Quick hits: hijinks booking Mileage Plan awards on Virgin America

In the last few months I've written a couple posts about booking award travel on Virgin America, with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles and with HawaiianMiles, mentioning a few things I had come across doing everyday research.

Lo and behold, I actually just had occasion to book a Virgin America ticket with Mileage Plan, and found a quirk that might cost you thousands of Mileage Plan miles if you aren't paying attention.

Virgin America sometimes only makes one First Class award seat available to Mileage Plan at a time

I was searching for two tickets between the East Coast and San Francisco for June, and saw two First Class seats available for 60,000 Mileage Plan miles on Virgin America's nonstop flight:

After running the dates by my partner, I decided to just book one ticket for myself and book hers later. After running a search for one passenger, I found a First Class ticket available for just 25,000 miles:

While selecting my seat, I noticed that the First Class cabin was completely empty. After booking my ticket, I decided that booking a refundable 60,000-mile ticket for my partner made sense to make sure we were on the same flight. But when I searched again, another First Class ticket had become available at the 25,000-mile level!

Then I remembered that all Alaska Airlines tickets are refundable greater than 60 days before departure, so I went ahead and booked her a low-level ticket as well.

Out of curiosity, I searched again and yet another 25,000-mile ticket had become available. In other words, Alaska Airlines was only showing one low-level First Class award seat at time, but immediately made an additional seat available each time one was booked.

This doesn't seem to be a universal phenomenon, since I was able to find 7 First Class seats simultaneously on the same route on January 18, 2018, but it does seem fairly common for dates in June, when I'm planning my trip.

Since Alaska award tickets are refundable within 24 hours of booking, and outside of 60 days, there's no risk booking low-level award tickets one at a time to see if additional seats become available. If they don't, and you'd like to make different plans, you can quickly cancel all the reservations you were able to make.

The Mileage Plan search engine shows incorrect fees on Virgin America

For some reason the Mileage Plan search engine shows fees and charges of $19, but once you select a flight and continue the correct fees and charges, in this case $5.60, are shown.

My only theory is that the engine might be adding half the $25 partner booking fee, $12.50, to the security fee of $5.60, and rounding up to $19.

In any case, when you proceed to checkout you'll see the correct, lower fee before paying.

What are HawaiianMiles worth?

Hawaiian Airlines is a traditional US carrier that flies between the Hawaiian islands and between Hawaii and the Western United States as well as New York's JFK airport, and from Hawaii to Australia, New Zealand, American Samoa, Tahiti, Japan, Korea and China.

They have a co-branded credit card with an $89 annual fee and 35,000-mile signup bonus. The card doesn't have much value unless you fly a lot on Hawaiian metal, but if that's the case you get access to discounted flight awards and no blackout dates for award tickets. The card also gives 5,000 bonus miles each anniversary if you spend $10,000 on the card, but the card doesn't earn bonus points in any interesting categories of spend so that's unlikely to be the best place to direct your unbonused spend.

All of this raises the obvious question, "why are we talking about HawaiianMiles?" Good question! The reason we're talking about HawaiianMiles is, first, that they are historically very easy to earn. Long after Amazon.com, for example, was removed from airline and hotel shopping portals it remained on the HawaiianMiles marketplace, allowing you to earn HawaiianMiles for all your Amazon.com purchases. For heavy users of Amazon.com, that might mean tens of thousands of HawaiianMiles per year.

The second reason to look at HawaiianMiles is their travel partners. While you might not be interested in flying on Hawaiian metal between North America and Hawaii or the Pacific rim, you might be more interested in flying on their partner airlines. Since they have a fairly eclectic mix of revenue-based, distance-based, and zone-based travel partners, I had the idea of comparing HawaiianMiles redemptions on each partner with redemptions of that partner's own rewards currency.

Let's take a look!

All Nippon Airways

ANA is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, so their points are relatively easy to earn for folks with American Express cards that earn flexible Membership Rewards points.

Unfortunately, HawaiianMiles can't be redeemed for ANA flights between North America and Japan. Instead, there are two kinds of awards you can book: roundtrips between Hawaii and Haneda, in economy or business class; and roundtrips between Haneda and domestic Japanese destinations, in economy only.

