Why aren’t more people drooling over the Virgin America Visa card?

Disclaimer: I may receive a commission for links on this blog. Notice that I said that I may. It’s technically not possible to prove a negative, so even though I don’t have any commission agreements with any banks, and even though I have not to date received any commissions for any links on this blog, I suppose it’s still remotely possible that I signed up as an affiliate marketer with a bank shortly before hitting my head and forgetting the entire thing. Just wanted to put that out there.

Now, to the matter at hand. Why aren’t more people drooling over the Virgin America Visa card? Not that the card is especially drool-worthy in the same way that an Amex Platty or a Chase Sapphy Rezzy is, but it has one important factor in its favor, which is that it earns very valuable fixed-value points in Virgin’s Elevate program. You can’t use Elevate points for aspirational redemptions, but you do routinely get around 2.2 cents per point when redeeming them for award flights. (Not to mention the possibility of partner redemptions, although fuel surcharges usually scare me away from trying to use my Elevate miles this way.)

It’s fucking vertical! WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR???

One of the big things that points & miles bloggers talk about is what to do about unbonused spend; the prevailing wisdom is to use one of three cards – the SPG Amex, which kinda sorta earns 1.25 airline miles per dollar*, the Amex Everyday Preferred, which earns 1.5 points per dollar if you make 30 transactions in a month, and the Chase Freedom Unlimited, which earns 1.5 points on all purchases, though you need a premium Chase card to be able to transfer the points to frequent flyer programs. Or, you can go the cash back route and earn around 2%, depending on the exact card you’re using. The point here is that a 2% return on spend is the benchmark, since that’s what you can get with a no-fee cash back card; in other words, any points you earn on unbonused spend are actually being purchased for 2 cents apiece.

*I don’t like the blanket statement that SPG earns 1.25 airline miles on all purchases, since that requires transferring points in increments of 20,000. If you redeem Starpoints for a hotel room or wind up with an odd number of points to transfer, you’re back to just 1 point per dollar. That may be what you want, since Starpoints are hard to earn, so you have to spend on the SPG Amex somewhere in order to accrue them. I just don’t think it’s totally accurate to bake their transfer bonus into the value, since it doesn’t always apply. 

My personal strategy is to go the Amex route with the Everyday Preferred card, earning 1.5 points on all purchases. The Chase Sapphire Reserve also presents a unique opportunity, since points are worth 1.5 cents toward travel, meaning the 1.5 points earned per dollar on the Freedom Unlimited can be leveraged for 2.25 cents apiece when transferred to the Sapphire Reserve. However, I do think it should be mentioned more often that putting unbonused spend on a Virgin America Visa gets a similar return (although restricted to redemptions on Virgin, of course). This occurred to me recently, since I’ve been flying Virgin a lot and reconsidering my neglect of their Elevate program, in which my only miles have been accrued through flying.

There are a couple reasons off the top that these cards aren’t more widely discussed: first, the sign-up bonuses are pretty weak (10,000 points for the basic card and 15,000 for the premium), and second, they’re issued by Comenity bank, which is known for not having very good customer service. However, I have another theory, and it goes back to a point I’ve made before wherein I pointed out how ascribing absolute values to points is, not to put too fine a point on it, pointless.

See, most valuations for flexible points sit somewhere between 1.5 and 2.5 cents per point. In an aspirational redemption, the values skyrocket, but since most people wouldn’t pay cash for those flights anyway, the prevailing wisdom is that those values aren’t real. Instead, the true value of your points is what you would pay in cash for a flight divided by the number of sexual partners you’ve had, multiplied by the number of times you’ve rolled your eyes while reading this blog. Or not, I’m just making shit up at this point. Regarding Virgin America points, though, I think a lot of people are turned off that the points are only ever going to be worth 2.2 cents apiece. I know I am. Within the strictures of places like the churning subreddit, it’s all about the hard math, maximizing your return at all times. That paradigm leaves out the emotional component of collecting points and miles, though – the hope that points will someday be worth way more than a couple cents apiece, and that they will unlock experiences you otherwise could never afford.

