It’s been a while since my last post, sorry about the delay. I’ve been busy with work travel and holiday travel, but I’m eager to share one of my favorite flying strategies today. As some of you know, I’m an Alaska MVP Gold 75K member, which is Alaska’s top status. After the Virgin America (VX) acquisition, Alaska has slowly added benefits for elite members flying VX, specifically:
Most of these benefits are standard, but Virgin America has an “Economy Plus”/”Premium Economy” like product that they call Main Cabin Select. It offers a little extra legroom and complimentary food and drinks from their inflight menu. The RED entertainment system lets you order food from your seat back entertainment screen and a flight attendant will bring food/drinks to you! It’s a pretty awesome product but they do price it at a premium. It’s usually a few hundred dollars more than an economy seat in each direction. I like the description that Main Cabin Select is like paying for a First class experience in an Economy seat.
Let’s talk about upgrades on the airlines today. Currently on UA/DL/AA/AS, you are eligible for a complimentary upgrade after you book the ticket, and the system will upgrade you at various times and you can also apply upgrade instruments to increase your priority. With the advent of modern First Class Monetization (FCM), it has become increasingly difficult to score free upgrades, and on busy routes like LAX-NYC or hub-hub routes like SFO-IAH, there are regularly 50+ elite members in line for a complimentary upgrade even though most of the seats get sold. Long story short – it is very difficult to get a complimentary upgrade even if you’re a top tier elite. Alaska is much better with upgrades than the others.
Virgin America does upgrades differently. First off, you can always call and “upgrade” by paying the fare difference and applicable fees. But that’s going to be hundreds to thousands of dollars depending on route, so there’s no deal there. Below we’ll look into the model for complimentary upgrades and upgrades within 24 hours of flight time.
This is the current model for VX:
For complimentary upgrades to Main Cabin Select (MCS):
- VX Gold and AS MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75K members can get upgraded starting 24 hours before flight departure time.
- VX Silver and AS MVP members can get upgraded starting 12 hours before flight time.
For people with no status, you can pay for an upgrade to MCS starting 24 hours before flight departure time.
For paid upgrades to First Class:
- VX Gold and AS MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75K members can pay to get upgraded starting 24 hours before flight departure time (from either MCS or Economy)
- VX Silver and AS MVP members can pay to get upgraded starting 12 hours before flight time (from either MCS or Economy)
Everyone else can pay for an upgrade to First starting six hours before flight time. There are no complimentary upgrades to First Class regardless of status. As mentioned above, AS said they will be introducing complimentary first class upgrades in mid 2018, but I expect that to be delayed given that all their other benefits have been slow to roll out.
Here is the fee structure for Virgin America upgrades:
The upgrade costs are capped and determined based on route as opposed to market pricing, so you already have some good arbitrage deals. But here’s a very, very simple trick for great upgrades:
- Book an economy ticket on your route (SFO-EWR for example).
- 24 hours before the flight, call 1.877.FLY.VIRGIN (877.359.8474) and ask for a complimentary upgrade to MCS.
- They’ll process you and put you in a seat. Then tell the agent you want to pay to upgrade to First Class. Pay the relevant fee, and you’re in First Class!
This has literally saved me thousands of dollars this year. I am often flying transcontinental, and here’s an example of fares from VX:
Premium Economy $500-600 (but Delta’s Comfort+ is a joke compared to VX MCS)
And for business class, you’re seeing rates $1300+ with VX clocking in at ~$1700
There’s no doubt that JetBlue, American, Delta, and United all have better business class products than Virgin America because they all offer lie-flat seats on this route. So you’d never want to buy VX upfront if the other options are available. But your chances of buying economy and getting upgraded into a lie-flat seat is pretty much zero without an upgrade instrument. On the other hand, if you avoid peak business travel times (Sunday evening, Friday evening), you can generally book a VX fare for ~$250, and call to get the complimentary MCS + get a First Class upgrade for $240 each way, so you’re getting a First Class round-trip for $250 + 2 x $240 = $730. So you’re saving $1,000 over buying F outright! And the upgrade fee is lower on shorter routes, for example Los Angeles to Austin is $199, and it drops as distance drops.
I think your “real” savings are closer to ~$600 because the best product is being sold for $1,300 with JetBlue, but that varies a lot based on time of booking. I’m often booking close to travel time so these $1300 fares are closer to $2000 and definitely not an option for me. VX doesn’t have lie-flat seats but they have a solid recliner product, great service, fantastic food, and I’ve had great sleep in these seats on red eyes. And VX F seats are better than every airline’s F seats except for the premium markets (SFO/LAX – NYC/BOS).
All this will change in 2018 whenever Alaska introduces complimentary upgrades – I suspect a great arbitrage opportunity for top-tier elites on VX/AS to get upgraded for free. But since VX doesn’t do complimentary upgrades to First, there’s always some seat available, and you can also change flights around with waived fees to get on a flight that has an open seat and then upgrade into it.
Hope some of you can take advantage of VX’s upgrade model to score some reasonably priced upgrades. These planes will be going away in the next few years so it’s definitely worth flying Virgin America once before they shift into being Alaska planes, with still good service but a weaker F seat and decor.