There's no other way to say it: ANA's award chart for flights on their own metal is nuts. Here's Scott Mackenzie doing his best to explain it. However, we're just focused on the conversion rate between HawaiianMiles and ANA Mileage Club miles, which isn't too hard.

  • Roundtrip domestic ANA flights up to 600 miles cost between 10,000 and 15,000 ANA miles depending on season, and 18,000 HawaiianMiles year-round, for a conversion rate of between 1.2 and 1.8 HawaiianMiles per ANA Mileage Club mile;
  • Roundtrip domestic ANA flights over 600 miles cost between 12,000 and 23,000 ANA miles depending on distance and season. However, there are no eligible cities farther than 2,000 miles from Haneda airport so the equivalent ANA chart actually tops out at 21,000 ANA miles during high season. These flights cost 22,500 HawaiianMiles year-round, for a conversion rate of between 1.07 and 1.88 HawaiianMiles per ANA Mileage Club mile.
  • Roundtrip ANA flights between Haneda and Hawaii cost between 35,000 and 43,000 ANA miles in economy, depending on season, and 90,000 HawaiianMiles, for a conversion rate between 2.09 and 2.57 HawaiianMiles per ANA Mileage Club mile.
  • Roundtrip ANA flights between Haneda and Hawaii cost between 60,000 and 68,000 ANA miles in business, depending on season, and 155,000 HawaiianMiles, for a conversion rate between 2.28 and 2.58 HawaiianMiles per ANA Mileage Club mile.

HawaiianMiles are worth between 0.39 and 0.94 ANA miles.


JetBlue's TrueBlue loyalty program is revenue based, although the dollar value you get per TrueBlue point varies depending on, well, it varies. On a random search I found 6 different conversion rates, between 0.91 cents per TrueBlue point and 1.39 cents per TrueBlue point, with an average of 1.11 cents per TrueBlue point.

HawaiianMile redemptions on JetBlue are also revenue based, although the conversion rate comes with the stern warning: "Miles required for redemption will vary based on ticket value. Chart above shows ESTIMATED mileage redemption amounts."

Nonetheless, it's possible to calculate the minimum and maximum dollar value per HawaiianMile, and arrive at an average redemption value of 0.81 cents per HawaiianMile. Compared to the average of 1.11 cents per TrueBlue point, one HawaiianMiles is worth about 0.73 TrueBlue points

Korean Air

Korean Air SKYPASS miles are easy to earn through transfers from Chase Ultimate Rewards, but of course Ultimate Rewards points are valuable for all sorts of redemptions, so you might prefer to redeem a less flexible and less valuable rewards currency like HawaiianMiles instead.

There are three kinds of HawaiianMiles redemptions on Korean Air: roundtrips within South Korea, roundtrips within "Asia," and roundtrips between Korea and the United States. Flights can be booked in coach and business class. To the best of my knowledge Korean Air does not make partner awards available during their "peak" travel season, so HawaiianMiles can only be used for Korean Air redemptions during SKYPASS's "off" season (if you know otherwise let me know and I'll update this post).

  • Coach roundtrips within Korea cost 10,000 SKYPASS miles or 15,000 HawaiianMiles, for a conversion rate of 1.5 HawaiianMiles per SKYPASS mile;
  • Business roundtrips within Korea cost 12,000 SKYPASS miles or 30,000 HawaiianMiles, for a conversion rate of 2.5 HawaiianMiles per SKYPASS mile;
  • Korean Air has three different zones in Asia, while HawaiianMiles has only a single zone. SKYPASS charges between 30,000 and 50,000 miles for coach tickets depending on zone, while Hawaiian charges 30,000 HawaiianMiles, for a conversion rate of between 0.6 and 1 HawaiianMiles per SKYPASS mile. In other words, HawaiianMiles are 40% more valuable than SKYPASS miles when redeemed for Korean Air flights to Southwest Asia;
  • In business class between Korea and Asian destinations, SKYPASS charges between 45,000 and 90,000 miles while HawaiianMiles charges 60,000 miles, for a conversion rate between 0.67 and 1.33 HawaiianMiles per SKYPASS miles;
  • Finally, between Korea and the United States SKYPASS charges 70,000 miles in coach and 125,000 miles in business, while HawaiianMiles charges 100,000 miles in coach and 200,000 miles in business, for a conversion rate of 1.43 HawaiianMiles per SKYPASS mile in coach and 1.6 HawaiianMiles per SKYPASS mile in business.

