Changes coming to Virgin Atlantic’s frequent-flier program

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On Nov. 13, 2016, Virgin Atlantic will become the latest airline to massively overhaul its frequent-flier program. If you’ve been watching at home, you’ll have noticed that airlines (including United, Delta and American) haven’t exactly moved toward rewarding budget travelers. Instead, they’ve moved toward reward schemes that encourage fliers to spend more on tickets.

What’s happening to the Flying Club

The biggest changes to Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club are as follows:

Status devaluation
Like other airlines, Virgin Atlantic allows you to earn miles bonuses (on top of what you’d otherwise earn from the flight) if you have status.

Before Nov. 13, 2016: Silver members earned a 50 percent bonus and Gold members earned a 100 percent bonus on base miles.

After Nov. 13, 2016: Silver members will earn a 30 percent bonus and Gold will earn a 60 percent bonus.

Adjustments to rewards earned from flights
Virgin Atlantic has always allowed travelers purchasing more expensive seats to earn more rewards, compared to those purchasing budget seats. But these latest changes widen the divide even more:

Cabin miles bonus (tacked onto base miles flown)
Old systemNew system
Discount economy (E, Q, V, N, O)100%50%
Economy (L, U, M)100%100%
Full-fare economy (Y, B, R)100%150%
Discount premium Economy (K,H)125%100%
Premium Economy (W, S)150%200%
Discount upper Class (I, Z)150%200%
Upper Class (J, D, C)300%400%

Those flying in the cheap seats will see a big chunk taken out of their miles earnings, while those shelling out a bit more will see their miles-earnings grow.

Path to earning status will change
Tier Points are Virgin Atlantic’s status currency. Earn a certain number per year, and you’ll enjoy higher status. With Virgin Atlantic, you can earn Tier Points by flying (a certain number of Tier Points each way, which grows the higher class you fly). You can also earn them by spending on the airline’s co-branded credit card. In the U.S., that’s the Virgin Atlantic Black card ($90) annual fee. For every $2,500 you spend, you get 1 Tier Point (up to 2 per month). Prior to Nov. 13, 2016, you needed 15 Tier Points to get Silver status and 40 to get Gold.

That same structure is basically remaining, but Virgin Atlantic is adjusting the Tier Point currency value AND earnings rate. Your existing Tier Points will be multiplied by 25. But you’ll now need to earn 400 Tier Points for Silver and 1,000 for Gold.

Here’s a comparison of Tier Points earned by one-way flights from London to all destinations:

Tier points earned on one-way-flights (London to all destinations)
Old system New system
Discount economy225
Economy350
Discount premium economy350
Premium economy4100
Discount upper class5100
Upper Class6200

Under the old system, discount economy earned one-third the Tier Points that Upper Class seats did. Under the new system, that gap widens, with economy earning one-eighth the tier points. So frequent fliers buying business-class seats will earn status handily going forward, while economy fliers will have to work harder.

Redemption changes (Jan. 2017): This change phases in a little later than those above. As airlines often do, Virgin Atlantic is re-calibrating the number of miles needed for rewards flights. One Mile at a Time has a great chart, but in sum, it’s adding peak- and off-peak (aka standard) rewards flights. How that shakes out for you will depend on when you want to fly, but you will have some lower-mile options for travel if you can fly off peak and want to fly economy. Upper Class seats to some destinations, however, will cost more miles going forward, even off peak.

New Miles Plus Money option: In increments of 3,000 miles, you can redeem for discounts (amount not yet announced) on the cost of a ticket. Miles Plus Money bookings still allow you to earn rewards (unlike full rewards bookings).

No more partnership with Virgin America: Virgin America loyalty members will no longer be able to book reward flights with Virgin Atlantic. This was announced suddenly in October 2016 and will go into effect Nov. 13.

Credit card strategies

With airline frequent-flier programs catering ever more to frequent business travelers flying in high-cost seats, it falls to budget fliers to make judicious use of credit cards to make up the difference.

  • Virgin Atlantic’s co-branded cards (issued in the U.S. by Bank of America) are an option, the $90-a-year Black card, in particular. You’ll earn 3 miles per dollar spent with Virgin, which can make up for the blow to your rewards earnings on economy flights. You’ll also get 15,000 Flying Club miles each cardholder anniversary if you spend $25,000 on the card. That’s a bit of a stretch, if you spread your spending out on several cards, but could *almost* earn you a one-way off-peak rewards seat in economy.
  • Membership Rewards cards from American Express (a CreditCardForum advertising partner) allow you to transfer directly into Virgin Atlantic at 1:1 ratio. MR cards include the EveryDay cards, the Premier Rewards Gold, the Platinum card and more. These cards allow you to earn points on all purchases and transfer them into Virgin Atlantic’s program when you’re ready for a rewards flight. If no good flights are available with Virgin Atlantic, just save those points for a hotel booking or a flight on a different airline. If you fly Virgin Atlantic only occasionally, this allows you to diversify and not be tied down to Virgin Atlantic for redemptions.

Nov 2016 update: Reddit’s Churning community noticed that Virgin Atlantic seems to have disappeared from American Express’s list of transfer partners. However, Virgin Atlantic’s website is still listing its partnership with American Express, so it appears to be a temporary fluke.

The bottom line

If you’re a frequent business traveler on Virgin Atlantic, the changes may accelerate your earnings and status. Fliers looking for discounts can expect to see their progress slowed and may want to look to cards to fill in the gaps.

 
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