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Membership Rewards started May off right by bringing back one of our favorite promotions: a 30% transfer bonus when transferring points to Virgin Atlantic Flying Club. If you don’t know better, that news by itself might elicit a yawn. But, if you’re interested in flying to Japan in style, you’re going to want to read on.
There are excellent Flying Club redemptions on Virgin Atlantic’s Japan-based partner ANA. A first-class round-trip from the US to Japan starts 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 just half the trip.
Flying Club used to hide this ANA redemption chart, but now you can confirm these rates right on the Flying Club website:
This chart and its footnotes don’t designate what’s Western US vs. Central/Eastern US. However, based on what we’ve been able to confirm with Flying Club, the regions basically break down into distance bands calculated by round-trip mileage. Here are how the regions correlate by distance for the different tiers:
|Total round-trip mileage||Economy||Business||First|
|7,000-9,000 miles (Hawaii)||45,000||70,000||90,000|
|9,000-11,000 miles (Western US)||60,000||90,000||110,000|
|11,000-14,000 miles (Central/Eastern US)||65,000||95,000||120,000|
But wait, there’s more. The good news doesn’t end with these incredible rates.
Hold before you transfer
When I called to price out an award, the Flying Club agent was able to put an award on hold for 72 hours. Previously, we’ve only heard of 24 hour holds being available. Either way, this should be plenty of time to transfer your American Express Membership Rewards to Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club. In TPG testing, points transferred between these programs immediately, so you don’t have to speculatively transfer points to Virgin Atlantic and hope award availability opens up for the dates you want.
Taxes and fees are moderate
Usually when award redemption levels are low, carrier surcharges are high. That’s especially true on Virgin Atlantic’s off-peak award chart. But, the taxes and fees aren’t bad on premium cabin ANA awards — at least those between the US and Tokyo. I was able to price out two awards with a Flying Club agent for March 2020. Both a business class flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Tokyo-Narita (NRT) and a first class flight from New York-JFK to Tokyo-Narita cost £182.20 ($237) in taxes and fees round-trip, though I was also quoted $266.03 if I wanted to pay in US dollars (a possible indication of dynamic currency conversion).
Limitations on the Deal
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. However, you should be able to book an open-jaw, such as Los Angeles (LAX) to Tokyo in one direction and then a return from Tokyo to New York-JFK.
No domestic connections allowed: You can’t connect inside the US or Japan as part of the transpacific award flight and still leverage these incredible award rates. 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 (as MR points must be transferred in increments of 1,000 points).
Routes and Pricing
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 hubs in Tokyo (NRT/HND). Without paying for a connection, you’re currently limited to the following routes:
- Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) to Tokyo-Haneda (HND) — daily using a Boeing 777
- Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) to Tokyo-Narita (NRT) — daily using a Boeing 777
- Houston (IAH) to Tokyo-Narita (NRT) — daily using a Boeing 777
- Honolulu (HNL) to Tokyo-Haneda (HND) — daily using a Boeing 787
- Honolulu (HNL) to Tokyo-Narita (NRT) — 2x daily, a mixture of Boeing 787 and A380
- Los Angeles (LAX) to Tokyo-Haneda (HND) — daily using a Boeing 777
- Los Angeles (LAX) to Tokyo-Narita (NRT) — 2x daily using a Boeing 777
- New York-JFK to Tokyo-Haneda (HND) — daily using a Boeing 777
- New York-JFK to Tokyo-Narita (NRT) — daily using a Boeing 777
- San Francisco (SFO) to Tokyo-Narita (NRT) — daily using a Boeing 777
- San Jose (SJC) to Tokyo-Narita (NRT) — daily using a Boeing 787
- Seattle (SEA) to Tokyo-Narita (NRT) — daily using a Boeing 787
- Washington-Dulles (IAD) to Tokyo-Narita (NRT) — daily using a Boeing 777
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 Kennedy (JFK)||65,000||50,000||95,000||74,000||120,000||93,000|
|Washington Dulles (IAD)||65,000||50,000||95,000||74,000||120,000||93,000|
In case it needs emphasizing, this is simply incredible — particularly for business and first-class flights. Flights from the East Coast (like JFK and IAD) take around 14 hours 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 220,000 miles.
Searching for Award Availability
OK, you’re sold — next you need to find award availability. As I mentioned earlier, you can’t book these awards through the Virgin Atlantic website, and you can’t check availability on Virgin Atlantic’s website either. But there are a few ways to search for ANA award availability: United’s website, ExpertFlyer, ANA’s website [membership required] or Aeroplan’s website.
While United website’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 can take a bit to complete an ANA’s availability search — especially when searching +/- 3 days — but at least you can see for certain whether or not ANA has availability on a particular 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 — it provides flexible date searching but has false positives from United availability as well.
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 — although open-jaws are available — and do some digging to find award availability. Still, it’s definitely worth the time and effort to get a great deal on a great product.
Featured image by Zach Honig / The Points Guy
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