Save money on Virgin Atlantic award tickets by booking one-way flights
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One of the most universally-hated aspects of the award travel world is the imposition of fuel surcharges when you redeem your points and miles. While there are some airlines that never add these to award tickets, others are notorious for them — with one even settling a legal action brought against it. However, I've just stumbled across a seemingly simple way to reduce this burden (albeit slightly) when you go to redeem Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles.
At its most basic level, Virgin Atlantic imposes fuel surcharges based on where your itinerary starts, not based on the individual flights. As a result, if you're departing from a non-U.K. country and want to redeeming Flying Club miles to the U.K., book two one-way flights instead of a single, round-trip flight. Depending on the class of service you're booking, the savings could be substantial.
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Today we'll dive into exactly what this looks like so you can keep some money in your pocket when booking flights to the U.K.
Round-trip versus one-way awards
Here's an example that clearly illustrates this phenomenon. Let's say that you wanted to book a simple round-trip from Miami (MIA) to London-Heathrow (LHR) next May and were thrilled to find Upper Class award space on your ideal dates. Here's what a round-trip flight would cost you:
The 95,000-mile price isn't bad, though the taxes and fees are exorbitant. Part of this consists of government-imposed taxes, but the majority of it — $1,200 to be exact — are fuel surcharges (with the less-offensive label of "carrier-imposed surcharges").
However, take a look at what happens when you split this into separate, one-way awards:
While the taxes, fees and charges are roughly the same, the same doesn't hold true for the carrier-imposed surcharges. At current conversion rates, £200 is roughly $247.50 — bringing your grand total to ~$847.50. That's a savings of over $350 compared to booking a round-trip flight.
This doesn't just hold for Upper Class awards either. I noticed it while trying to replicate a multi-city routing I took in July, flying from Boston (BOS) to London-Heathrow (LHR) in economy and returning from Manchester (MAN) to Orlando (MCO) in premium economy. If I put together the same itinerary for May 2020, here's the round-trip pricing:
Here are those same flights as two, one-way tickets:
Once again, the taxes, fees and charges are the same, but the carrier-imposed surcharges are notably different:
- Multi-city: $350
- One-ways: $125 + $123.75 (converted from £100) = $248.75
In this instance, I would've saved over $100 by booking these as separate one-way tickets as opposed to a single, multi-city itinerary. Lesson learned.
Flying out of other countries
The same phenomenon holds true if your travel originates in other countries besides the U.S. For example, Virgin Atlantic offers once-daily service from London-Heathrow (LHR) to Shanghai (PVG). If you start in Shanghai and book a round-trip, economy flight, here's what you'd need to pay:
The 1,570 CNY in fuel surcharges is roughly $220. However, you could shave some of that off by splitting this into two one-way awards:
If you convert both 785 CNY and £65 to U.S. dollars, you'll get a total of roughly $191 — a savings of $29.
Flying out of London
However, the reverse holds true when you're originating in the U.K. If you reverse each of the above trips (London to Miami/Shanghai and back), you're actually better off booking the round-trip itineraries than the one-way awards. Here's the round-trip flight to Miami and back:
If you separate out the first leg, the surcharge is exactly half of the round-trip:
However, the one-way to get back to London results in a fuel surcharge of $600, more than double what you paid on the outbound journey:
The same thing happens on the Shanghai flight — starting in London means you're better off with the round-trip.
What's going on here?
As noted at the beginning of the article, Virgin Atlantic uses the starting point of your itinerary as the basis for determining fuel surcharges across all flights. This can create the wildly different numbers seen above.
Let's go back to the Miami to London example, since the numbers are relatively simple. There are two different amounts of fuel surcharges that could be applied on these flights:
- $600: This is imposed on each flight in an itinerary that starts in the U.S. That's why you see $1,200 on the MIA-LHR round-trip.
- £200 (~$247.50): This is imposed on each flight in an itinerary that starts in the U.K. That's why you see £400 (~$495) on the LHR-MIA round-trip.
Splitting up a round-trip flight from MIA-LHR into separate one-way tickets effectively "converts" the fuel surcharge on the return flight from $600 to £200 ($247.50), because from Virgin Atlantic's standpoint, your flight back to the U.S. started in the U.K. — and is thus subject to lower fuel surcharges.
Are there any risks?
From the airline's perspective, there shouldn't be anything wrong with this. These are published prices that are available to anyone redeeming Flying Club miles — regardless of where you live.
However, booking flights in this fashion does have one notable risk — changes or cancellations might become pricey. If, after booking, you need to make changes to your trip (or cancel it outright), any change or cancellation fees are typically charged per ticket. Since you have two separate, one-way award tickets, you'll need to pay these fees on both. This is £30 for flights starting in the U.K. and $50 for flights originating in the U.S., so it's not massively punitive. Just be aware of it when you go this route.
Advanced tip: Nesting tickets to save even more
Now if you're salivating at the prospect of booking a round-trip flight that originates in London to enjoy the £200 surcharge in both directions, there actually is a way to do so — as long as you have two trips to the U.K. planned within a year and have enough miles in another program to book on another airline. It's called "nesting" one itinerary in another one, and while it's generally not allowed on a single airline, this strategy involves two different programs.
For example, let's say that you knew you needed to be in London in February 2020, and then you'll be going back in September. You're a good TPG reader and have plenty of transferable points lying around, so you have a number of options to book flights. You ultimately decide to leverage the earning power of your perfect Chase quartet to transfer some Ultimate Rewards points to United and some to Virgin Atlantic to book two, round-trip flights.
Here's the key: Don't book a round-trip flight for your February trip and then another for your September trip. Book the United one to depart in February and return in September. Then, "nest" the Virgin Atlantic one to originate in London in February at the end of your first trip and then return to London to start your next trip in September. You've now gained access to the lower fuel surcharge for both flights.
Here are the two itineraries:
Here's how these two awards create two, distinct trips to London:
- Trip 1: Depart Washington-Dulles (IAD) on Austrian Airlines Friday Feb. 7, return on Virgin Atlantic Sunday Feb. 16
- Trip 2: Depart Washington-Dulles (IAD) on Virgin Atlantic Tuesday Sept. 1, return on United Sunday Sept. 6
Note the fuel surcharges on the Virgin Atlantic itinerary — just £400 (~$495). Had you booked that flight as a round-trip out of Washington-Dulles, you would've been subject to $1,200 in surcharges.
Virgin Atlantic's methodology for imposing fuel surcharges is quite interesting, as travelers are effectively penalized for starting their trips outside of the U.K. However, since Flying Club allows one-way award tickets, you could actually cut these added costs quite a bit on a flight originating in the U.S. — just by booking separate award tickets instead of a single, round-trip one. While there are many other (better) ways to redeem Flying Club miles, this strategy should help you keep some money in your pocket the next time you're booking an award flight to London.