As much as I hate British Airways, I love Virgin Atlantic for some of the reasons I’ve explained here. The only thing that really spoils my VA love is the insanity if you want to use your frequent flyer miles or other perks they offer you.
Decided to treat yourself by upgrading from Economy to Premium Economy or Upper Class? Make sure you aren’t trying to do it from the lowest fare level. You can’t upgrade at all from some fare classes.
For example, I’m looking at a flight in February from London Heathrow to Boston. Cost in Premium Economy? That’s £847 pounds. Now let’s say I want to upgrade to Upper Class using miles on one or both legs of the trip. No can do. As Virgin tells you in the small print, you can only upgrade from a full adult fare in W, S, Y, B, L and M classes — whatever these are. Got your secret fare class decoder ring handy?
So what’s the lowest you can spend on a Premium Economy flight to qualify to then do a mileage upgrade to Upper Class? That’s £1,147 — £300 more for the ability to then spend miles to sit in the nice, big seats and sleep if you want (the Wall Street Journal had a nice article yesterday on American trying to match seats on Virgin or BA. Believe me, fully flat is not just a marketing ploy, if you’re really trying to sleep).
Frankly, if I’ve earned these miles on Virgin in large part because of my loyalty to them, it sucks to be told certain tickets aren’t eligible for upgrading. But the craziness doesn’t stop there.
Going on a trip with the family? How about using a companion ticket, where you pay for one ticket and get the other free, all for spending miles. Sounds great — but as above, you can only do it with tickets in certain fare classes. If you wanted to do it for the Boston trip above, you’d still have to pay the higher £1,147 fare to take someone with you.
I also get a companion ticket each year because I have a Virgin credit card. It’s a nice pitch they give you — take a companion free on a trip. But again, this only works if you buy a full fare ticket. In some cases, the amount you spend to do this is more than just buying two tickets and not using the companion reward all. True, you’ll be buying non-refundable, non-changeable tickets. But still, the pitch of a free companion flight deserves a better qualification.
Virgin’s doing this again right now. Virgin’s shifting its credit card from MasterCard to American Express and trying to get us all to change over to Amex. There are lots of reasons to do it, from the big mileage bonuses they’re handing out as an introduction to the ability to earn two free economy-to-premium economy upgrades per year.
Look at the pitch about the black card here.
It’s the fastest way to earn a complimentary companion reward flight*. Spend just £7,500 on the Virgin Atlantic Black Card each year and you’ll get a complimentary round trip companion reward ticket the next time you book a qualifying flight with Virgin Atlantic. It’s the only way to get a Premium Economy reward upgrade**. Spend £5,000 on the Virgin Atlantic Black Card each year and you’ll get a round trip Premium Economy reward upgrade flight the next time you book a qualifying reward flight in Economy.
It’s always those asterisks that mess everything up. Let’s jump down to those, and I’ll highlight the key part that’s buried:
*Complimentary companion reward flight
If your card purchases equal or exceed £7,500 in a year, you will receive a complimentary companion reward flight the next time you book a qualifying flight with Virgin Atlantic. Card purchases exclude cash transactions, payments by credit card cheques and balance transfers. A year is defined by the 12 month period starting from the date you opened your Virgin Atlantic Credit Card account. MBNA will notify Virgin Atlantic of your eligibility within 30 days of you becoming eligible. One complimentary companion reward round trip flight to main cardmember only.
**Premium Economy reward upgrade
Spend £5,000 on card purchases by the end of any year and you will receive a Premium Economy reward upgrade the next time you redeem your Flying Club miles for a qualifying Economy redemption flight with Virgin Atlantic. Plus, spend another £5,000 in that year and earn another Premium Economy reward upgrade. The main cardmember only can earn a maximum of two Premium Economy reward upgrades per card account in any one year. Card purchases exclude cash transactions, payments by credit card cheques and balance transfers. A year is defined by the 12 month period starting from the date you opened your Virgin Atlantic Credit Card account. MBNA will notify Virgin Atlantic of your eligibility within 30 days of the end of the year if you are eligible.
