Travelling is definitely a money vice for me. And while I’ve done my fair share of budget backpacking, now I’m a bit older with no real responsibilities, any opportunity to travel in style (cheaply of course) is welcome. So when I accumulated a few Virgin reward miles from a flight, I was keen to max them out as best I could.
Flying Club is Virgin Atlantic’s reward scheme – each time you fly with Virgin, you earn miles. You can also can earn when you spend at Hilton, Hertz, French Connection and Hotels.com, among others. These miles can then be redeemed on flights, upgrades and other rewards such as hotel stays or experiences.
It isn’t the most generous loyalty scheme around, but if, like me, you have miles that need using up, here are my tips on maxing your stash. Using the following process, I got an upper class flight (c.Â£3,300) for the cost of a premium economy one (Â£1,500).
Though it’s worth remembering loyalty schemes are designed to drive just that – loyalty – and loyalty doesn’t always pay.
Step 1: Boost your points stash
I knew I was planning a big trip to the Far East, so I wanted to use my points for this and if possible, upgrade my long, cooped-up flight to Hong Kong. But I didn’t have enough points to upgrade. So first, I did what I could to boost my points. It’s relatively easy to collect more in a few months, here’s how to do it:
Convert Tesco Clubcard points to miles – get a 30% boost if you time it right. If you’re a Tesco shopper you can convert Tesco Clubcard points to Virgin miles. The return is decent as you get 625 miles for every Â£2.50 of vouchers you swap.
However, a few times a year Tesco offers a deal where you get 813 miles for Â£2.50 of vouchers. Plus, opt in to automatically convert Tesco points to miles and you’ll get a one-off bonus of 2,500 miles. 1,000 miles costs Â£30 to buy directly from Virgin, so this is a good option.
To really up the gain quickly, look out for bonus Tesco points offers if you want to boost your stash. You can often get an extra 1,000 points with grocery or wine orders (see our Tesco codes page for the latest deals).
Get extra miles when you book a flight. When you book a flight and pay in cash (not miles), Virgin lets you buy extra miles at a discounted price. You can either buy the miles you’ve flown for a set price or double the miles you’ve flown for double the price. For example, fly to New York and you can get 6,916 miles for Â£69.16 or 13,832 for Â£138. See the Virgin’s Miles Booster page for more on this.
Collect points on everyday buys. Virgin’s Shops Away is an e-store that works like a cashback site. You simply sign into your Flying Club account and click through it to buy something. The retailer pays for sending traffic through to its site and Virgin gives some of this back to you in miles. It’s a good way to collect miles on things you’d buy anyway.
However going via a traditional cashback site can often beat Shops Away, and don’t ever spend needlessly just to earn points. Miles can take 45 days to be added to your account, so this isn’t a quick option.
Earn cashback shopping, convert to Tesco points, then to miles. This is a brilliant loophole to up the gain on miles (thank you MSE Jenny for this one). Cashback site Topcashback gives you 5% extra if you convert what you earn to Tesco points. So do this, then convert these to Virgin miles and you’ll be quids in. For a full lowdown on how cashback sites work, see the Best Cashback Sites guide.
Buy miles with cash. Virgin lets you buy miles, which is useful if you’re a little short. Miles don’t come cheap though, so this is best left for when you really need the points and don’t have time to earn them. The minimum number of miles you can buy is 1,000 and they’ll set you back Â£30. But they get cheaper the more you buy, for example 10,000 will cost Â£165. However compared to earning via Tesco, this is still steep.
At certain times of the year, Virgin offers bonus miles, for example, 25% extra for the same cost. But if you’ve got the time to wait for one of these sales, you’re better off trying to earn miles another way.
Try a Virgin credit card. A couple of credit cards give big intro points offers. You’ll need a decent credit score to get one and remember to ALWAYS set up a direct debit to pay it off in full, otherwise you’ll pay interest and cancel out any gain.
The Virgin Atlantic White card is currently giving 10,000 miles if you open a card, or the Amex Gold charge card (which isn’t a credit card) is giving 20,000 if you spend Â£2,000 in the first three months. See the Airline Credit Cards guide for full details.
