Virgin America Offers Surprising Value

I’ve flown Virgin America only two times in my life. To be charitable, it’s an experience like I’ve never had before or since on a domestic flight. The pink mood lighting and hipster safety video annoy more than delight me, just as I’ve never quite seen the attraction of staying at a W Hotel. On the other hand, I’ve had the personality of a crotchety 50-year-old man since I was 15.

So don’t listen to me. Listen to the many happy customers here on the West Coast, who I hear prefer Virgin America to almost every other carrier — even Southwest. The two main catches are its limited route network and its strategy of charging just slightly more in order to afford providing the best experience in the sky. Amenities lead the competition and include such features as WiFi and in-seat power, backseat TVs, and the ability to upgrade on-demand or order food and drinks from your seat. Some of these are not so foreign anymore, but Virgin America has made an effort to be sure you enjoy your flight. And it’s network is growing, albeit slowly. It has a brand new terminal at its hub in SFO and recently received approval to operate an SFO-DCA flight in competition with United Airlines.

The problem is that there are also many rumors of Virgin America’s pending demise. The current market favors the cheapest fare above all else, which is why we see the a la cart baggage fees and seat upgrades on most airlines. Virgin America has been bleeding money and slowed its expansion. I hope it doesn’t go bankrupt, and I’m not sure it’s imminent, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see it happen in the next 1 to 5 years. To clarify, I don’t think the company is going belly up any time soon. Maybe things will turn around.

But what do you do when you hear an airline might merge or go bankrupt? Apply for a credit card! Other options from secure companies like the United Explorer card or Sapphire Preferred card aren’t going away. This one might. Someday. I’m bringing your attention to Virgin America because if you haven’t thought about it before, maybe you should start considering it. I’m liking the Virgin America Visa from Barclays for an upcoming churn precisely because it may be my last chance to get bonus points with Virgin America’s Elevate program. Even if the airline sticks around, it may make some changes, just as we saw United and Continental revamp their credit card offerings after their merger and create one final chance to apply for the old cards.

Virgin America credit card offer image

Barclays ran a promotion over the summer offering 20,000 Elevate points with your first purchase, and up to an extra 5,000 points with a balance transfer. That offer was supposed to decrease to 10,000 after first purchase. Many bloggers only have a 10,000 + 5,000 offer. Even my own ad below says 10,000 + 5,000. But if you click on it, you’ll see that it is still offering 20,000 + 5,000 points! Just be sure to take a screenshot when you apply.

Here are the rest of the details:

  • 20,000 bonus points with your first purchase
  • Up to 5,000 bonus points with a balance transfer in the first 30 days
  • $150 off a companion ticket every year
  • 3 Points per $1 on Virgin America
  • 1 Point per $1 spent everywhere else
  • Up to 1,200 additional points per year (300 points per $5,000 spend)
  • Earn 10,000 Elevate status points when you spend $25,000 on everyday purchases each year
  • $49 annual fee

Yes, there’s a $49 annual fee. But guess what? You’re effectively just buying 20,000 Elevate points for $49. That sounds like a good deal to me because the points happen to be extremely valuable when used with partners like Hawaiian Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, and Virgin Australia. The $150 companion credit toward a companion ticket is also very generous and pretty easy to use (note: you’ll only get the code after paying your annual fee).

Redeeming Elevate Points

What can you do with Elevate points? It’s a pure revenue-based program much like Southwest’s Rapid Rewards. Passengers earn 5 Elevate points for every $1 of their base fare, and they can redeem them with no blackout dates for a value somewhere around 2.2 to 2.4 cents per point. That means a $220 flight might cost about 10,000 points. I found such fares available for flights between Seattle and San Francisco, so that’s two roundtrip tickets to visit my family just from one credit card application, plus the companion credit. If you choose to redeem them with Hawaiian Airlines, a roundtrip ticket in coach between San Francisco and Maui is only 26,000 points.

With Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia, things get more expensive because many foreign carriers impose fuel surcharges on award tickets. However, I do applaud Virgin America for keeping the chart simple with a handy calculator. From San Francisco to Sydney, for example, is 40,000 points + $749 in coach or 80,000 points + $849 in business (I’d pick business. You’re getting about a penny a point at the coach rate.) San Francisco to London is 25,000 points + $650 in coach. If you’re a business traveler and fly up and down the West Coast, you’re not going to be earning many miles with United or Alaska, but you could certainly earn enough points — at 5 points per dollar — to get an award flight to London.

