TPG Points Lab: Save miles booking Delta awards with Virgin Atlantic

Nov 6, 2019

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The Points Lab is TPG’s newest team, dedicated to using data and leveraging technology to create resources, tools and analyses to help readers more effectively and efficiently use their points and miles. Past articles have included deep-dives into Lufthansa first-class award availability and Marriott’s peak and off-peak pricing. Today we’re looking at international business-class awards on Delta.

Becoming a master of points and miles requires you to dispense with a few myths about commercial aviation. One of the first lessons I learned is that — contrary to what some might think — it’s not always cheapest to book an award ticket with the frequent flyer program of the airline you’re flying. If you want to fly United Polaris, United’s MileagePlus program may not be the cheapest way to book your ticket.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more readily observable than when it comes to long-haul, premium-cabin awards on Delta. The carrier was the first of the major US airlines to introduce dynamic award pricing, meaning that Delta’s SkyMiles program will charge some truly exorbitant rates on certain routes, such as these one-way, business-class awards from Atlanta (ATL) to Johannesburg (JNB) for 465,000 SkyMiles.

For a while now, it’s been possible to score incredible discounts using Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles to book awards on Delta-operated flights, instead of booking directly through the SkyMiles program. However, Virgin Atlantic’s availability has been inconsistent, and we wanted to see just how big of a savings it offered.

In This Post

Methodology

Since all the research for this post had to be done manually, I selected five, long-haul Delta routes to analyze:

  • Detroit (DTW) to Beijing (PEK): A350
  • Seattle (SEA) to Shanghai (PVG): A330neo
  • New York (JFK) to Amsterdam (AMS): 767-300ER
  • Detroit (DTW) to Paris (CDG): A330-300
  • Atlanta (ATL) to Frankfurt (FRA): 767-400ER

Note that Virgin Atlantic’s website doesn’t recognize every airport code to which Delta flies, so if you needed to search award availability to a city like Seoul (ICN), you’d need to call and ask an agent to help you out. For simplicity of searching purposes, I stuck with the above routes, all of which are searchable online through Virgin Atlantic.

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I collected pricing data in economy and business class for every day that Virgin Atlantic offered award availability (both nonstop and connecting flights), as well as Delta’s award price for every single day from April 1 to June 30, 2020 — to avoid both peak holiday travel season and Chinese New Year next spring. I filtered out any awards Virgin Atlantic was offering with a connection through the carrier’s London hub, focusing entirely on flights operated by Delta.

Overall findings

Let’s start with a quick overview of what I found. Unlike Delta’s dynamic pricing, Virgin Atlantic still uses fixed prices for its partner awards. Nonstop, business-class awards to or from Asia on Delta cost 60,000 Virgin Atlantic miles each way, while those to or from Europe require 50,000 miles. If you add a connecting flight in the U.S., that’ll add an additional 22,500 miles — boosting your rate to 82,500 miles to or from Asia and 72,500 miles to or from Europe.

Here’s some high-level data from this search:

Metric Asia Europe
Days with business class availability through Virgin Atlantic 111/364 (30.4%) 87/546 (15.9%)
Average savings with Virgin Atlantic  72,336 miles 90,869 miles
Average Delta award price on days without Virgin Atlantic availability 279,212 miles 316,085 miles

In some sense, it’s not entirely fair to make an apples-to-apples comparison between Virgin Atlantic miles and Delta SkyMiles. After all, TPG values the former at 1.5 cents each and the latter at 1.2 cents — and for good reason, given the array of valuable rewards Flying Club offers. In addition, the two programs only share one transferable credit card currency: American Express Membership Rewards. Since you can also transfer points from Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards directly to Virgin Atlantic, you may have many more avenues to building up your Flying Club account balance.

However, we can see two things right off the bat:

  1. When Virgin Atlantic has business-class availability, the savings are massive — usually more than 50% off compared to Delta’s pricing.
  2. When Delta isn’t offering its lowest tier of award pricing — the one usually needed to find availability through Virgin Atlantic — business class awards are painfully expensive through SkyMiles.

In fact, the overall pricing of Delta-issued award tickets is simply astronomical. Across the three routes to Europe I evaluated — looking at both directions — the average price of a business-class award ticket booked through SkyMiles on any given day was a whopping 247,406 miles, or nearly $3,000 worth of miles based on TPG’s valuations.

Findings by route

Now let’s take a look at how the individual routes break down. As you can see, there’s a decent amount of variability between different routes, and there are also some notable differences when you compare European and Asian destinations.

