I’ll start by saying this: International business class is almost never cheap. Please don’t equate “for less” with “cheap.”
One of the best uses of frequent flyer miles is international travel, particularly in premium classes of service. Airlines have made changes to their redemption policies that have made it more expensive, sometimes prohibitively so, to use miles for the good stuff. 450,000 miles for a single ticket? No thanks.
But there’s a “next-best” option: Combining miles and points on particular routes to recreate a business class ticket. The case that I’m going to present today has a few requirements to it, but it’ll get you sitting pretty across the Atlantic in Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class.
Using The Delta/Virgin Atlantic Partnership to Fly in Upper Class
Delta owns 49% of Virgin Atlantic, which may not mean a lot to you personally, but does establish a handy partnership between the two, including reciprocal earning and burning of miles. In particular, there’s a cheap upgrade across the Atlantic by combining a Virgin America Premium Economy* ticket and Delta miles to get yourself into Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class. Here’s what you need to do:
- Check for availability: If you want to buy your ticket right away, make sure that there’s a seat waiting for you in Virgin’s Upper Class. You could always call either airline to see if there is upgrade availability, but who wants to wait on the phone if you don’t need to? Go to Virgin Atlantic’s website and input your dates on the first page as if you are buying the ticket outright. On the next page, it will show prices for your flight. Look at the top of the screen. See where you can toggle between money and miles? Toggle over to miles. If there is availability to buy the flight with miles in Upper Class, there should also be availability to upgrade with miles. According to Delta, you can’t waitlist for a Virgin upgrade with Delta miles, so keep checking for availability if it isn’t there.
- Then, buy a Premium Economy ticket on a Virgin Atlantic flight on Delta’s website: Go to Delta’s site and book your ticket. Technically, you could also do it through Virgin’s site on a Delta code, but it’s easier just to go to Delta. For example, I booked a ticket from JFK to London Heathrow in Premium Economy for $1,235, or about $400 more than regular Economy.
- How do I know that it’s operated by Virgin, not Delta? Simple: Look for the little “tag” like the one below on the booking screen (It’s not shown above; the above screen is from final the payment):
The four-digit flight number also gives it away. A Delta flight alone will have a shorter number.
- Beginner’s Hint: Make sure that the flight you book is in Premium Select, which is the Virgin Atlantic product, not Comfort +. It’s certainly not a bad product, either, if you want to fly it. 2-3-2 seating (two seats together at each of the windows, three in the middle), 38″ of pitch (the distance from seat back to seat back) and 21″ width. It’s similar to domestic US first class. You may also be offered Delta’s Comfort +, which is an inferior product on Delta metal and costs more to upgrade. It comes with 35″ of pitch and 18″ of width. You’ll see the difference in the header:
- Call Delta and upgrade: Here’s where it gets good. Upgrading from Premium Economy to Upper Class is only 25,000 miles one way (up recently from 20,000). There are no big surcharges involved, since the Air Passenger Duty out of the UK is built into the price of the Premium Economy fare. That’s it. A lousy 25,000 miles to upgrade one way across the Atlantic. The Delta representative should be able to upgrade you right away if the seat is available. Note that some representatives do have trouble with the procedure and may tell you it’s not allowed. If that happens, use your HUCA** strategy.
- Does this strategy save you money? Absolutely. Let’s say that, instead of upgrading, you wanted to buy the ticket outright. Hey, that works if somebody else is paying for it. After booking the Premium Economy ticket, you’ll have one final option to pay to upgrade it:
Yup, that’s right, over $4,000 for the round-trip upgrade. Sure, you’d get the extra miles for the premium class of service, but you’d be a lot poorer for the exercise. You, on the other hand, are only spending 50,000 miles total in combination with your Premium Economy ticket to move up. Even if we assessed the miles at a very generous value of two cents per mile, your cost is about $1,000. Heck, if you don’t have any miles, you can even buy 50,000 miles from Delta at the exorbitant cost of just under $1,900, still saving you half of the upgrade cost.
Bottom Line: It’s easy. First, verify with Virgin Atlantic that there is Upper Class award availability on the flight that you want. Remember, it has to be one that is marketed by Delta (Look on their website.) but actually takes place on Virgin Atlantic metal.
Buy a Premium Economy (aka Premium Select) ticket and call Delta to use miles to upgrade. If there isn’t availability, you can certainly buy the tickets and expect a good experience, but you will have to keep checking back to see if the upgrade does open up.
And finally, enjoy the experience. I don’t think that Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class across the Atlantic is as good as Delta’s, but it certainly beats sitting in back.
And if you’ve made it this far, you deserve to see the product that should win the internet. It has nothing to do with miles, but how cool is this?
*Premium Economy is Virgin Atlantic’s product in between Economy and Upper Class. It’s actually pretty good.
**Hang Up, Call Again. Get a better representative.
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