Cardmembers must pay related taxes, fees and charges relating to the complimentary reward flight and reward upgrade. These will vary according to the qualifying destination, and are subject to change as a result of fluctuations in taxes, airport levies and exchange rates. Flights and routes subject to availability. Please note, discounted flights are not classed as qualifying flights. Tickets and Premium Economy reward upgrades are valid for 12 months from the date of issue. This offer may be withdrawn or amended at any time. Flying Club Terms & Conditions apply. You will not earn this incentive if you have not provided MBNA with a valid Flying Club membership number at the point you become eligible for a complimentary companion reward flight or Premium Economy reward upgrade.
Got it? Discounted flights are not classed as qualifying flights. And what is a discounted flight? That’s not defined, but I can assure you it won’t be the lowest priced ticket you can find on the Virgin Atlantic web site.
Virgin also has another program called Miles Plus Money. The idea here is that by spending a few miles, you can get a discounted fare. How discounted? Not much. That Boston trip above? Miles Plus Money knocks it down by £180 to £667, about 20 percent off.
That’s not bad compared to some other fares I’ve seen in the past. Earlier this year, I was booking a trip for a family member to New York. The regular premium economy rate was £820, and Miles Plus Money knocked it down by only £80, a 10 percent reduction.
Aside from all this, availability goes pretty fast. Book early, as far in advance as you can, most especially if it falls anytime near a school holiday. Only a relatively small number of seats are allocated for “reward” usage, and this group of seats goes to anyone using mileage, miles plus money, companion tickets and so on.
I wrote Virgin earlier this year about all these problems I find with their Flying Club loyalty program. Here’s the response:
I was concerned to read you’re experiencing difficulty when trying to redeem miles for reward seats, and your comments have been noted.
If I may explain, the allocation of reward seats on flights is the responsibility of our Reservations Control department. All reward flights are subject to availability and capacity control; popular dates (i.e. weekends, school and public holidays) will fill quickly and Virgin Atlantic reserves the right to limit the number of seats available for rewards. Also, reward seats are released sometimes up to 11 months prior to a flight departure and the allocation can be used fairly quickly. We strongly advise to book as far in advance as possible.
We try to ensure that the Miles Plus Money fares available to you as a Flying Club member are amongst the most competitive in the marketplace. However, the setting of fare levels is reflective of market conditions and we cannot guarantee that this will always be the case. We recommend asking at the time of booking for the lowest available fares.
The companion reward does require a qualifying full adult fare to be purchased. I have to agree that for you the companion reward tickets are perhaps not beneficial, though for members that are not paying for their travel themselves and require a fully flexible ticket, they are popular (i.e. for a business traveller who would like to take their partner).
With the exception of Miles Plus Money, all Flying Club reward seats are only bookable in reward seat booking classes.
We are still very generous in terms and rewarding loyalty, and reward seats are released on ALL flights. Whilst remaining sympathetic, it would not be feasible for us to offer a greater number of reward seats on each flight.
As a valued Flying Club Gold member, we appreciate your feedback whether good or bad as we continually look towards improving our product and service. Your valuable comments have been logged and reported to the relevant Managers, in order for them to review your suggestions and implement any changes they feel are necessary to further develop our frequent flyer programme. However, I’m unable to detail our plans for the future.
It is very much appreciated that you have also taken time out to express your gratitude for the telephone service that we have provided.
Thank you for your candid approach. We look forward to welcoming you onboard again soon.
I really do hope they make more mileage seats available and consider dropping the entire requirement that you have to know what mystery classes qualify if you want to do a mileage upgrade or use a companion ticket.
In the meantime, a few last tips, for those thinking about Virgin and pondering the big seats.
- Premium Economy generally does not provide laptop power, which is sucky. But the seats are big, comfortable, and the discounted non-refundable Premium Economy fares are often good value for those who want more space to work.
- A bonus to booking Premium Economy is that Virgin generally overbooks seats in this area. And where do you go if they are overbooked? Usually into Upper Class. There’s a slight chance you might get downgraded to Economy, but I’ve only seen that happen once in my years of flying with them (and it wasn’t to me). Premium Economy is an excellent way to get into Upper Class without paying the expensive Upper Class price — and the odds increase you’ll upgraded if you are a Silver or Gold card holder with Virgin.
- If you don’t get an automatic upgrade, after the ticketing is done, then ask about purchasing an upgrade. Often seats that they’ve held back for weeks are released on the day you fly, and the ticket desks at the airport have far more flexibility about letting you upgrade by paying a relatively small amount or using miles. And yes, sometimes you can even do this from those tickets that supposedly aren’t upgradeable.