Route Days with nonstop award space Days with connecting award space Average Delta price on days Virgin Atlantic had space Average Delta price on days Virgin Atlantic didn’t have space Average savings booking through Virgin Atlantic
DTW-PEK 19 (20.9%) N/A 123,158 miles 222,042 miles 63,158 miles
PEK-DTW 25 (27.5%) N/A 120,000 miles 209,091 miles 60,000 miles
SEA-PVG 26 (28.6%) 9 (9.9%) 147,857 miles 283,091 miles 82,071 miles
PVG-SEA 27 (29.7%) 5 (5.5%) 138,750 miles 276,356 miles 75,234 miles
JFK-AMS 4 (4.4%) 1 (1.1%) 80,000 miles 266,176 miles 25,500 miles
AMS-JFK 12 (13.2%) 9 (9.9%) 114,286 miles 265,143 miles 54,643 miles
DTW-CDG N/A 3 (3.3%) 240,000 miles 304,615 miles 167,500 miles
CDG-DTW 7 (7.7%) 3 (3.3%) 152,000 miles 248,000 miles 95,250 miles
ATL-FRA 6 (6.6%) 10 (11%) 140,000 miles 265,600 miles 75,937 miles
FRA-ATL 18 (19.8%) 14 (15.4%) 132,500 miles 263,051 miles 72,656 miles

The column on the right is by far the most important one, as it tells us how many miles you save (on average) by booking business class flights through Virgin Atlantic instead of through Delta. In most cases, the miles you save would be enough for an entire round-trip ticket to Europe — assuming you’re flexible with your dates. If you’re able to wait for one of Delta’s increasingly-frequent award sales, those savings might even score you a round-trip economy ticket to Australia or Asia.

In terms of trends, the sample data indicates that you’ll find much better business class award space flying to and from Asia than you will to or from Europe, and most of it is nonstop. A 20-30% chance of finding Delta One Suites availability on a new aircraft like the A350 or A330neo isn’t bad, especially if you’re planning in advance and are flexible with your travel dates.

a350
Delta One Suites aboard an Airbus A350

Award space to Europe is much tougher to come by, especially for nonstop flights — 40 of the 87 days with availability required a connection (compared to just 14 out of 111 to Asia). Still, I think the most interesting findings come from the bottom-right side of the chart, specifically looking at the average savings available by booking through Virgin Atlantic. Even though Virgin Atlantic charges fewer miles for awards to Europe than it does for awards to Asia, the savings are much bigger. This is because Delta’s dynamic pricing hits flights to Europe especially hard, routinely charging up to 360,000 miles for one-way awards. Detroit to Beijing is nearly twice as long as Detroit to Paris, yet the shorter flight is a much more expensive award — and that’s where you’ll find the biggest savings.

Further Reading: Just as good the second time: A review of Delta One Suites on the 777, Los Angeles to Paris

What about economy?

The data above applies only to Delta One — the carrier’s international, business-class product — but would economy awards on these same routes see similar discounts?

Route Days with nonstop economy award space Days with connecting economy award space Average savings booking through Virgin Atlantic
DTW-PEK 26 (28.6%) 5 (5.5%) – 7,274 miles
PEK-DTW 80 (88%) 1 (1.1%) 6,820 miles
SEA-PVG 60 (66%) N/A -12,800 miles
PVG-SEA 62 (68.1%) 4 (4.4%) -2,787 miles
JFK-AMS 6 (6.6%) 20 (22%) 30,846 miles
AMS-JFK 16 (17.6%) 28 (30.8%) 24,159 miles
DTW-CDG 36 (39.6%) 8 (8.8%) 9,545 miles
CDG-DTW 49 (53.8%) 10 (11%) 2,545 miles
ATL-FRA 12 (13.2%) 13 (14.3%) 11,660 miles
FRA-ATL 30 (33%) 13 (14.3%) 11,057 miles

While economy award space is better across the board, the savings are much smaller — and in some cases, it disappears entirely. The three routes with negative savings (DTW-PEK, SEA-PVG and PVG-SEA) actually indicate that on average, it’s cheaper to book these awards through Delta instead of Virgin Atlantic. If we zoom in specifically on Seattle to Shanghai, you an see that for the entire month of April 2020, Delta doesn’t charge more than 25,000 miles for a one-way, economy award, worth $300 based on TPG’s valuations.

