Virgin Atlantic opens award space gates [when booked directly with Virgin points]

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Virgin Atlantic recently vowed to make at least 12 award seats available on every flight: 8 economy seats, 2 premium economy seats, and 2 business class seats (they call these Upper Class seats).  In this overheated travel economy, that’s an amazing step to take.  That means that even if they expect to easily sell every available seat on the plane, they’ll reserve at least 12 seats for frequent flyers.  Amazing.

Update: It appears that Virgin Atlantic is no longer releasing their extra award space to partners.  When I originally researched this, I found that Virgin Atlantic award space booked through Delta or Air France closely matched what I saw on Virgin Atlantic’s own website.  Now, unfortunately, very few of those seats appear to be available to partners.

While I’ll admit that I didn’t check award availability before this change, I’m sure it was not nearly as good as it is now.  Take a look below at this award availability calendar from SeatSpy.  The red circles, even the faded ones, in the calendar below show days in which there are business class awards available for at least 2 adults for flights between JFK and London Heathrow.  Nearly every day is available through the end of the schedule!

Note that SeatSpy relies on cached results and so there will be times where it shows award availability that has already been reserved by others.

Virgin Atlantic charges a reasonable number of points for these flights.  The problem is that they also levy very large surcharges.

As you can see above, round trip business class from New York to London during peak dates results in a price of only 115,000 points (57,500 each way).  That’s excellent for an award that’s nearly always available.  Unfortunately, the ticket also requires paying $2,057 in fees!  $1,700 of this is from carrier imposed surcharges (often known as “fuel surcharges”).  That’s awful.  That’s like British Airways awful.  But unlike British Airways, you can get around these high surcharges by booking flights through a partner program.

With either Virgin Atlantic or British Airways, you can reduce surcharges a bit by booking two one-way awards instead of a round-trip, but it’s not a panacea.  Virgin Atlantic charges $875 in fees for business class from New York to London, plus 621 GBP ($756) for the return from London to New York.  Altogether, you’ll still pay an outrageous amount: $1631 in fees.

Delta Ain’t the Answer

By booking Virgin Atlantic flights with Delta miles, you’ll pay only the taxes and fees without the carrier imposed surcharges.  Unfortunately, you’ll also pay a fortune in SkyMiles.  Virgin Atlantic’s round trip business class from New York to London costs a whopping 390,000 SkyMiles, but only $317.57 in fees:

390,000 miles is an absurdly high price to pay for this flight.  Moving on…

Air France / KLM Flying Blue to the Rescue

For Virgin Atlantic flights, Flying Blue charges slightly more miles than Virgin Atlantic, but far fewer than Delta.  Similarly, they charge higher fees than Delta, but far less than Virgin Atlantic.  Air France / KLM Flying Blue offers a great compromise.

Update: It appears that Virgin Atlantic is no longer releasing their extra award space to partners.  When I originally researched this, I found that Virgin Atlantic award space booked through Delta or Air France closely matched what I saw on Virgin Atlantic’s own website.  Now, unfortunately, very few of those seats appear to be available to partners.

As you can see above, Flying Blue charges 112,000 miles for the same round trip itinerary where Delta wants 390,000 miles.  And while $702 in fees isn’t cheap, it’s an absolute bargain compared to Virgin’s $2,057 (or $1,631 when booked as two separate awards).

Let’s look at the same flights booked as one-way awards through Air France’s website.  New York to London is widely available for only 56,000 miles plus $200 in fees.  That’s a great price:

It’s the return flight from London that’s the killer: 56,000 miles +$522. This is largely due to the UK’s departure taxes.

There’s a work-around if you don’t mind flying home from Paris or Amsterdam.  By flying from Paris to New York via London, you can reduce the fees to $356, but you’ll pay 75,000 miles rather than 56,000.  I don’t think it’s worth paying an extra 19,000 miles in order to save $165:

Similarly, you can fly back from Amsterdam with even lower fees, but with even more miles: 84,500 miles + $299.  Again, I don’t think it’s worth paying that many more miles for these cash savings:

The best option for the return flight is to forget about flying Virgin Atlantic and to try to find flights on another carrier that doesn’t depart from London.  For example, if you can find Air France’s own business class seats available at saver level, you may pay less in both miles and taxes.  Here’s a flight that costs 57,500 miles plus $356 in fees:

You can often save even more by starting from another country and connecting through Paris.  Here are two examples that cost 55,000 miles and just under $300 in fees:

Other ways to save on return fees

If you really want to minimize the taxes and fees for returning to the U.S. from Europe, there are other options:

  • Book Premium Economy instead of Business class.  Premium Economy flights incur lower fees.  Most flights back from Europe to the U.S. are daytime flights and so you might find that lie-flat business class seats are less important to you.
  • Book a Star Alliance award using miles that don’t pass along surcharges.  For example, if you want to fly Lufthansa or Swiss airlines business class from Europe to the U.S., you can avoid paying surcharges by booking with miles from United Airlines MileagePlus, Air Canada Aeroplan, or Avianca LifeMiles.
  • Book an award on an airline that doesn’t impose fuel surcharges at all.  For example, if you’re lucky enough to find business class awards available on United or Air Canada from Europe to the U.S., you will have to pay airport fees, but no surcharges even if you book with a program that would otherwise pass along these fees (such as Turkish or ANA, for example).