In sum, one HawaiianMile is worth between 0.4 SKYPASS miles (on domestic business class flights) and 1.66 SKYPASS miles (on coach flights to Southwest Asia).

Virgin America

Like JetBlue, Virgin America's Elevate program is revenue based. Unlike JetBlue, however, HawaiianMiles redemptions on Virgin America are distance-based, with three distance bands: under 750 miles, between 750 and 2,000 miles, and more than 2,000 miles. Virgin America Elevate doesn't black out award space to their own members (since the program is revenue based), but they do limit award availability made available to partners.

Until recently, there was no good way of checking Virgin America partner award availability, but since Alaska acquired Virgin America, it's now possible to search for partner award seats using the Alaska search engine. Look for dates where the lowest level award seats are available.

I can't think of any useful metric to convert a distance-based award chart into a revenue-based program. Elevate miles are worth "about" 2.2 cents each, so that's as good a benchmark as any when deciding whether to redeem HawaiianMiles on Virgin America flights.

Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Atlantic's Flying Club breaks out award prices for each of their destinations individually, while HawaiianMiles consolidates them into geographic areas. That means HawaiianMiles charges the same price for destinations that Virgin Atlantic charges different amounts for. Here's the HawaiianMile award chart for redemptions on Virgin Atlantic, helpfully annotated with the amount charged by Virgin Atlantic Flying Club:

The key takeaway is that while redemptions always require more HawaiianMiles than Flying Club miles, the difference narrows on Upper Class redemptions since HawaiianMiles awards don't accelerate in price the way Flying Club awards do. So while HawaiianMiles are worth between 0.25 and 0.42 Flying Club miles for economy redemptions, they're worth up to 0.92 Flying Club miles on Upper Class redemptions between, for example, the UK and Johannesburg.

Note that all redemptions on Virgin Atlantic will have carrier surcharges, which you can get a sense of on the Flying Club website.

Virgin Australia

Virgin Australia's Velocity program is only open to residents of Australia and a few other countries in the Pacific, so you're unlikely to ever actually redeem Velocity miles for a Virgin Australia flights.

HawaiianMiles and Virgin Australia Velocity both use distance-based award charts, although they use different distance bands (Velocity has more, smaller bands). Here's the HawaiianMiles award chart, with the corresponding cost in Virgin Australia Velocity miles:

Note that Australia is very far from the other continents so unless you're flying around the South Pacific all international redemptions will fall in the "Over 4,000 Miles" distance band, where HawaiianMiles are worth between 0.28 and 0.6 Velocity miles each in economy and between 0.3 and 0.64 Velocity miles in business.


Now that we've reached the end of the exercise, what kinds of conclusions can we draw? First, it's worth reiterating that HawaiianMiles are not very valuable, so you certainly shouldn't be going out of your way to earn them.

However, if you have access to cheap and plentiful HawaiianMiles, it's possible to redeem them for real value:

  • If you live in a city served by JetBlue, HawaiianMiles are worth an average of 0.81 cents towards those flights. It would take a lot of HawaiianMiles before you could redeem for a cross-country flight in their Mint business class product, but if that's the flight I wanted to take I'd much rather redeem HawaiianMiles than pay cash!
  • If you can find partner award space on Virgin America, short roundtrip flights cost as little as 20,000 in economy, and the longest flights in first class top out at just 90,000 HawaiianMiles roundtrip.
  • If you can find Korean Air partner award space, HawaiianMiles can be redeemed for first class travel between the United States and Korea, or within Asia, at relatively reasonable rates.

