Virgin America is usually described as one of the better domestic carriers in the United States. It doesn’t have an extensive international route network or a large number of airport clubs, but it does have a solid on-board experience with seat-back entertainment, WiFi, and a large spread of onboard food-for-purchase.
Virgin America’s Elevate rewards program has a fixed-value currency in which points are treated like they have cash value: more points for more expensive tickets. This eliminates the opportunity to game the system with cheap awards for expensive flights but does make the system easier for most people to understand (similar to Southwest Airlines’ Rapid Rewards).
For a $206 fare from Seattle to San Francisco (one-way), it would cost either $206 or a combination of 8,884 points and $5.60 in fees. That means points are worth about 2.26 cents each. Not bad. You’ll also earn 5 points per dollar when you purchase tickets. Earning and redeeming points with Elevate essentially provides an 11% rebate.
Transferred Points Are More Valuable
You can accumulate Elevate points faster by transferring them from Membership Rewards, but it’s not as great as it sounds. Why? You usually get 100 Elevate points for every 200 Membership Rewards points. You can normally redeem Membership Rewards points like cash for a penny each if you book with American Express Travel, so if you need to redeem 200 Membership Rewards points worth a total of $2 in order to get 100 Elevate points worth about $2.26, that’s not a huge improvement. You might also find a better deal if you transfer to a different airline.
For a limited time (until October 8), Amex is offering a 25% transfer bonus. That means 200 Membership Rewards points yield 125 Elevate points. So $200 in Membership Rewards points will be worth $2.83. Much better, as long as you plan to fly on Virgin America.
This is one reason for accumulating flexible rewards currencies like Membership Rewards (Amex) and Ultimate Rewards (Chase): You can wait until such opportunities present themselves to initiate a transfer, but you aren’t locked into a specific airline or hotel.
Get Complimentary Elite Status
But let’s say you really like Virgin America and plan to fly them a lot (or already do). In addition to the bonus points, Virgin America is offering a chance to earn their top-tier status, Elevate Gold Elite. Just transfer 80,000 or more Membership Rewards points by December 31, 2015. If you transfer the points while the bonus promotion is still in effect, you would get 50,000 Elevate points and these benefits:
- 100% bonus on earned points (10 points per dollar)
- Priority check-in and boarding
- 3 free checked bags
- 25% off two main cabin tickets
- Complimentary upgrades 24 hours before departure
- Waived telephone booking and award redeposit fees
Even if you don’t live on the West Coast where the Virgin America network is strongest, you may still find it attractive to earn status so that you can take advantage of the fee waivers when using points transferred from Membership Rewards.
Other Redemption Opportunities
You can do even better if you take advantage of some opportunities to redeem points on international partners using a more conventional award chart. For example, here are a few of the offers available from its San Francisco hub for round-trip travel. (One-way travel is also available, but not always at a 50% discount.)
- Visit Maui on Hawaiian Airlines: 20,000 points in coach / 50,000 in business ($11.20 in fees)
- Visit Hong Kong on Singapore Airlines: 95,000 points in business / 130,000 in first ($40 in fees)
- Visit London on Virgin Atlantic: 50,000 points in upper class ($1,150 in fees)
These are all pretty reasonable if you can find the award space. In addition to these three carriers, Virgin America also partners with Emirates and Virgin Australia. (The high fees for Virgin Atlantic are something you’ll always want to avoid by using a different program, but they are not out of line if your alternative is flying British Airways with miles from American or Alaska.)
But again, you may find that some other Membership Rewards partners offer a better deal. You can, for example, transfer Membership Rewards points directly to KrisFlyer and take advantage of greater award space than Singapore offers to its partners. Award prices will be different, and there’s no transfer bonus for KrisFlyer at the moment, so be sure to explore your options before making a decision one way or the other.
Earning Membership Rewards Points
One of the best cards for earning Membership Rewards points is the American Express Premier Rewards Gold card due to several bonus categories that offer up to 3 points per dollar when you purchase tickets from the airline. The Platinum Card only offers one point per dollar but has additional benefits. Both have sign-up bonuses for new applicants, and some people are being targeted with offers of 40,000, 60,000, or 100,000 points for the Platinum Card.