Maximise your Avios, air miles and hotel points

Are the Amex and Tesco bonuses a reason to start collecting Virgin miles?

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A fortnight ago, two interesting transfer bonuses were announced, both of which I covered.

American Express is offering selected charge card holders a 20%-30% bonus on transfer from Membership Rewards to BA, Virgin or hotel scheme Club Carlson.

Tesco is offering a 30% bonus on transfers of Clubcard points into Virgin Flying Club.

And, of course, via the recent Starwood Amex promotion, a lot of Head for Points readers will be sitting on 20,000 SPG points which would transfer into 25,000 Virgin miles.

There is therefore a window, even for someone without a Virgin Flying Club account at the moment, to build up a pile of miles from scratch very quickly.

It is not up to me to tell you if this is a good idea FOR YOU or not. However, here are a few points to consider.

Virgin Atlantic

1. Diversification

British Airways can fly you to pretty much anywhere that Virgin Atlantic can. However, that doesn’t mean they can get you Avios seats when you want them. Having a balance in another programme gives you more chance of getting seats on the dates you want them.

Both BA and Virgin allow one-way redemptions, so with a Virgin balance you could mix and match a trip as availability allows. Virgin also partners with Delta in the US and a number of other airlines.

However, Virgin and BA are both UK-focussed airlines, so you are likely to face an identical squeeze around UK school holidays. You may want to expand into Star Alliance and redeem on, say, Lufthansa if you want a better chance of seats at – say – UK half-term.

2. Fewer miles, cheaper taxes in Economy

Virgin recently announced lower taxes on Economy redemptions. These are quite aggressive – New York is £120 cheaper than BA. Virgin also requires fewer miles – New York is 35,000 in Economy vs 40,000 with Avios. However, Upper Class flights generally match BA in the miles and taxes required.

(BA also lets you redeem on carriers such as airberlin and Aer Lingus who charge minimal taxes, far less than even Virgin does. BA is also planning to trial reduced taxes on long-haul economy flights – on certain routes only – this Autumn.)

Virgin is also running a promotion at the moment offering economy redemptions to much of the US for just 25,000 miles – 15,000 less than BA.

Here is a sample of charges from my July post:

New York £240 (British Airways: £359) 35,000 miles (40,000 Avios)

Barbados £237 (British Airways: £328) 45,000 miles (50,000 Avios)

Las Vegas £213 (British Airways: £356) 42,500 miles (50,000 Avios)

Johannesburg £362 (British Airways: £400) 50,000 miles (50,000 Avios)

Dubai £243 (British Airways: £335) 38,500 miles (40,000 miles)

3. Availability

I do not redeem on Virgin, so cannot comment on how easy or hard it is to get availability. In general, though, Upper Class cabins have fewer seats than BA Club World cabins, with subsequent squeezes on availability. Is it easy to get 4 Upper Class seats on Virgin for a family? I don’t know. It isn’t a problem with BA on many routes.

A random test showed that I could get 4 Upper Class seats to Dubai on various dates.  However, I would not expect to be able to get seats this late in the year for half term or Christmas, and I wasn’t disappointed.  It does seem possible though.

You can check availability on the Virgin website without having enough miles in your account to do the redemption.  You should spend some time researching your favourite routes before deciding whether to commit miles to Flying Club.

4. No 2-4-1 Amex voucher, but an upgrade voucher

There is no equivalent of the BA Amex 2-4-1 voucher. The Virgin credit card does give a 2-4-1 voucher but ONLY ON FLEXIBLE CASH TICKETS. You can, however, get a voucher with the Virgin credit card to upgrade Economy redemptions to Premium Economy for no extra miles. The two Virgin credit cards are reviewed here and here.

5. Fallback option of transferring to Hilton HHonors or IHG Rewards Club

Rare among airline schemes, Virgin lets you transfer miles out into Hilton HHonors (1:1.5) or IHG Rewards Club (the Holiday Inn etc scheme) at 1:1. If you found yourself struggling to use your Virgin miles, you could also move them across – although this feature could be discontinued at any time.

6. Finally … a much improved cancellation policy

It used to be that if you had to cancel at 7+ days out, you lost 25% of your miles. If you cancelled within 7 days, you lost ALL your miles. BA, on the other hand, lets you cancel up to 24 hours before the flight with no penalty at all.

As I posted here, Virgin seems to have changed its rules. Whilst there has been no official announcement, the revised text is clearly on the website and is now very similar to BA. Thank goodness for that.

7. The Heathrow Clubhouse

The Virgin lounge at Heathrow, for Upper Class passengers, is widely regarded as one of the best airport lounges in the world. Get a haircut, have a massage, eat a proper meal, chill out in the audio or TV rooms or do one of many other (admittedly ‘boys toys’ type) activities. Well worth trying once in your life.

Note that, whilst full fare cash tickets in Upper Class also get a free chauffeur to and from the airport, reward tickets do NOT get this. Some airlines do – I have an Emirates chauffeur booked for a few weeks time on a reward ticket.

8. Easy to collect additional miles

It is now as easy to collect Flying Club miles as it is Avios. You can transfer from Tesco, Amex Membership Rewards and Heathrow Rewards, as well as all the major hotel schemes.  As I wrote here, some major hotel chains do not give Avios but do offer Flying Club miles.

There is a shopping portal similar to the Avios estore. There are also decent promotions, eg 5,000 miles for opening an ISA.

Conclusion

So, a few things to think about.

One of the emerging features is that Flying Club has a lot of offer the person who redeems in Economy. Lower taxes, fewer miles required and the ability to upgrade to Premium Economy for free via the credit card voucher.

You even get the option of selected long haul departures from Manchester, which BA abandoned long ago.