I’ll sign up to receive emails from Virgin America in exchange for 500 free points, but I’d rather use my everyday spending to pad my balances of Chase or Amex points, even though I may end up getting less than 2.2 cents per point when I do ultimately redeem them. That way, I know that at least some of the time, I’m setting myself up for home-run redemptions flying in premium cabins over oceans rather than puttering around the US in Virgin’s main cabin extra or whatever. That’s the kind of thinking that keeps me away from cash back cards and fixed value points in general, even though it may not always be the most lucrative spending strategy according to some boring fucking spreadsheet that some OCD nerd put together in his parents’ basement. (Editor’s note: I have OCD, I make tons of spreadsheets, and while I don’t live in my parents’ basement, I’m still a huge nerd.)

I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way either – otherwise, more people would talk about Virgin’s sweet-ass 2.2 cent return on spend the way they talk about the Citi Double Cash card or the new world-beating Sapphire Reserve/Freedom Unlimited combo. For all the hard data (haha ugh I just combined “hard pull” and “data point,” which are my two least favorite expressions), this game is more emotionally driven than I think people realize.

What do you think, nonexistent blog commenters? Are you a robot whose only goal is to maximize return on spend, or do you feel human emotions… even LOVE???

Would you let a bird shit on you for 75,000 points?

Like many, I got in on the JetBlue points match promotion they offered a few months ago wherein they gave out millions of free points by matching Virgin America frequent flyers’ point balances. This was one of those “if it’s too good to be true, it’s because JetBlue’s marketing department didn’t think this through” situations, because there was literally no downside. Except getting shit on by a bird.

The crazy thing is that I had JUST transferred over and redeemed 50,000 Virgin America points the day before JetBlue announced the promo. I assumed I was out of luck, since I didn’t have enough Starpoints left to do another big transfer, but I emailed JetBlue anyway, practically begging them to show mercy. I included my Virgin Elevate account transaction history so they could see that literally the day before, I had around 58,000 points in my account. To my great shock and surprise, I got a response back a few hours later that they had matched me to the old balance, so I was in for 75,000 JetBlue points as soon as I took a round-trip flight. I expect that if I hadn’t emailed within minutes of the promotion’s launch, I wouldn’t have been so lucky. I don’t think JetBlue realized how easy it was for people to load up on Virgin points by transferring from SPG, but kudos, props, and big-ups to them for not changing or “clarifying” the terms of the promotion mid-course.

I last flew JetBlue 10 years ago to go to a job interview, and when I didn’t get the job, I decided to blame JetBlue rather than my own lackluster resume. I always remembered them being pretty nice, though, so I was excited to give them another go around. I booked SFO to Long Beach, which is a great airport – primarily because they don’t have gates, so you get to walk on the tarmac outside the plane. I firmly believe that flying would be magnitudes more fun if you always got to see the outside of the plane before boarding, rather than walking down a sterile jetbridge.

One consequence of the airport’s open design, however, is that birds can fly in and out, and they like to congregate on the light fixtures above the food court. I was cheerfully eating my hummus and pretzel combo pack when I noticed a blob of bird shit on the table next to me. I stood up to move to a different table after realizing what was afoot, although it was too late, since I apparently sat in a pile of it without first noticing it on my chair. A friendly JetBlue flight attendant pointed it out and even offered me some wet wipes he had in his suitcase, which makes me appreciate the service JetBlue offers – even outside the airplane!

I know it’s good luck if a bird shits on your head (although I suspect that people just started saying that because of how much it sucks when a bird shits on your head), but what about when you sit in it and get bird shit all over the seat of your pants? Well, I can provide you with a “data point” that it certainly isn’t bad luck, since I had an entire row to myself on the way back and my 75,000 points posted about a week later.

