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My favorite aspect of the American Express Membership Rewards program is hands down the transfer bonuses that pop up from time to time to their various hotel and airline partners. I have been able to get significantly more value for my Membership Reward points by transferring my points during transfer bonuses. They are a bit random, so you never know if/when one will return, but when they are available it makes sense to at least consider if the transfer bonus will work for your travel plans.
Currently, there is a 40% transfer bonus to Virgin America that runs through January 31st. This brings the transfer ratio from 200 Membership Reward points: 100 Virgin America points to 200 Membership Reward points: 140 Virgin America points. As you may already know, you can transfer Membership Reward points from cards such as the American Express(R) Premier Rewards Gold Card or Mercedes Benz Platinum card to many hotel and airline partners, including Virgin America.
If you aren’t familiar with the Virgin America program, the points are worth a “fixed amount” that seemed to hover around 2.3 cents per point on the “Main Cabin” domestic searches I did today. The number of points required on the route is tied to how many dollars the route is selling for. This is similar to the Southwest model, only I did see some “blackout” dates with Virgin America. This means that with the 40% transfer bonus, you should be getting about 1.6 cents per Membership Reward points on your Virgin America bookings. That is not a great return for a Membership Reward point, but it isn’t terrible.
To put this into a real example, I searched for a round trip Virgin America flight from Austin to San Francisco for the weekend of February 21 – February 23. The selling price of the flight was $218, which I think is a pretty good deal. As you can see below, the number of points required for the flight was 9,116 + $5.00 in taxes. Adjusting for the taxes, that is about 2.33 cents of value per Virgin America Elevate point.
If you wanted to transfer Membership Reward points to book this award flight, you would need to transfer 13,200 Membership Reward points to cover the number of points needed (it rounds to 9,240). This means that you are getting 1.65 cents in value per Membership Reward point. Also remember that since this is a US based frequent flyer program, you need to pay taxes/fees ($11.40 in this case) when you transfer from Membership Rewards, up to a max of $99 per transfer.
Good for Intra-Island Flights on Hawaiian Airlines:
There is one other use of Virgin America points that might be of interest to Hawaii lovers, like myself. You can fly between the Hawaiian islands for 3,000 points one-way, or 6,000 round trip on Hawaiian Airlines. These same flights cost 5,000 miles each way on many programs, like United (though going to 6,000 on February 1). With the 40% transfer bonus, you would need to transfer 4,400 Membership Reward points to pay for a 3,000 point one-way flight on Hawaiian Airlines. You do have to book this over the phone with Virgin America at 1.877.FLY.VIRGIN (877.359.8474).
It isn’t a tremendously better deal than other ways to get between the islands, but it may be the best deal out there currently by a slight margin (other than the pain of having to call to book). I assume that Virgin would have access to the same Hawaiian Airlines award availability that other partners like United have, but I have not tested that theory myself. Note that you are not limited to island hoppers, but you can also book the longer haul flights operated by Hawaiian using Virgin America Elevate points…obviously for more than just 3,000 points.
All in all this is definitely not one of those times where you are clearly going to come out ahead by taking advantage of the transfer bonus, but there may be some situations where this is the best option by a small margin. Remember to also consider that you won’t be earning miles when you are redeeming points in this manner, so that may tip the scale toward either buying a ticket either with cash or using points that essentially work as cash toward travel. Whether this transfer bonus makes sense for your family or not, it is still good to be informed on how it works and file the info away in the back of your head in case you need it in the future.
It is also worth a mention that Virgin America credit cards have been re-launched recently through Comenity Capital Bank, so if you want some Elevate points without transferring from Membership Rewards, that is an option. Million Mile Secrets has a post outlining the details of those offers.
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