Extend points that are about to expire. Points expire three years after no activity on your account. So to keep them active, simply add to your bank of miles. This is easily done by collecting even one mile via the Shop Away store or converting Tesco points.
Watch out for Virgin’s special offers. Virgin Flying Club sometimes emails special deals which will help boost points. For example, just before Christmas I was offered a case of wine for Â£60 plus 3,000 miles. Again, don’t buy just for the points, make sure it’s a good deal in its own right. This was a good deal, as the case alone was a bargain for Â£60.
Step 2: Do the number crunching
Upgrades are often the best value for your points, in particular upgrades to upper class. But the key is to really do your homework and calculate all the different options to see what works for you. When doing this, bear in mind you’ll have to pay taxes and charges.
Also, if you want to upgrade, you need to make sure your ticket is the right class – more on this below.
Here’s what I found for a return trip to Hong Kong departing the UK on 14 August and returning on 27 August.
|Cheapest Virgin||Upgrade to Upper Class using Virgin miles||Buy outright with Virgin miles||Virgin miles plus money|
|Economy||Â£764||Â£764||Â£765.05 + 60,000 miles plus taxes and charges||Dates not available but c. 50,000 miles plus Â£371 taxes & charges||Â£688.05 plus 2,000 miles|
|Premium Economy||Â£1,100||Â£1,308||Â£1,337.05 + 30,000 miles + taxes & charges (c. Â£160)||Dates not available but c. 80,000 miles plus Â£532.05 taxes & charges||Â£1,705 plus 7,500 miles|
|Upper Class/Business||Â£3,062||Â£3,166||-||120,000 + Â£615.05 incl taxes & charges||Â£3,012.05 plus 15,000 miles|
Step 3: Tips for booking your flight
Booking flights through Virgin’s reward scheme is a little fiddly, as you first need to buy a ticket which is ungradeable (not all are), and at the same time check if there are reward seats for that flight so you can upgrade with miles.
You can ring the Flying Club helpline and they will usually, very helpfully, run through all the options with you and look for dates. However I prefer to plan dates myself in advance. Either way, ultimately you’ll need to upgrade over the phone.
It’s best to book and upgrade at the same time, in case rewards seats get sold and you’re stuck with a pricier ticket you don’t really want.
Get the right class of tickets. Virgin only allows you to upgrade on certain classes of seat. You can upgrade if you buy a full adult fare in the following booking classes: W, S, Y, B, R, L, U and M. Unfortunately most flight comparison sites don’t tell you what class you’re buying, although most don’t sell the flexible fares you need anyway. Use the Virgin flight tool to check availability and prices for the basic flight in the right class.
Check availability for reward upgrades. Once you have the price of the basic flight you want, you need to see if there are any reward seats on that flight. Usually you only get a handful per flight. Use Virgin’s reward flight checker and pick ‘miles’ for the payment option. This will show whether upgrades for miles are available or not.
Be flexible with dates. As Virgin only releases a few rewards seats per flight, popular routes get snapped up quickly. So all the usual factors apply here, popular routes are harder to book, and there’s less availability for peak times such as school holidays and Christmas. More reward seats can be released, but if you’re dead set on a certain time and destination, you’ll need to check availability often, some even check on a daily basis!
Try alternative routes. Try booking an alternative route if the one you want isn’t available. For example, try Los Angeles if you want to go to San Francisco, Miami instead of Orlando; JFK instead of Newark, or Johannesburg instead of Cape Town.
Watch out for sales. From time to time Virgin will run a sale and offer flights for a reduced number of miles. This usually only covers Economy flights, but it’s worth checking out.
If the reward seats you want are unavailable you could try booking the upgradeable ticket and upgrading nearer the time. Virgin does release more reward seats depending on how well the flight is selling, but there’s a risk you might not get what you want.
Flights, and in particular upgrades, usually give the best return on miles, but if you don’t have enough points and aren’t interested in collecting more, you can also redeem on hotel stays and experiences which don’t need as many miles.
What do you think? Do you have any tips on maxing air mile schemes? Please let us know your opinions in the discussion below or in theÂ forum.