Looking at the actual goal of the promotion – to wean me off Virgin America’s slick, black leather teat – I did come away with a lot of warm fuzzies about JetBlue. The big con would be the route network, since they just don’t fly very many places direct from SFO. If they offer a direct flight and I know I’m flying economy, I’ll definitely pick JetBlue. The leg room is better, and I like the DirectTV they offer better than Virgin’s IFE, since most of the channels on Virgin don’t work. Flying premium becomes more of a toss-up. Price being equal, I prefer Virgin’s Main Cabin Extra to JetBlue’s extra legroom seating, since Virgin gives you unlimited free movies and snacks. However, because Virgin considers Extra to be a separate fare class, it’s often more expensive than the Even More Space upgrade. I suppose it would depend on the cost difference and schedule. As for first class, even though I’ve never flown JetBlue’s Mint, I’m sure it’s better than Virgin’s first class, which I love. Pricing for transcons looks similar, so I can almost guarantee that I’ll fly Mint instead of Virgin First the next time I’m planning a trip and can spring to sit up front. Otherwise, obviously I’d fly Virgin if I wanted to fly in first, since JetBlue doesn’t offer first class on most flights.

What do you think? Did you fly JetBlue to get 75,000 points? Has a bird ever shit on you? Do you know of any other points/miles blogs that have used the phrase “slick, black leather teat?”

American Horror Story (Part 2)

I wanted to add a few additional thoughts on American Airlines, especially given some criticism I encountered from the imaginary blog readers in my head.

1 – As you may have read in my post on premium cabins, I almost never fly first class. When I do, it’s a special treat, not a matter of course. So, I really do have a lot of experience with economy class seats, which is why I feel qualified to say that American Airlines seats are absolutely terrible. Just to provide a point of contrast, I recently flew United’s revamped A320 to and from Seattle, and the new seat design is clean and efficient, if not particularly impressive in any one area. They have an additional literature pocket where the IFE would go (since short haul planes don’t need IFE, and United offers direct-to-device entertainment), and the seats make great use of thin-line padding so that the seat feels comparatively roomy, even in the non-Economy Plus rows. A couple weeks ago, I was on Southwest to and from Salt Lake City, and their new seats are similar – thin, stiff (supportive) padding, reasonable leg room, and a generic, unremarkable economy experience. And let’s be clear: the point of economy is to be as painless as possible. No one is going to step off an economy class flight and rave about how amazing the seat was – the best economy can hope for is for a passenger to not be miserable during the flight. Most domestic economy classes accomplish this, while some add some nice touches, like Virgin’s on-demand food and drink options or Alaska’s Inuit-themed decorations.

2 – Apparently, I was way off base in talking about how old the American seats were. See, I sent a complaint to American Airlines about the terrible seats, since I really was annoyed at how terrible the flight was. I even asked for a refund on my Main Cabin Extra purchase, since, due to the aircraft swap, my row wasn’t even in Main Cabin extra anymore. To American’s credit, they responded quickly and positively, which I can’t say about too many other airline customer service departments. However, they did add that the seats are “relatively new” (relative to what?) and that they’re made with “high quality leather and wool fabrics.” Remember what I said yesterday about it maybe being worse that American chose these seats on purpose? Well.

3 – Customer service also cited “literally thousands of hours of research” that went into the design of the new seats, and I don’t doubt it, given the complexities of designing anything that goes on a plane. What sticks out, though, is how anyone could look at the final product that resulted from these thousands of hours and somehow think it represented a competitive product.

Good thing a photographer was there in the lab to document the moment the new seats were conceived after a 737 fucked an old couch behind a dumpster.

Luckily for passengers, there is a newer version of the 737 interior that American is rolling out (at the same time that it is retiring those MD-80s I was ragging on yesterday). The problem is figuring out which version is on which route. Given the wide disparity in quality (assuming that the new interior represents a step up, which – from photos at least – it seems to), I’m still going to hold off flying American on anything but the A321T that they run from SFO to NYC. Maybe I’ll check back in five more years to see where they’re at.

Thoughts on Premium Cabins

The thing about reviews is that most reviewers almost have too much experience for their experiences to be relevant to people like me who just don’t have enough time off to try every product in the sky. I realize that the point of most reviews is to be as in-depth as possible precisely because people who take a once-in-a-lifetime vacation in first class want to make sure they aren’t wasting their money (or miles). Still, some of the “bad” reviews I read make me laugh, given that they really don’t sound that bad to me.