If you don't have the patience or inclination to book travel on Hawaiian's partner airlines, HawaiianMiles can be transferred to Hilton HHonors points at a rate of 1.5 HHonors points per HawaiianMile. HHonors points are also not very valuable, but they're much easier to redeem than HawaiianMiles.

Finally, HawaiianMiles can be redeemed for about half a cent each in rental car gift certificates, or even gift certificates to Foodland, a Hawaiian supermarket chain.

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.

What did I miss: JetBlue edition

I got back last night from New York, the final leg of a ridiculously circuitous trip through Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Bavaria, and Berlin.

It was fun!

After managing to go all last week without a blog post (subscribers did get a newsletter out of me) this week I'll be easing back into the old blogging routine with some reflections on what I've learned. I mostly can't stand trip reports, so don't expect one! But it's an ironclad rule that travel hacking involves a lot of things that aren't immediately obvious, or spelled out in terms and conditions, and I've always sought to help readers understand how those things really work.

But first! Let's talk about JetBlue.

JetBlue is running a generous points match from Virgin America

You've certainly seen a rundown of this deal other blogs, but to refresh your memory, JetBlue is offering a tiered points match to Virgin America Elevate members with points in their Elevate account who book a new roundtrip JetBlue ticket after registering and before August 31, 2016.

To break that down even more clearly, the terms state:

  • you will receive bonus TrueBlue points up to 300% of your current Virgin America Elevate balance (30,000 TrueBlue points for a balance of 10,001 Elevate points);
  • if you submit a screenshot of your Virgin America Elevate dashboard and your TrueBlue account number by July 4, 2016;
  • and book and fly a new roundtrip JetBlue reservation after having your request approved but before August 31, 2016.

Should you go for it?

If you are planning to book a roundtrip JetBlue flight between now and August 31, 2016, and have a screenshot of your Virgin America account dashboard with more than 500 miles in it, you should definitely register for this promotion!

There's nothing glamorous about picking up nickels in front of steamrollers, but there's always a nickel in it for you.

Should you hack it?

On the other hand, a lot of bloggers are recommending "maximizing" the value of the promotion by transferring 40,001 Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints to Virgin America (yielding 50,001 total Elevate points), then requesting the match, and then flying the cheapest JetBlue roundtrip flight they can find out of nearby airports.

As you might have guessed, I have a couple of problems with this.

First, a transfer of 40,001 Starpoints does not maximize the value of the promotion; a transfer of 10,001 Starpoints does. That's because at the 10,001-Elevate-point level JetBlue adds 30,000 TrueBlue points to your account, while at the 50,001-point level they add just 75,000 TrueBlue points. If 45,000 TrueBlue points are worth $630, you'll get just 2.1 cents per Starpoints for the additional 30,000 Starpoints transferred, which is below their imputed redemption value of 2.105 cents! That is, in short, not a promotion at all.

Second, even at the most valuable 10,001-point level, you're required to make and fly a new roundtrip JetBlue reservation by August 31, 2016. Maybe you have access to cheap JetBlue flights. Maybe you don't place a high value on your time. But you need to have access to cheap JetBlue flights and not place a high value on your time to justify booking a mileage run in order to trigger the promotion.

Finally, let me gently remind my readers that the point of travel hacking is not to accumulate as many points as possible in as many programs as possible, but rather to pay for the trips you actually want to take, while spending as little money as possible. If you are able to successfully redeem 30,000 TrueBlue points for $450 worth of travel, and you're able to successfully redeem 10,000 Virgin America Elevate points for $220 worth of travel, and you manage to trigger the roundtrip flight requirement on a trip you were planning to take anyway, then congratulations: you'll have earned $670 worth of travel for $210 worth of imputed redemption value (assuming you manufactured all 10,000 Starpoints at an otherwise-unbonused merchant). That's a pretty good discount of 68.7%.

But to secure that pretty good discount, you have to build your redemptions around maximizing the value of your TrueBlue and Elevate points, even if another points currency would have offered you better connections, availability, or out-of-pocket cost.


There are a lot of people served by JetBlue and/or Virgin America, and a disproportionate number of travel hackers no doubt live in the large urban centers those airlines serve. If the stars align such that this promotion scores you huge, valuable points balances at little or no out of pocket cost, rest assured that I'm here cheering you on.