One-way fares allow you to use the credit card sign-up bonus without having to earn more points. One-way SFO to Sydney is only 25,000 points + $375 in coach. You could easily use a program like United that offers one-way awards to cover the return leg. Or you could transfer points from American Express Membership Rewards (albeit at a rather poor rate of 2 Membership Rewards points per 1 Elevate point).

Earning Points with Partners

Even so, the low number of points catches my attention. This is, again, because Virgin America places a high value on Elevate points. It also means that their earning tables with partners are quite low. If you fly Virgin Atlantic on the cheapest promotional fare, you’ll earn only 10% of the miles flown as Elevate points. But this isn’t as bad as it sounds! Even the top fares don’t earn better than 60%.

chart of miles accrual by fare class

Remember you’re converting from miles to points. The base fare on a really cheap SFO-LHR flight might only be $200 once you subtract taxes and fuel surcharges. $200 at 5 points a dollar would only be 1,000 Elevate points if Virgin America operated that route. But it’s 12,000 miles. So 10% of 12,000 miles is 1,200 Elevate points if you fly Virgin Atlantic.

Conclusion

Elevate works differently enough from most programs Americans are familiar with that it looks like a bad deal on the surface. But in fact I think what we have here is a very reasonable program that earns points at a fairly high rate based on spend but still provides a few valuable opportunities to redeem them at a fixed number of points per ticket. Add on a credit card bonus that, for now at least, appears to remain unchanged at 20,000 points after first purchase, and we have ourselves a winner. Will you be able to earn and burn on Elevate all the time? No, there are still geographic restrictions even after including partners. You shouldn’t write it off, either. Time will tell if Virgin America’s model survives for the long haul.

Remember, the ad below says up to 15,000 Elevate points only, but if you click on it you should see an offer for 25,000 Elevate points. Take a screenshot. And yes, I do get a referral fee if you apply. Thanks for your support.

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Scott created Travel Codex after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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  • Helixcardinal

    If you think an airline would go bankrupt, why would you apply for the credit card? If it goes bankrupt, your application goes to waste. Seems like pretty bad advice. Are you getting a commission on this card or something?

    I’m with you on Ws. Guess I’m a crotchety old man as well. I prefer substance over style.

    • Scottrick

      I think I have at least a year, probably more. Others may think they have more time or that there’s no threat at all. But even a year is enough time to apply for a card, get a bonus on the first purchase, at put it to some use. I could apply, get the points, book, and fly within two months if I needed to.

  • AKold

    If you have AA/United status, it might also be worth checking out a match to Virgin status, especially since having the CC helps out if you want to keep the status.

    http://www.virginamerica.com/vx/statusmatch

  • Jimgotkp

    Interesting post, Scott.

  • http://twitter.com/BuckyKKatt Bucky Katt

    I like Virgin (and have the card) for several reasons. First, even though their route map is limited, the places they fly (from DC) are places I have reasons to visit. Second, their coach product is the best that I’ve been on in the US, although apparently some people like JetBlue better. Third, I’ve had really good customer service experience with them. On one trip from DC to Seattle through San Francisco, I paid for the upgrade to Main Cabin Select for the short leg, and the ticket agent just decided to throw in a free upgrade for the transcontinental leg as well. Fourth, if you catch a sale (which they have all the time), you can fly across the country for as little as $129. All this said, I’m an occasional traveler, and if we need to fly somewhere that’s *not* on the West Coast, we can’t take Virgin, so they’re probably completely useless to most people. But given the choice between flying with them or another airline, I’ll almost always go with Virgin, if I can.

    • Scottrick

      I find myself incapable of disagreeing with my third favorite comic strip hero (next to Calvin & Hobbes, of course). Virgin seems to be positioning itself as the JetBlue of the West Coast. I keep forgetting that JetBlue even flies out here and has a hub in Long Beach.

  • mo

    Even with screenshot, still valid?? i dont see how a screenshot makes it binding, cant they easily deny? thanx

    • Scottrick

      They can deny. But if you have a screenshot, that’s something with which to refute their denial. It’s good practice to always take a screenshot of the offer when you apply for a card. I’ve heard of more than a few people who have gotten missing miles honored when forwarding a screenshot of their offer.

      If they can deny anything, then the advertised offer means nothing, whether or not it’s a mistake.

  • Jamie

    This is the first time I’ve read your blog, and you had me with your comment about W hotels. I’ve only stayed at one, but it was weird enough to make me not want to repeat the experience.
    That said, Acura had a person there giving free rides to places downtown (maybe airport, too, not sure) to get them to try out one of their vehicles. It sounded too good to be true, but I asked and with very little notice was able to get us a free ride to union station. (this was at Chicago W lakefront, about a year and a half ago).