For business class redemptions, it is less clear cut. Smaller cabins, a smaller route network and fewer daily flights may make it trickier to find seats, whilst taxes and miles required tend to mirror BA. And there is no Amex 241 voucher, which for a couple effectively makes a ‘once a year’ redeemer require twice the miles. (It has a proportionately lower impact on a family of 4 taking multiple long-haul flights each year.)

My current plan, for what its worth, is to use the current Amex transfer bonus to get 50,000 Virgin miles in my account. Next time the rest of the family goes off to my parents in law, I will try to combine them with my 50,000 American Airlines miles from the credit card promotion to visit the US and back.  It would take a bigger transfer bonus – say, 50% out of Amex – to persuade me to move enough miles over to, say, take my entire family away in Upper Class.

If you have any other Virgin queries, please post them below.  No guarantee that I will know the answer (!) but I am sure that someone else will.

(Want to earn more Virgin Flying Club miles? Click here to see recent articles on Virgin Atlantic, Little Red and Flying Club, and click here for the latest news on earning and spending other airline and hotel points.)

Comments (32)

  • Alex says:

    Virgin don’t seem to be that great on regional departures. Mrs H is booked on BA Club World next May to New York. I’ve just looked at Virgins availability for the same dates and although they have Miles seats at a lesser amount the connecting flights from Edinburgh are not up to much. BA have the connecting flights to match the long haul but with Virgin you would have at least a 6 or 7 hour wait between flights.

    • Alan says:

      Although given you’d be in the Virgin Clubhouse isn’t that sort of time just the right amount of connection time? 😛

      • Alex says:

        Maybe be fun for me but she would rather be on her way around NYs shops. It is a lot of time out of the trip both ways when only away for a long weekend.

  • Alan says:

    I’ve a nice stash of miles thanks to the Hilton – VS offer a few months ago where you ended up with 4k VS miles per stay. Even now the offer has finished, 1k per stay is pretty good if you have short reasonably prices stays, as you’re effectively getting 2k HHonors points, which compares well to 5 HHonors per USD that you’d be earning with points+points. Rather than transfer them back though I’m probably going to use them to make an economy booking from EDI and upgrade it to UC.

  • erico1875 says:

    Do they do free connections to London like BA?

  • CliveJ says:

    Virgin was probably the first airline I collected points with so it’s good to see it upping its game a little. The addition of Little Red for domestic flights offers another option.

    From a redemption perspective I had a poor experience trying to get Premium Economy or Upper Class flights to Hong Kong in September 2011. The dates just seemed so inflexible and calls to customer service were just met with “reward flights are released at various times so we suggest you keep checking the website”. In the end I gave up and paid for BA flights. However earlier this year I managed to bag an UC out, PE return, flight to Las Vegas without any trouble (even upgraded on the way back). So both good and bad experiences,

    I have around 22k Virgin Flying Club miles and 66k BA Avios so a big Tesco CC or Amex MR conversion will get me a flight. The current bonuses might force my hand to choose one over the other but common sense tells me to wait until I need a flight.

  • CliveJ says:

    Another collecting option not mentioned is conversion from Virgin Games V-Points at 1:1. (These are also worth 1p cash so you are effectively buying miles at 1p each). This is not going to give you a lot of miles as you have to gamble quite a bit to earn V-Points. However the advantage is that there is no minimum conversion, you can convert a single point if you wish. Around £10 of slot machine play or £20 of Blackjack hands should earn you a point. It is also a useful non-credit card way to stop your Flying Club miles expiring after the three year expiry period.

    • Ed E says:

      Clive, this used to be my churn, many moons ago!

      There was no charge for using my VS Mastercard do put money into the Virgin Games account and then I could simply withdraw it straight out again back onto the same card.
      I started by being sensible and playing a bit through but then got greedy, ended up doing thousands and getting a call from an account manager there who suggested I close my account and not “play” again.
      Still, got 2 of us to Antigua in PE!

  • Brendan Sweeney says:

    As far as I can see they don’t fly from Belfast or Dublin, so it’s useless for those of us in Northern Ireland.

  • whitenoise says:

    I recently needed to book a one-way flight back from San Francisco to the UK on a certain date, with about a weeks notice. I decided to use a stash of points I had in Virgin to book a reward flight in Premium Economy. I have to say I was disappointed vs BA CW.

    Ok, I know that these don’t directly compare, but it is all Virgin offers that between the bottom and the top classes. The seats were a little wider, and did have more leg room, but this benefit was deemed useless when the chair in front of you reclined. The TV screen was the same size as in economy. The meal was the same, in the same containers, just had proper cutlery. There was an offer of a paper, and I glass of sparking wine before take off. There was no access toilets in this section, you had to use economy ones, marked ‘Premium Economy only’, but anyone was using them.

    Whilst I was in economy, I noticed that the ‘purple’ seats had about the same leg room, and exit seats were definitely the best buy vs PE.

    On the way out I noticed the seats in Upper Class, and while I’ve never actually used them, I have to say I didn’t like the look of them, and again preferred BA CW. It was my first time flying CW a few months ago, so maybe it was the novelty factor, but I think I will be definitely flying BA vs Virgin from now on – ideally in CW – so more deals please Raffles 😉

    • darthlemsip says:

      As you say though, they don’t compare – PE on Virgin is the equivalent of PE on BA while Virgin Upper Class is the equivalent of CW on BA, Virgin don’t have a First equivalent.

      Effectively you compare it to BA’s 3-class services

  • signol says:

    You can also earn VS miles when buying Virgin Trains tickets from the Virgin Trains website. Might be useful to keep alive miles that would otherwise expire – buy a one way advance ticket from say MK to Rugby, claim a railcard discount, pay £3.60 but don’t travel.