I have to admit I’m conflicted. The past week has seen the return of the 90,000-mile signup bonus for the Virgin Atlantic MasterCard. The Conventional Wisdom is that this bonus is potentially worth getting for partner redemptions or Hilton transfers, but not much more.
The problem is I don’t know if I agree or disagree with that. Maybe these miles aren’t even worth getting for those limited uses. Or maybe they’re actually even better than that. Maybe this is already hurting my brain so much that I should just walk away and write instead about how Delta doesn’t seem to understand that having 5 of everything (like redemption tiers or seating plans) doesn’t make things better, just more complicated.
Yet I’m still intrigued. It could just be the eye catching headline number of 90,000 Flying Club miles, though hopefully I’m old enough to know not to believe everything big banks tell me. Or really, anything big banks tell me. But I’m thinking maybe a stash of Virgin Atlantic miles might in some way be similar to keeping a stash of British Airways Avios? Not for value on short-haul routes like Avios, but for other redemptions that are available on a regular basis?
Am I crazy? Yes, okay, I know I am. You didn’t have to yell out “and funny lookin’ too!” as a helpful addition, thank you very much. But am I crazy about this in particular? I honestly don’t know, so let’s explore it a bit and see if we can figure out if this 90,000 mile Virgin Atlantic offer is worth our time and effort.
What’s wrong with 90,000 miles?
At first glance 90,000 miles sounds pretty super awesome. That’s until you find out that 90,000 miles in Bank of America-speak actually means somewhere between 25,000 miles and 127,500 miles and requires upwards of $12,000 in spend.
Our friend Greg over at Frequent Miler did an excellent analysis of exactly how many miles we’re obtaining and at what cost with this offer. Others have discussed it in length as well, so I won’t repeat all of that here. That would be… well, repetitive, and I’m already long winded enough as it is.
But an important caveat that often goes unmentioned is that the annual bonus miles on this card for spending $15,000 to $25,000 only kick in at the end of the first year and after you pay the $90 second year annual fee. Since the first year annual fee isn’t waived either, that means to get all the miles, you’re pot committed to $180 in annual fees.
On top of that, Virgin Atlantic miles are super dreadful because of the enormous fuel surcharges that Virgin Atlantic insists on adding to their “free” tickets. Of course, with the price of oil dropping faster than the number of remaining Sears stores, the airlines can’t justify adding fuel surcharges to their tickets anymore. So they’re mostly withdrawing them. No, I’m kidding — of course they’re not. They’ve simply rebranded them as “carrier surcharges.” You know, I just can’t figure out why the airline industry is held in such low regard by the general public.
So what’s useful about this offer?
With all that in mind, there are two reasons this offer could be worth grabbing.
The first is partner redemptions. Virgin Atlantic has roughly a dozen airline partners and you can use Flying Club miles on several of them for redemptions. Granted, most of these partners are relatively useless. Maybe you’ve got a regular need to fly from London to Beijing on Air China, but that route doesn’t appear on my personal schedule too often.
To me, Delta and Virgin America are the interesting partners. Virgin Atlantic offers a route-based chart for Virgin America redemptions which, depending on airfare prices at any given time, can make for better redemptions than using Virgin America’s fixed-point value system.
Delta redemptions are intriguing because there are a few sweet spots in the chart. I covered the ins and outs of using Virgin Atlantic miles on Delta redemptions in my own “Bet You Didn’t Know” column over at Frequent Miler, so if you’re interested, you can check it out there.
The second possible use of Virgin Atlantic miles is just biting the bullet and paying the fuel surcharges on Virgin Atlantic. This is, of course, better than paying full price for your ticket. You can get some real value for your miles this way, even up to 5 cents per mile when booking in premium classes.
Note that I’m reluctant to include Hilton transfers as a third benefit of these points. Even though you can transfer Virgin Atlantic miles into Hilton HHonors points at a rate of 3 to 2, I don’t think that’s particularly useful. The aforementioned 90,000 Flying Club miles would become roughly 135,000 Hilton HHonors points, which would get you… a bottle of water from room service maybe?
OK, I’m exaggerating a bit. With that many points you could actually get close to two nights at a top Category 10 property depending on the time of year. But I actively avoid Hilton points ever since they destroyed the program last year. I see no reason to participate in what I consider the least valuable hotel program out there (and congratulations Wyndham, I’m including even you in that statement). If Hilton wants to make their program useless, then that’s their choice, but I will put my money where my mouth is and use other hotel chains that actually reward my loyalty.
Well… that’s not much, is it?
Now that I wrote it all out, none of that sounds terribly exciting, does it? There might be some opportunities here and there, but is it worth all that spend? Remember that…
- You can only book Virgin America seats if there’s space, but there’s nowhere to see this “space” other than having a Virgin Atlantic agent look it up. More often than not, it doesn’t exist.
- Redeeming on Delta requires roundtrip bookings. No one ways and no mixing partners on the same ticket.
- You can’t book partner tickets online. Everything has to be done by phone.
- Even if you get value for actually flying on Virgin Atlantic, there’s something truly objectionable about paying hundreds of dollars in surcharges for a free ticket. It ticks me off. It’s outright lying by the airlines and I don’t want to encourage it by participating in it.
- Virgin Atlantic is a transfer partner of both American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards, so there’s really no need to keep a stash of Virgin Atlantic points when you can transfer to them anytime from multiple flexible currencies.
- At the very least it’s a $90 annual fee for the first year. There are lots of other more valuable credit cards who waive that first year annual fee.
When I started writing this post, I honestly thought there would be more reason to go for this card. I recently redeemed Flying Club miles on Delta and the process was awkward but uneventful, so I thought perhaps it’d be helpful to keep a stash of them for little redemptions like that.
But I think I’ve just convinced myself that it isn’t worth it. Of course, I’m not so bright, so I sway myself pretty easily. YMMV.
The Devil’s Advocate just realized that Virgin Atlantic needs to fix their loyalty program before we bother with it.
Conventional Wisdomers often note that this card might be worth signing up for if you’ve already signed up for most other cards and are running out of options. To that I say bullocks. (That’s right, bullocks!) There are plenty of churnable cards out there right now, especially with Chase recently adding a 24-month timeframe to get their signup bonuses again. So you shouldn’t ever be running out of cards you can acquire.
If you’re desperate to fly on Virgin Atlantic, you’re better off doing it with Delta miles and skipping the fuel surcharges. And if for some reason you’re just dying to collect Flying Club miles, there’s an offer available right now (thanks to ukinny2000 at Flyertalk via the Doctor of Credit) for 100,000 Membership Rewards points on the American Express Platinum Business card. Amex routinely offers Virgin Atlantic transfer bonuses, so grab that card instead of this Virgin Atlantic card and you’ll effectively have more than 90,000 Virgin Atlantic miles but with much greater flexibility.
So it’s settled then. There’s no reason to get the Virgin Atlantic card. Even if I want to fly Virgin Atlantic, I’ll book it with Delta miles and avoid the fuel surcharges, and I’ll use up whatever Flying Club miles I currently have left on Delta tickets. Yes, that means I’ll be using Delta miles to fly on Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Atlantic miles to fly on Delta. Hey airlines, didn’t I mention earlier that more complicated is not better?
Devil’s Advocate is a weekly series that deliberately argues a contrarian view on travel and loyalty programs. Sometimes the Devil’s Advocate truly believes in the counterargument. Other times he takes the opposing position just to see if the original argument holds water. But his main objective is to engage in friendly debate with the miles and points community to determine if today’s conventional wisdom is valid. You can suggest future topics by sending an email to email@example.com.
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Find the entire collection of Devil’s Advocate posts here.