, but if you’re flexible you can find fantastic deals. Don’t forget that booking Delta One transatlantic using VS miles also allows you to skip the $1,000 in fuel surcharges for business class that Virgin Atlantic charges for its own flights.
While not a particularly aspirational product or airline to fly, demand for travel to India continues to increase, and there’s some attractive mileage pricing using Virgin Atlantic miles. Note that Jet Airways 777-300s have first-class suites and the A330s only have business class, so check the aircraft operating your route.
|Route||Miles Required in
|Miles Required in Business (One-Way)||Miles Required in First (One-Way)|
|Toronto – Amsterdam||20,500||41,000||60,000|
|London – Delhi/Mumbai||27,000||54,000||81,000|
|Paris – Mumbai/Chennai||27,000||54,000||81,000|
|Amsterdam – Delhi/Mumbai/Bengaluru||27,000||54,000||81,000|
I called Virgin Atlantic to explore award seat availability and see what taxes and fees would be for a Jet Airways flight. The first date I requested for the fifth freedom route Toronto to Amsterdam was available and I was quoted 41,000 miles and $43.50 in taxes and fees for the business-class flight over the Atlantic.
South African Airways
A South African Airways fifth-freedom route has arguably the most stunning mileage redemption price in existence. For 25,000 miles, you can fly Washington Dulles to Dakar Blaise Diagne International Airport in Senegal in business class. That’s North America to Africa in business for 25,000 miles on South African’s A330.
Until March 24, you can fly the stunning new A330-300 business class, but the uninspiring A330-200 will be taking over the next day. The route operates on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays and continues on to Johannesburg from Senegal, but if you want to book all the way through it will cost you an additional 50,000 miles for 75,000 one-way in business.
There’s some confusion about this route right now due to Dakar opening a new airport in December 2017. The new airport code is DSS, compared to DKR for the old Léopold Sédar Senghor International airport. Virgin Atlantic still has not updated its system for DSS, causing agents to not be able to find the flight. The phone agent said there was a memo on his screen about the change and it should be fixed any day.
If you find yourself with hundreds of thousands (or millions) of Virgin Atlantic miles, you can trade them in for a level of luxury, or altitude, previously not obtainable. Spend three nights in a luxury Kenyan safari camp, Mahali Mzuri, for 600,000 miles. Stay at Sir Richard Branson’s Cape Town winery for three nights for 155,000 miles, spend three nights in the summer at Sir Richard’s Swiss Alpine Resort for 380,000 miles, or enter for a raffle to fly in space on Virgin Galactic (once commercial flights begin operating) for a cool 2,000,000 miles — all of which must have been earned from flying Virgin Atlantic.
Necker Island is still listed on the site, but the page redirects back to the Virgin Group landing page. One can assume that due the damage from last year’s hurricane, the resort currently isn’t bookable.
I was on the Virgin Atlantic website approximately three times between 2013-2017. Since the end of last year, however, I find myself on the website twice a week looking to book Delta flights with my Virgin Atlantic miles. If your travel needs find you with a routing that the other partners discussed above could serve, look no further than Flying Club to book your ticket.
Minimal change and cancellation fees, the ability to hold tickets while you transfer points or decide whether to book or not, and typically top-quality phone agents make this a program you should quickly move to the top of your loyalty favorites.
Featured Image courtesy of Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images.
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