Stick With United as a 1K or Switch to Virgin America as Elevate Gold?

Reader Elizabeth emailed me the following question yesterday:

I am a 1k flier on United. I’m thinking of leaving them for Virgin Atlantic, as I moved from California to the UK in 2011 and have grown increasingly unhappy with their service. I fly back to the US from LHR 6-8 times a year. I have Elevate Gold status with Virgin America, good through April 2013.

My question is this: how will the benefits from my Virgin America status apply when I fly Virgin Atlantic? I plan to mostly fly VAtlantic, not VAmerica, so I’m sure sure that status with VAmerica really does anything for me, and I know they have separate FF programs. I’m not sure how the two relate/compare. If I’m better off sticking with United, I’ll just do so, but I want to explore all my options.

It sounds like Elizabeth, like many of us with top-tier status on United (or American), went for the status match Virgin America recently announced. It provides an outright match to Gold (or Silver for lower elites) through April 2013. The benefits when flying Virgin America’s partners aren’t spectacular.

When flying Virgin Atlantic, Elevate Gold status provides:

  • Priority Check-In
  • Priority Security
  • Priority Boarding

On Virgin Australia, Gold elites get:

  • Priority Check-In
  • Priority Security
  • Priority Boarding
  • Priority Baggage Handling
  • Complimentary access to eight Virgin Australia lounges in Australia

It’s too bad lounge access is excluded when flying Virgin Atlantic. And when you’re used to earning bonus miles as a 1K on United when flying partners on higher fare classes (though earning Premier Qualifying Miles recently changed), that’s not the case when flying Virgin America’s partners.

Also, the earn rates (in points) on both Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia are a percentage of miles flown (all less than 100%, even in Business and Upper Class) since Virgin America is a revenue-based frequent flyer program. I believe it would take much longer to earn an award trip flying Virgin Atlantic and crediting to Virgin America than sticking with United with its generous mileage-based program and bonuses as a 1K.

While I agree with Elizabeth that United is far inferior in service to either Virgin Atlantic or Virgin Australia, I emailed back that I’d stick with United for the better treatment as an elite and faster ability to redeem miles for worthwhile awards. Also, United doesn’t add surcharges to international award trips as Virgin America does. A roundtrip economy class reward ticket from Los Angeles to London on Virgin Atlantic using Virgin America points carries $650 in taxes and fees, according to their website.

Would you have recommended the same to Elizabeth?


  1. I’d only have added that when flying United partners, it’s increasingly common that many of them are offering fares that only earn a percentage of the miles flown. I’d still pick United’s program over Virgin America’s but something to consider.

    I was recently burned by not paying attention to the fare class on some partner flights. Can you tell? Haha.

    • @modhop: Good point to add, thanks!
      @Peterson: Agreed the VX program makes little sense as a UK resident now. Before considering jumping ship to Virgin Atlantic’s program, though, she ought to ensure she’d get at least the same status/benefits and ability to redeem for rewards as she enjoys as a 1K now.
      @NB: Agreed her purchased fare class is of major importance. And yeah, AA is a possibility, but Elizabeth should be cautioned they (and BA) have the surcharges on awards, too. But I’m not so sure if she buys PE and above fares that she’d be mad to choose UA It can be more challenging to achieve status with Virgin and she might be able to earn/redeem more with UA or AA given they’re (for now) still mileage-based programs offering better return with premium cabin bonuses.
      @matt: Good point about AA’s SWUs.
      @Russell: Also a good point. That might take a few years to work out, though.
      @Amol: I love that NZ still flies LAX-LHR!

  2. Neither … just switch to the Virgin *Atlantic* program … it would be painful in year 1 but soon she’ll be back on track. If she flies Upper Class primarily, then it’s not hard for to qualify VS Silver or even VS Gold.

    Using the VX program makes little sense since she could barely utilize the benefits out of LHR.

  3. The response will depend on whether she predominantly flies in Economy, Premium Economy, Business or First. I also cross the Atlantic regularly with United as a 1K and have studied this endlessly. I only buy Economy tickets.

    For me I am sticking with United. I considered AA (principally flying BA) and I considered VS. I found both the VS and VA programs uncompetitive for the reasons above, particularly for Economy passengers.

    AA/BA is much more compelling. AA has the edge over BA, although BA is better to fly with. AA has very generous earning, has a better lounge program, has a far better upgrade program than UA, and it works seamlessly whether flying AA or BA (except for the upgrades).

    However, AA does not have Economy Plus (except in one airplane(!!), and that’s the deal-breaker for me. What’s more, they are moving to 10 across in their new 777s vs 9 across which will be even worse than UA’s new 787s. BA’s mileage program is much less generous than AA’s for lower fare classes, but comes into its own if you buy more expensive fares.

    To some extent I’m sticking with UA as better the devil I know, and I’m close to million mile status. But essentially, for an economy traveller, avoid Virgin and go with UA or, possibly, AA.

    If you are travelling in Premium Economy or above, then the equation changes and you would be mad to choose UA or AA (obviously they don’t offer PE, but their business class offerings (esp AA’s) are quite inferior to those of BA or Virgin.

  4. VX is just a throwaway status not worth considering. If you jump ship, jump to a different FF program as well.

    If the VX status is what’s making you consider VS, then forget it. If you’re interested in the airline and its routes, then consider it, but the award structure will be quite different than you are used to.

    AA could be an option, flying AA or BA, especially if you continue to get to 100k flown miles per year. With AA SWUs valid on any fare, there’s a nice opportunity to fly more up front without added cost.

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