Beyond Europe

Image courtesy of AwardMapper

It’s not just flights between the U.S. and London that have wide open award availability.  Flights to many other locations do too.  For example, there are plenty of awards available to South Africa, Israel, Hong Kong, and more.

One problem is that Air France’s website doesn’t do a good job of finding flights that connect in London from the U.S.  For example, I easily found a one-way business class flight on Virgin Atlantic’s website from New York to South Africa for 125,000 miles plus $847 (and the same number of miles plus about $675 in fees for the return), but I couldn’t find the same route on Air France’s website and so I don’t know how much they would charge for that flight.

Conclusion

Virgin Atlantic’s new pledge to release a minimum of 12 award seats on every flight has already led to unprecedented award availability on every route I inspected.  If you want to book an award, you can probably find one.  The trick to avoiding Virgin Atlantic’s insanely high award fees is to book through Air France’s website instead, and pay with Flying Blue miles (which can be transferred from any transferrable points program).  Air France still charges fees, and they can be high, but they’re far, far lower than what Virgin Atlantic charges.

Update: It appears that Virgin Atlantic is no longer releasing their extra award space to partners.  When I originally researched this, I found that Virgin Atlantic award space booked through Delta or Air France closely matched what I saw on Virgin Atlantic’s own website.  Now, unfortunately, very few of those seats appear to be available to partners.

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J J

Air France is now showing some VS flights a few weeks out with higher prices than previously. It would be great if you could look into this and update the post.

Mark

So can we talk about TPG blatantly ripping off yet another Frequent Miler article with no H/T given? This seems to happen with every new discovery now. Tim was ripped off twice in a week a few months back. Just shameless.

Mrredskin

Glad this was finally updated. They were just never there, aside from a very few days in a given month

J J

Agreed that VS flights are currently not showing on the AF website. I tried the MAN-ATL example Greg gave below, and others.

dfd

I’m on the AF website but I can only search for AF and KLM award flights. The Virgin Atlantic don’t show up?

Steve

Thanks for the post, I still found value in booking MCO-LHR award for the direct flight. Any points/miles/tier benefits from the fees? Should I credit the flight to Delta, Virgin, Air France?

huey judy

I was a big Virgin fan for years. But the surcharges on UC award tix are just disgusting. Very disappointed not to be flying my ‘favorite airline SFO-LHR’ in the foreseeable future.

A B

Off topic but related: I can’t figure out how to efficiently search the AF/Flying Blue website for award fares. After I do one search (one route only, one day only) the next search glitches out and I can only close the window, open a new one and log back in. Does anyone else have this problem, and/or know the solution?

GemGal

Yes, this happened to me as well. I tried different browsers, and found that using a Private Window in Firefox seemed to minimize this issue.

Biggie F

AF/FB glitches are uncountably infinite, so best not to devote too much time to engineering a particular solution to a particular problem. Just log-out, log-back-in, and keep trying. From time to time things work, for reasons that — like the errors in the first place — are irreproducible.

Brian

I tried looking up LAX to LHR on flying blue. Which probably wouldn’t be price competitive anyway. Saw a couple of economy seats but no business class near the end of the schedule. Not sure about this whole “wide open” availability being claimed

Lukas

I’m sure old-fashioned calling in would help or even new-fashioned Twitter.

huey judy

Guess you’re unaware that airlines no longer answer the phone.

mrredskin

same comment. zero virgin flights on flyingblue

Ian

This is awesome! However I just took a look and don’t see much Virgin Atlantic award space bookable via flying blue. Any trick to finding this?

Andy

I’m looking for a Virgin flight from MAN to ATL. None of the Virgin flight show up on the Air France website. Any workarounds?

Andy

Yes, searched for specific dates and only saw AF or KLM flight options. Saver space showing on VA website. Fees aren’t too bad for premium econ

Andy

Thanks. I’ll keep looking for my dates in Aug.

Andy

Ah, I see the issue. You are looking at business class space and I was looking for economy. In any case, thank you for checking and you guys keep up the great work! Can’t wait to see the results of your 3 card challenge!