If you believe the airline’s narrative that dynamic award pricing is actually good for travelers because it passes on savings when ticket prices are low, this would be a great example to argue your case. Cash tickets on this route are available for as little as $276, Delta’s award pricing reflects that reality.

Of the 10 routes included in this study (five city pairs in two directions), Virgin Atlantic offers no savings for economy awards on three of them. You can also eliminate CDG-DTW, as the average savings of 2,545 miles is not really significant. For several other routes, such as DTW-CDG, you need to move past the average and compare individual dates to see which program you’re better off booking through. Virgin Atlantic will charge 30,000 miles for one-way nonstop economy awards from the US to Europe on Delta, and that number doesn’t change. Some days that Virgin has availability on that route, Delta only charges 25,000 miles, making it the best program to book through. Other times it charges 44,000 miles, meaning you should stick to Virgin. Yes there are more days when Virgin is the cheaper option, but that doesn’t mean you can skip straight to booking without first checking Delta’s pricing.

Overall takeaways

So what does this all mean? Here are some key takeaways based on the above data:

  1. Virgin Atlantic can offer extraordinary savings on Delta-operated, business-class award tickets. This partnership has long been heralded as one of the best airline award chart sweet spots out there, but when you combine Virgin’s astonishingly-low pricing with Delta’s frequently high pricing, it somehow looks even better.
  2. You’ll find the most Delta One Suites awards flying to and from China. Delta has a number of routes to China in addition to the ones researched here — including daily flights to Shanghai (PVG) from Atlanta (ATL), Detroit (DTW) and Los Angeles (LAX) along with a daily flight from Seattle (SEA) to Beijing (PEK). These routes are operated by a mix of A350, A330neo and 777 aircraft, all of which feature the carrier’s newest Delta One Suites. These are the best routes for finding award availability period, and most of it is nonstop as well.
  3. Virgin Atlantic still offers considerable savings on one-stop routings. While Virgin Atlantic charges a 22,500-mile premium for one-stop itineraries on Delta in first/business class, that additional cost often falls short of the extra miles you’d need to book through Delta SkyMiles.
  4. “Low” Delta award pricing doesn’t always mean Virgin Atlantic has availability. Generally speaking, Virgin Atlantic can only book flights when Delta is offering its lowest tier of award pricing, but this alone doesn’t guarantee that Virgin Atlantic will be able to see the space. In addition, I did find two anomalies that defied this rule, most notably a flight from Frankfurt to Atlanta that was bookable for 50,000 Virgin Atlantic miles when Delta wanted a whopping 320,000 miles for the same seat (as opposed to its lowest pricing tier of 80,000 miles).
  5. The savings mostly disappear in economy. For certain dates and routes (primarily to Europe), Virgin Atlantic still offers savings on Delta economy awards, but that’s not a guarantee. Even if Delta is marginally more expensive, that might still be the better booking option if you already have a SkyMiles balance you’re looking to spend or want to save your Virgin Atlantic miles or transferable credit card points for more valuable rewards down the line.

Important caveats

The Platinum Delta SkyMiles Amex can help you earn elite status.
Enjoy Delta One Suites on the carrier’s A350 on long haul flights to Asia.

Of course, it’s critical to acknowledge the limited scale of this project, which represents only a fraction of Delta’s long-haul route network and only covers about 25% of the available booking calendar. I’m confident that these numbers give you an idea of the value you’d get to book Delta awards through Virgin Atlantic, but confounding factors such as seasonal fluctuation in travel demand, the upcoming 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and even Delta’s shift from Tokyo-Narita (NRT) to Tokyo-Haneda (HND) could potentially impact any individual search.

This analysis is also most beneficial to someone who has the luxury of choosing between Delta SkyMiles and Virgin Atlantic Flying Club for their upcoming trip. If you frequently fly Delta and have a large stash of SkyMiles, these savings might not mean as much to you, but if you plan on transferring points from Amex Membership Rewards, I strongly suggest you search Virgin Atlantic before you make that irreversible transfer.

Bottom line

While some airlines seem unable to grow without the training wheels of a major alliance, Virgin Atlantic has built an impressive network of airline partners and — in the process — made its mileage currency a must-have for savvy award travelers. This great deal on Delta’s business-class awards is just one aspect of the value that Virgin Atlantic offers, but you should also familiarize yourself with the airline’s award chart for flights on ANA, especially if you’re looking to travel in a premium cabin.

Further Reading: Unlock incredible value with Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

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