Monday, March 19, 2012

Redeem Virgin America Elevate Points For International Partner Flights

Starting today, you can redeem Virgin America Elevate points for international flights on Virgin Atlantic. And starting on March 22, 2012, you can redeem for flights on Virgin Australia as well. Before you get too excited, let me just say that the taxes and fuel surcharges involved with these redemptions might shock you.

The Virgin America Elevate program is one of the least lucrative loyalty programs out there. The number of points needed for an award ticket is tied directly to the cost of the ticket, and you will never see the value of a point exceed 2.5 cents. So unlike legacy carrier programs, where you can stretch the value of a point by redeeming for premium class seats on partner airlines or getting creative with routing rules, the Elevate program is typically hard set in the return you get.

One of the worst features of the Elevate program, however, was that there was no way use your points for international flights, even though Virgin America is technically part of the Virgin family of airlines, including Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia. Finally, that policy has changed. Right now, you can go to the Virgin America website and calculate exactly how many points you need to travel anywhere the Virgin brand flies. To book your ticket, you must call Virgin America at 1-877-FLY-VIRGIN (1-877-359-8474). A $20 phone fee will apply.

At first glance, I was actually surprised at how few points are needed to book a long-haul award ticket. For example, only 15,000 points are needed to fly round-trip from New York to London Heathrow in economy, and 40,000 points to fly round-trip from Los Angeles to Sydney in economy. What really made me do a double-take, however, are the absolutely exorbitant taxes and fuel surcharges that are tacked onto the award tickets. More and more airlines are starting to include these fees, and I'm afraid it's only a matter of time before the legacy carriers follow suit (some already do, in fact). Here are just a few examples of the fees you will be paying when booking an international round-trip award ticket with Virgin America:

  • Economy: 15,000 + $650
  • Premium Economy: 25,000 + $750
  • Upper Class: 35,000 + $1100
  • Economy: 25,000 + $650
  • Premium Economy: 30,000 + $750
  • Upper Class: 50,000 + $1200
  • Economy: 30,000 + $650
  • Premium Economy: 45,000 + $800
  • Upper Class: 60,000 + $900
  • Economy: 40,000 + $749
  • Premium Economy: 60,000 + $790
  • Business: 80,000 + $849

Given that you can often purchase a round-trip revenue ticket from New York to London for around $800, that means you are basically redeeming 15,000 points to make up a difference of $150 - at a value of one cent per point. Not to mention the points you are not earning on an award ticket. Definitely not worth it in my opinion. There is also the option of redeeming for one-way award tickets, but the value there is even worse, as Virgin America will charge you more than half the points required for a round-trip.

All in all, it's still a positive thing that Virgin America is adding more redemption options. But at these non-favorable rates, I wouldn't recommend anyone start collecting Elevate points at this moment. Stick with the legacy carriers in large global alliances for now as you'll find much better redemption values there.

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