As some people may be considering getting this card who do not already collect Virgin Flying Club miles, I wanted to run through some of the reasons why you might want to build up a small pile of them. 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:
1. No short-haul network
Let’s get the main problem out of the way first. As Virgin does not have a short-haul network, apart from the Little Red flights connecting Manchester, Edinburgh and Aberdeen with Heathrow, you will be redeeming for a long haul flight.
This means, obviously, that you need to collect a large number of miles before you can do anything useful with them. With Avios, on the other hand, you only need 4,500 to book a one-way redemption to Europe.
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.
3. Fewer miles, cheaper taxes in Economy
In 2013, Virgin announced lower taxes on Economy redemptions. These are quite aggressive – New York is £115 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, so it is not a one-way street.)
Here is a sample of charges for Economy flights from London on Virgin Atlantic using miles, correct as of yesterday:
New York £241 (British Airways: £355) 35,000 miles (40,000 Avios)
Barbados £237 (British Airways: £329) 45,000 miles (50,000 Avios)
Las Vegas £213 (British Airways: £353) 42,500 miles (50,000 Avios)
Johannesburg £362 (British Airways: £397) 50,000 miles (50,000 Avios)
Dubai £243 (British Airways: £335) 38,500 miles (40,000 miles)
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.
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.
If you are only looking to fly yourself somewhere, using the miles from the credit card topped up with a Tesco or Amex transfer, then this is not worth worrying about – you can always find 1 seat if you are flexible on dates.
5. 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. The most effective use of this appears to be buying ‘S’ class Premium Economy tickets, which cost around £200 more than a normal Premium Economy seat – this allows you to use the voucher for your partner as long as a Premium Economy redemption seat is available.
The credit cards also offer a voucher with the Virgin credit card to upgrade Economy redemptions to Premium Economy for no extra miles for hitting specific spend targets.
6. Fallback option of transferring to Hilton HHonors or IHG Rewards Club
Rare among airline schemes, Virgin lets you transfer miles out into Hilton HHonors (1:2) 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.
Since Hilton HHonors was aggressively devalued a year ago, the Hilton option has less value than it did. I value Hilton points at around 0.3p and IHG Rewards Club points at 0.5p when used for luxury properties. This would value your Virgin miles at 0.5p – 0.6p each when transferred to hotels.
(You can also redeem Virgin miles for Virgin Group vouchers. 12,500 miles gets you a £50 voucher, so under 0.5p per mile.)
7. Virgin has CombiFares
I wrote about CombiFares here. Basically, if you have enough miles for a one way redemption, Virgin will sell you a return ticket for the cheapest cash price currently available.
BA does not do this. Try pricing up a one-way long-haul ticket on BA bought for cash and you will be shocked, as in most cases only fully flexible tickets are available.
8. Virgin has improved its 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 changed its rules in 2013. 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.
9. 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.
So, there are a few things to think about here if you were considering picking up the Virgin credit card to kickstart a collection of Virgin Flying Club miles.
Flying Club has a lot to 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.
That said, if you are a solo traveller, this does give you a nice route to trying Virgin’s Upper Class product, especially the fantastic lounge at Heathrow Terminal 3. You’d need 40,000 miles for a one-way to the US (come back using Avios!).
(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.)