American Express Membership Rewards transfers to Virgin Atlantic will come with an automatic 30% transfer bonus from now through November 30, 2013. This transfer bonus allows you to fly:

  • One way from the US to London for only 14k Membership Rewards and $97.
  • Roundtrip from the US to London for 31k Membership Rewards + $191.
  • Roundtrip from the US to Buenos Aires (or anywhere else in South America) for 35k Membership Rewards and $77.
  • Tons of other great routes for low mileage, taxes, and fees.

Virgin Atlantic is a London-based longhaul carrier best known for its Upper Class cabins and Clubhouse lounges. (Do not confuse it with Virgin America or Virgin Australia, which are all independent airlines.) It is not part of any alliance, so its dozen airline partners span the globe and all the alliances.

Should you transfer Membership Rewards to Virgin Atlantic? What are the key features of Flying Club? How can you get to Europe for 14k Membership Rewards and to South America roundtrip for 35k Membership Rewards? How can you get Membership Rewards?

Until November 30, 2013, you can transfer increments of 1,000 AMEX points to 1,300 Virgin Atlantic miles automatically at membershiprewards.com.

There are four main reasons you would want Virgin Atlantic miles.

1. Among the Cheapest Economy Awards to Europe (in Miles)

The first reason to get Virgin Atlantic miles is that economy class awards to Europe require far fewer miles than competitors’ charge. From Boston, New York, Washington, and Chicago, you only need 17,500 Virgin Atlantic miles (14k Membership Rewards) for a one way flight to the UK.

And taxes and fees on the one way from the US to Europe are only $98!

Combine a one way from the eastern US to Europe for 14k Membership Rewards plus $98 and return from a low tax country to the US on a one way award with United or American miles for a very cheap European vacation.

I wrote more about searching Virgin Atlantic award space, the fuel surcharges you’ll see, and booking the space in Huge Deal: 13k Miles to Europe This Summer.

2. Incredible Value Partner Awards

Virgin Atlantic has several airline partners.

Each has its own award chart, and the values can be good, especially with this transfer bonus. Best of all, on many partners, Virgin Atlantic doesn’t collect any fuel surcharges!

I just called Flying Club at (800) 365-9500 and priced out several awards.

The call was fairly smooth although the agent told me that Atlanta to Buenos Aires on Delta wasn’t bookable with Virgin Atlantic miles. When I pressed him to double check, he came back with the news that it indeed is bookable. As always, you may know more than the phone agents, so be polite but firm.

Award prices including unavoidable government taxes (none include fuel surcharges):

  • Atlanta to Buenos Aires in roundtrip economy on Delta: 45k miles (35k MR) + $77.32
  • New York to London in roundtrip economy on Delta: 40k miles (31k MR) + $190.60
  • Atlanta to Los Angeles in roundtrip economy on Delta: 25k miles (20k MR) + $5
  • New York to Paris in roundtrip economy on Delta: 60k miles (47k MR) + $90.66
  • New York to Honolulu in roundtrip First on Hawaiian: 130k miles (100k MR) + $5
  • New York to LAX in roundtrip Main Cabin Select on Virgin America: 50k miles (39k MR) + $5 from Tuesday to Sunday over Thanksgiving

I learned a few key things about partner awards from the call:

  • Delta awards have no fuel surcharges, just the same government taxes as booking with Delta miles.
  • The Delta award chart is way underpriced to Southern South America. Buenos Aires for 35k Membership Rewards roundtrip is a steal.
  • There are no fuel surcharges on Hawaiian Airlines award flights.
  • The Hawaiian award chart says economy roundtrips are “from 40,000 miles” and first is “from 80,000 miles.” Those prices only refer to roundtrips from the western US. The roundtrip price to/from JFK is quite a bit higher.
  • There are no fuel surcharges on Virgin America award flights.
  • Not all Virgin America flights have award space that Virgin Atlantic has access to. There’s no way to check without calling Virgin Atlantic that I know of. Before calling, I didn’t know what to expect with respect to Virgin America space since Virgin America’s program is revenue-based and doesn’t include a concept of “award space.”
  • The Virgin Atlantic/US Airways partnership is dead, so you can’t use Flying Club miles to fly US Airways.

3. Virgin Atlantic Upper Class

Virgin Atlantic’s Business Class–called Upper Class–is one of the best in the world with many folks comparing it to First Class. I am anxious to fly it.

Virgin Atlantic offers its Flying Club members the best award availability, but the catch is the fuel surcharges (plus departing London taxes) of around $1,000 per roundtrip award in Upper Class.

While the out-of-pocket is a big drawback, the miles prices are very low. New York and Chicago to London are only 80k miles (62k Membership Rewards) roundtrip in Upper Class and Los Angeles and San Francisco to London roundtrip in Upper Class are only 100k miles (77k Membership Rewards).

Roundtrip Miles Prices to UK with Flying Club Miles listed Economy, Premium Economy, Upper Class from left to right

If you want to avoid fuel surcharges, Delta miles can be used to book Virgin Atlantic Upper Class for 100k to 125k miles plus taxes and no fuel surcharges. But Delta SkyMiles members don’t have access to the same award availability as Virgin Atlantic Flying Club members.

4. Transfers to Hilton Points

Virgin Atlantic miles transfer to Hilton points at a 1 mile to 2 points rate. I’ve described transferring my own Virgin Atlantic miles to Hilton points in Transferring Virgin Atlantic Miles to Hilton HHonors Points.

But my transfer happened when Hilton points were worth quite a bit more before their recent devaluation.

During this transfer bonus, you can get up to 2.6 Hilton points per Membership Reward, but I still think that’s a bad trade. I value Membership Rewards around 2 cents, and I value Hilton points around 0.4 cents, which makes 2.6 Hilton points worth about 1 cent.

5. Other uses?

Did I miss any great uses of Virgin Atlantic miles? These small foreign programs get so few expert eyeballs on them, so I know that many have hidden gems. Hopefully I’ve exposed some with the partner flights in this post. If you know of others, share them in the comments please.

Getting the Miles

Membership Rewards and Ultimate Rewards both transfer 1:1 to Virgin Atlantic miles. Ultimate Rewards have never had a transfer bonus, and I like to use my Ultimate Rewards with United miles, so I strongly favor transferring Membership Rewards to Virgin Atlantic miles if you want Virgin Atlantic miles.

Membership Rewards are earned by all Platinum and Gold cards including:

Recap

The 30% transfer bonus from Membership Rewards to Virgin Atlantic has some highly valuable uses including cheap one ways to Europe on Virgin Atlantic, access to better award space in Upper Class with low mileage outlays, and partner awards at very low mileage prices with no fuel surcharges. You can also transfer the points to Hilton, but I generally don’t recommend that.

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