But if you've never flown either JetBlue or Virgin America and you find a credit card huckster is trying to get you excited about JetBlue because they've temporarily raised affiliate payouts to accompany this promotion, feel free to come back and re-read this post for a slightly different perspective.

Related reading:
On the value of not chasing deals
The JetBlue Points Match Is Worth It And You Should Do It
JetBlue Points Match Promotion: Is It Worth It?

Exploring the Virgin Australia award chart

Yesterday MileValue wrote about the partnership between Virgin Australia and Singapore Airlines, which allows points to be transferred between the two programs at a 1.35:1 ratio (points can apparently be transferred either direction at the same ratio, although I haven’t tried it yet).

Virgin Australia doesn’t belong to any of the big three alliances but, like Hawaiian Airlines and Alaska Airlines, has a lot of partners around the world. It also has a distance-based award chart. Since Singapore Airlines is a transfer partner of all three major flexible rewards currencies, that got me wondering: are there awards that are booked more cheaply using Virgin Australia’s distance-based rewards chart than other transfer partners?

The transfer ratio isn’t great

Since 1.35 Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer miles become 1 Virgin Australia Velocity mile, you lose about 26% of your points right off the top. That means you’d need to spend 26% fewer Velocity miles than other rewards currencies before you'd start seeing a profit with this shell game.

airberlin is a bust

My first thought when seeing MileValue’s post was airberlin: it’s already a great airline to use distance-based Avios on because of the 3,749-mile distance between New York City and Dusseldorf, costing 20,000 Avios in economy with no fuel surcharges.

So I meticulously lined up the distance bands of Virgin Australia’s and British Airways award charts, adjusting for the transfer ratio between KrisFlyer and Velocity and looked for sweet spots.

Since I already made the chart, I’ll share it, but there’s nothing to see here.

For any given distance, an airberlin flight booked with British Airways Avios will be cheaper than the same flight booked with Velocity miles transferred from KrisFlyer.

Between Australia and the United States

Virgin Australia operates flights between Los Angeles and both Sydney and Brisbane, which cover 7,488 and 7,161 miles, respectively. Both routes will cost 47,000 Velocity miles in economy, 94,000 in business, or 141,000 in First. Converting from Singapore Airlines, those values come to 63,450, 126,900, or 190,350 flexible points.

Since you could book the same Virgin Australia flights for 50,000 Delta SkyMiles in economy or 80,000 SkyMiles in business, transferring points through Singapore Airlines is unlikely to be your cheapest route to Australia, unless you have no Membership Rewards points or SkyMiles banked.

Virgin America

Next I turned to Virgin Australia’s more advantageous award chart for flights on "Virgin Australia, Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Samoa, Etihad, Delta, and trans-Tasman Air New Zealand flights." Here I got a little bit of traction:

For extremely short flights along the West Coast of the United States, and between Austin and Dallas's Love Field, paying 6,900 Velocity miles (9,315 flexible points) may well be the cheapest option, depending of course on award availability and paid ticket prices.

Additionally, since award flights to Hawaii on domestic carriers will typically cost more miles than flights within the mainland, if you can find Virgin America award availability between San Francisco and Honolulu or Maui, you can come out a little bit ahead. Even if it’s not a windfall, it’s at least worth keeping in mind while searching for award seats, as an additional option in the face of dwindling award availability.

Transfer Starpoints directly to Virgin Australia

So far I’ve been talking about transferring Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards, or Citi ThankYou points to Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer in order to transfer them to Virgin Australia.

But Virgin Australia is also a transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest, at a 1:1 ratio, with a 25% bonus when you transfer in increments of 20,000 Starpoints.

If you’re Starpoint-rich, you don’t need to take the initial 26% hit by transferring your points to KrisFlyer; you can transfer them directly to Virgin Australia Velocity.


I've never given much thought to Virgin Australia, either as a transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest or of Singapore Airlines, so these are just my very preliminary thoughts on using their miles for fun and profit.

What else should I and my readers know?