Taking a look at the Virgin America partner redemption options


It was August 2010 when Virgin America announced their plans to offer reciprocal earning and redemption benefits with the other carriers in the Virgin brand. Alas, the frequent flier market works slowly in some cases and after more than a year there was no real news on the redemption side of the deal. That ends this week, with both Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Australia and Virgin America announcing redemption rates.

I’m focusing on the the rates for Virgin America here, mostly because I find the ranges they cover to be more intriguing than the numbers from the other two. Virgin America has published a calculator that displays the number of points required based on the city pairs that the two partners serve. Even more interesting to me, however, is that the underlying data is contained in a singe easy to download XML JSON file. Drop that file into Excel and throw some filters on it and the data that comes back is quite interesting indeed.

First up, both one-way and round-trip redemptions will be offered. That’s the good news. Unfortunately, there is a penalty for one-way awards relative to return trips. The penalty is generally 5-10,000 points, based on the samples I saw, though one or two did go higher than that, especially in premium cabins.

As for the actual redemption rates, there are definitely some interesting sweet-spots on the chart. JFK to London return is only 35,000 points in Upper Class, for example, which is pretty nice. The down-side is that it also comes with $1100 in taxes and fees to be paid. Also, it is more than double the price of an economy award on the same route (15,000 points + $650 in fees). The fees do track directly with what Virgin Atlantic charges for a revenue booking (the APD and the YQ are both higher in business class) so that’s not completely ridiculous, but with base fares as low as $120ish round trip in economy dropping 15,000 points seems like a REALLY bad idea.

The real fleecing in the program, however, comes when you try to redeem for Business Class awards on Virgin Australia AND you add a connection in the United States. Los Angeles to Brisbane is a rather reasonable 80,000 points up front. Want to connect onward to Chicago? Tack on another 100,000 points. And if you want to go to JFK rather than Chicago it is an extra 50,000 on top of that. Yeah, it is that ridiculous.

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And the taxes aren’t particularly great on those fares either. At least the transcon penalty on Virgin Atlantic is only 15,000 points.

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.

Adding these partners is a great thing, in theory, for members of the Elevate program. With the redemption charts the way they look, however, the numbers are not particularly attractive. I’d stay far, far away.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

12 Comments

  1. Virgin Atlantic also just updated their partner airlines page to reflect that you can FINALLY redeem VS miles on Virgin America…no indication of miles needed, but at least VS finally got this process going. It was supposed to happen for some time now, so nothing to write home about.

  2. VX really operates one of the least rewarding loyalty programs out there.

    I suppose for the JFK-BNE or ORD-BNE redemptions, it would make much more sense to book the international segment separately, and just do the domestic VX segment online for far less points! I’m wondering if the calculator is routing the itinerary through LHR and Asia?? Seems ridiculous.

    1. I just went back and double-checked the numbers and the JFK/ORD-Oz redemptions are on VA at those prices. The chart doesn’t show them directly, but it looks like you can stack a pair of VS redemptions and go that way to Oz for 35K + 95K + $2100 in Upper Class versus 230K + $850. I’m guessing that saving the 110K points is worth the $1250 spend if you’re going to do it anyways.

  3. From what I saw of their travelers, even of those that are frequent with them, many don’t have an elevate membership number. their program is also based on revenue spent instead of amount flown, so those that buy the low cost fares get very little in return. It seems Virgin America attracts those that like their product first, and that product is not inclusive of their rewards program. I know from talking to some of their customers that they checked daily for the lowest fares and bought them, knowing there was almost no value to the elevate program for them, they just did not join or even put the number in.

    Out of 2 planeloads of passengers, I saw less than 15 members of elevate, in total, yet the planes were full and the people and crews were happy.
    I saw a customer try to take a 36″ LCD as a carryon as well, that was a laugh 🙂 He agreed to gate check it in the end, but it did not want to do that.

    1. No surprise to me at all, Stephen, that the bulk of their passengers don’t bother with the awards program. It is’t a very lucrative one so the motivation just isn’t there. I’ve long claimed that folks just buying on price don’t generally get enough value from the programs to bother with them. Seems many of them agree.

  4. When evaluating revenue-based programs like Virgin America’s that have perceived low value, you have to also consider that award availability is handled differently. From what I know Elevate points can be used on any VX flight. How is the availability on VS and VA handled for Elevate redemptions?

    1. Yes, the award availability “in-house” is handled very differently. There’s no way that they are going to allow last-seat redemptions on partners at these rates, so I’m betting that they are still limited inventory.

      And while Elevate points can be used on any flight the number required scales with the cost of the ticket. That’s not what these new awards are built on.

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