Booking Virgin America to Hawaii: the bad, the good, and one weird old trick

While Virgin America doesn't have very many flights from where I live, I was still intrigued by the new, as of January 9, 2017, ability to book Virgin America flights using Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles, since I still have a slew of them left over from the days of the Bank of America Alaska Airlines debit card and Alaska's generous status match.

I don't need any help getting around the continental United States, but Virgin America flies to Hawaii and Mexico, so I decided to see what their award availability looked like.

As regular readers might expect, I took a brute force approach: for every date between January 10 and February 10, and between November 7 and December 7, 2017, I checked to see if there was at least one first class seat available from San Francisco to Honolulu and from San Francisco to Maui. I didn't check return flights.

In other words, I'm not trying to plan a trip, but just trying to get a sense of what kind of award space might be available for future reference.

Searching Alaska is the worst

Since Virgin America Elevate redemptions are revenue-based, it's not possible to search Virgin America's website for low-level award availability — you have to use Alaska's website instead.

The problem with this is two-fold. First, Alaska's award calendar doesn't allow you to filter by the number of stops you're willing to make, so the award calendar will show you the lowest award rate available across every possible itinerary.

That wouldn't be so bad except, additionally, Alaska doesn't allow you to filter by the cabin of service available for the entire trip. That means most dates will have at least one seat's worth of "low-level" first class award availability, since a combination of a short first class hop and long main cabin flight will price as a "low-level" award and appear on the award calendar.

To illustrate this, here's the November, 2017, calendar for first class flights between San Francisco and Honolulu:

And here's the actual 40,000-mile first class itinerary that Alaska returns:

The results

With that out of the way, let's see the results.

Here are the results of my search for a single first class award seat on the non-stop Virgin America flight between San Francisco and Honolulu:

  • November 7-December 7, 2017: 1 date (December 7)
  • January 10-February 10, 2017: 15 dates

And here are the results of my search for a single first class award seat between San Francisco and Maui:

  • November 7-December 7, 2017: 1 date (December 7)
  • January 10-February 10, 2017: 16 dates

I don't know anything about the flow of tourists between the Bay Area and Hawaii, so maybe late November is the high season and late January is the low season. Alternatively, Virgin America might open up a lot of first class award seats within 30 days of departure, which would be good to know if you have a flexible travel schedule.

One weird old trick to book Virgin America first class award seats

You may have noticed above I indicated the specific date, December 7, on which I was able to find a first class award seat to Hawaii. That date is significant because it's outside the Alaska calendar booking window (as of this writing; when you read this December 8 will serve the same function):

Once you view flights available on December 6, however, the engine is suddenly able to show flights on the December 7 as well:

I found this interesting enough that I searched for a number of other international destinations from San Francisco, and was able to find a first class award seat on every route I searched.

My tentative hypothesis is that people watching for the booking calendar to open up in order to book awards may not realize this extra day is available.

My alternate hypothesis is that Thursday, December 7, is some kind of holy day on which residents of the Bay Area are forbidden to travel, thus opening up more award seats than are otherwise available.


So, what have we learned?

  • First class award availability on Virgin America between the West Coast and Hawaii is fairly easy to find either in late January, or within 30 days of departure.
  • First class award availability between the West Coast and Hawaii and Mexico is fairly easy to find either one day after the Alaska "search" calendar ends, or on Thursday, December 7, 2017.