Virgin America Introduces Points Redemption on Virgin Partners

Virgin America and Virgin Atlantic announced a frequent flyer tie-in in August 2010. Which I viewed as a great thing because it meant if I ever flew Virgin America I wouldn’t be ‘throwing away the miles’ since I could credit them to Virgin Atlantic. Currently I rack up a decent chunk of Virgin miles via one-day Avis rentals which earn 1000 miles. I don’t love the program by any stretch, but that’s still a value.

Virgin America Elevate points, though, can now be redeemed on Virgin Atlantic and on Virgin Australia.

Brett Snyder explains that it took so long to introduce redemptions across partners because of the custom reservation systems involved, they just couldn’t talk to each other in order to make the bookings.

It’s a long time coming, there are some pluses and minuses, but the biggest pain is the fuel surcharges on these redemptions, as Lucky observes:

[T]here’s no way to redeem for award travel on either airline in a premium cabin without paying fuel surcharges, so it’s hardly surprising. Virgin Australia partners with Delta, and they impose fuel surcharges for redemptions on them, while Virgin Atlantic partners with several airlines (including ANA), which also impose fuel surcharges for travel on Virgin Atlantic (the only exception I can think of is US Airways, though they only let you redeem for coach on Virgin Atlantic).

Taxes and fuel surcharges can run $1200 on a transatlantic business class redemption, and over $2000 connecting through London to another long haul destination.

Continental miles used to be the best way to redeem for Virgin Atlantic flights, as the only mileage program which didn’t whack members with fuel surcharges on those redemptions, but that partnership ended in mid-February.

I’m haven’t been generally interested in Virgin America, their frequent flyer program hasn’t offered a ton of value and this linkup — while great, and a real improved opportunity — still doesn’t change the overall value proposition.

Coach awards on Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia are going to have fuel surcharges so high that you pay a substantial part of the cost of a paid ticket even while using your miles. You’re going to need to spend points for premium cabin redemptions in order to get value.

International flights with U.S. redemptions are incredibly pricey, Los Angeles – Australia is running 80,000 Elevate points roundtrip in business class but start off in Chicago (adding in Chicago – Los Angeles – Chicagp) and you’re looking at 180,000 points. The Chicago segments on Virgin America cost more at the margin than the Virgin Australia business class flights. So when redeeming you want to fly only the international segments on these points.

Wandering Aramean compares transferring American Express Membership Rewards to Virgin America vs. All Nippon for two popular awards:

Comparing the rates to the value via American Express Membership Rewards – one of the easier ways to accumulate Elevate Points – shows further examples of the limited value. Getting that JFK-London award is 35K Elevate points, which would mean 70K MR points. Redeeming via ANA would allow the same trip for 63K points and roughly the same fees. JFK-Capetown would be 190K MR points via Elevate or 115K via ANA.

In fairness, right now there’s a 30% bonus on transfers from Membership Rewards to Virgin America. And that means 54,000 Amex points for JFK – London roundtrip, better than ANA’s offering for a limited time.

Bottom-line is that this doesn’t make the Virgin America Elevate program a world-class offering. It doesn’t represent the best way of getting awards on Virgin partners. But Virgin America Elevate points did just get a lot more valuable than they used to be.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. “But Virgin America Elevate points did just get a lot more valuable than they used to be.”

    I’m not sure that’s true. If none of the new award options is worth more than any of the existing options because of the fuel surcharges, does the existence of the new options at less value than the alternatives really increase the overall utility of the program? I guess on the margin there must be some consumers with funky preference curves who’d take an expensive international redemption over a better value domestic redemption…but presumably those consumers had to fly domestic a lot to earn the miles in the first place. Otherwise, this just feels like a trick…kind of like redeeming airline miles for merchandise rewards. Maybe consumer preference supports it, but it surely isn’t rational.

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