I really have very little experience with first class – the first time I sat up front is when I had food poisoning and upgraded to AirTran’s first class because it was only $100 and I thought that sitting in Economy while trying not to barfpoop would just be too miserable. For anyone who never got that opportunity before AirTran disappeared, my review is that the seat is wider and they give you a snack. Definitely worth $100 given the circumstances, but not exactly “premium.” I’ve also flown Virgin America first class a few times, since their same-day upgrades used to be really cheap. I think I paid $150 to upgrade BOS to SFO (almost 7 hours in a headwind), and that flight was probably awesome. I say “probably” because I took too many sleeping pills while waiting at the gate, and I barely remember the flight. I was so zonked that, despite sitting in 1A, I was the very last person off the plane.

My wife and I flew “business class” on Norwegian from OAK to OSL last summer, which is more or less premium economy on most carriers. My review of that flight is that the seat is wider and they give you a snack. (I’m being snarky, but Norwegian is actually one of my favorite airlines, and that flight was amazing. Seeing the Hudson Bay and Greenland during the midnight sun from the Dreamliner’s oversized window was incredible. I’ve flown Norwegian both long haul and short haul, and their planes are spotless, their staff is always friendly, and Gardamoen airport in Oslo has the best candy selection of any airport I’ve ever been to. However, their planes are painted to look like dog penises, which is odd.)

That’s a plane in the photo, not a Samoyed getting excited.

Other times I’ve been in first class were just on short legs, so nothing to write home about. I flew Alaska Airlines first class from SEA to SFO a few months ago on one of those $50 upgrades I bought myself as a treat. My review of that flight is that the seat is wider and they give you a snack. (A quick aside – a friend of mine had asked if I could bring back some of Alaska’s bloody mary mix, since it’s supposedly really good. I hate bloody marys so I wouldn’t know. Anyway, I asked the flight attendant for some, and she very politely declined, explaining that it comes in a big carton, not individual bottles. But, after the flight as I was deplaning, she poured some into a lidded cup for me. I thought that was really nice, and it makes me like Alaska Airlines just because a flight attendant has never been that nice to me before. Once I got off the jetbridge, I stood over the garbage can right by the gate and decanted the cup of bloody mary mix into an empty Aquafina bottle… I can’t even imagine what the other passengers on the plane thought I was doing as the saw this upon deplaning.)

Alaska is going to run this plane on their new Seattle to Tulsa route just to fuck with little kids.

Okay, so anyway, back to my original point about reviews… I’m taking a trip to New York in a few months, and I used 50,000 United miles to book it in first class. Normally I wouldn’t waste the miles, but SFO – EWR on United is on their fancy “premium service” trans-con 757, so I thought it would be worth it. This will definitely be the nicest hard product I’ve ever flown, and I’m pretty excited. Plus, 50,000 miles for a $1200 ticket is over 2 cents per mile, which isn’t bad for a domestic redemption… especially when I don’t have a spare $1200 sitting around (or even really a spare $400 for economy).

Once I booked the flight, I excitedly looked up reviews of United’s trans-con premium service, ready to read how mind-blowingly amazing it is… and most reviews aren’t very positive. The gist of them is that the seat is nice enough, the food is meh, and the service is blah. Picky picky. First of all, I’m vegan, so I won’t be able to eat the food anyway. Second of all, I have a lot of social anxiety and don’t enjoy when people go out of their way to talk to me, so I don’t really care if the service is aloof. Maybe I should ask them for some extra bloody mary mix as a sort of controlled experiment. One review I read even criticized United’s snack bar, saying something to the effect of “hopefully you like Milano cookies and pretzels.” My response when reading this was to say, “Yes, I do like Milano cookies, and you’re telling me that there’s a snack bar where I can get Milano cookies whenever I want?” Different expectations indeed. (I realize Milano cookies aren’t vegan. I should have said I’m mostly vegan – don’t tell PETA.) My only concern about this flight now is that I booked a window seat, and if the person on the aisle goes to sleep, he’s going to be annoyed with me crawling over him every half hour to get Milano cookies.

I don’t really plan to review travel products on this blog, but I’m sure I’ll talk at length about how great United’s trans-con service is, since it will have been the first and only time I’ve been on a flat bed seat on a plane. This is like the Emirates shower suite for me, seriously.

Requisite question designed to spur a flurry of responses in the comments section: Do YOU like Milano cookies, and do you know what flavors United offers?