My Experience Upgrading On Virgin America

While Alaska’s takeover of Virgin America formally closed last December, the two airlines are still operating separately until 2019, when Alaska plans on retiring the Virgin America brand.

Reciprocal benefits for frequent flyers on either airline have been limited, though they’re working on adding new features, which I appreciate. For example, a couple of weeks ago I wrote about how Alaska elite members can now select preferred seats on Virgin America, are eligible for complimentary Main Cabin Select upgrades, and are also eligible for paid upgrades to first class at an earlier window..

I’m an Alaska elite member, and yesterday booked a paid ticket on Virgin America from Los Angeles to Chicago for travel same day. In this post I wanted report back on what the upgrade experience was like.

How paid upgrades on Virgin America usually work

Virgin America has three classes of service:

  • First Class, which consists of eight seats, in a 2-2 configuration
  • Main Cabin Select, which are the exit row and bulkhead seats, offering complimentary snacks and drinks (including alcohol)
  • Main Cabin, which is their standard economy offering


Virgin America economy cabin

Virgin America offers elite members complimentary upgrades to Main Cabin Select:

  • Virgin America Gold and Alaska MVP Gold (and 75K) members can get a space available upgrade at most 24 hours out
  • Virgin America Silver and Alaska MVP members can get a space available upgrade at most 12 hours out

Meanwhile all passengers are eligible to buy upgrades to first class, though the window where you can buy an upgrade varies based on your status (and since these are popular, it’s advantageous to have access to these earlier):

  • Virgin America Gold and Alaska MVP Gold (and 75K) members can buy a space available upgrade to first class at most 24 hours out
  • Virgin America Silver and Alaska MVP members can buy a space available upgrade to first class at most 12 hours out
  • Non-elite members can buy a space available upgrade to first class at most six hours out

The upgrade price varies based on the length of the flight, and also whether you’re upgrading from Main Cabin or Main Cabin Select.

These upgrades have last seat availability, which means that as long as there’s a seat for sale in the cabin you want when your upgrade window rolls around, you can buy an upgrade.

My experience getting a complimentary upgrade to Main Cabin Select

As I explained above, yesterday I bought a same day ticket from Los Angeles to Chicago. The economy fare was $189, which seemed decent enough for a same day ticket.

I made the booking on Virgin America’s website, and when I went to select a seat, I was asked if I wanted to pay an extra $360 or $610 to upgrade to Main Cabin Select or first class, respectively. No thanks.

However, after entering my Alaska frequent flyer number, I was given the option to opt-in to a Main Cabin Select upgrade free of charge. I was booking just hours before departure and Main Cabin Select seemed pretty wide open, so I was expecting it would clear.

However, as soon as I booked the ticket I got an error message saying that something went wrong, asking me to call 1.877.FLY.VIRGIN.

So I phoned them up, and to my surprise it connected me to an Alaska agent.

When she found out I had booked my ticket on Virgin America’s website rather than Alaska’s website, she told me she’d have to transfer me to a Virgin America agent. It’s a bit odd that the number on Virgin America’s website connects you to an Alaska agent, only to be told they can’t help.

The agent was super nice, and she explained “sorry about this, Alaska and Virgin America are engaged and not married yet.” That sure made me feel better about my engagement, since we sure don’t have these kinds of communication issues. šŸ˜‰

However, while on hold I decided to log out of my itinerary and back in, and noticed that my upgrade to Main Cabin Select had cleared. I assumed that’s what was causing the error message.

At that point I was able to select a seat in Main Cabin Select at no additional charge.

My experience paying to upgrade to Virgin America first class

Paid upgrades to Virgin America first class can only be processed by phone, so I called Virgin America.

One of the cool tricks to getting a discounted Virgin America first class upgrade as an elite member is to first have your upgrade clear to Main Cabin Select and then pay for an upgrade. That’s because you’ll only have to pay for the upgrade cost from Main Cabin Select to First Class, rather than the upgrade cost from Main Cabin to First Class.

In the case of my flight, an upgrade from Main Cabin would have been $299, while an upgrade from Main Cabin Select cost $190. That’s actually a bit more than I was expecting, since the highest upgrade cost from Main Cabin Select to First Class is $240, and that would cover something like New York to San Francisco. So while I wouldn’t have paid the $299 price tag, the $190 price seemed fair enough, especially as I was keen to experience the process.

The upgrade was processed within a few minutes, and then I could select a seat in first class.


Virgin America first class seats

Bottom line

With most US airlines we’re used to receiving complimentary upgrades to first class on a space available basis, though Virgin America does things a bit differently. The good news is that upgrades for elite members to Main Cabin Select seem to clear automatically if booking through Virgin America’s website and entering your Alaska info.

While the Alaska agent I spoke with was friendly, it’s clear that they don’t have a terribly efficient system in place. It doesn’t make sense that the Virgin America website gives a phone number that connects you to an Alaska agent, only to then be told that they can’t help you with reservations made through Virgin America.

Lastly, paid upgrades on Virgin America can represent a solid deal, especially given that they’re usually readily available. While I’d rather get a complimentary upgrade on account of elite status, my alternative was booking American, and there was no way my upgrade was going to clear there. So in those situations, booking Virgin America is a good option, in my opinion.

If you’ve upgraded on Virgin America, what was your experience like?

Comments

  1. I’ve been wondering how this works, so this is good to know.

    I don’t think this represents a particularly good value, as LAX-ORD first class tickets go for about $399 on Virgin America on certain dates. So at most you’re saving $20.00 for a hit in miles. MCS seems to be the sweet spot though.

    For a transcon at that price you’re within ~$100 of the entry level JetBlue Mint fares.

  2. $190 seems steep. I used to pay $70 back when they had the DAL-LAS Flight. I found the seat great but main cabin select is awesome enough and I donā€™t see the value in spending money to upgrade

  3. Does a paid upgrade to first class also change the ticket class? For example, would you be earning miles as if you bought a First Class ticket instead of Main Cabin (when crediting miles to Alaska)?

  4. I have a flight coming up this weekend from LAX-HNL. Worth $199 to upgrade from main cabin to main cabin select? Family of 3. This would be the longest flight I’ve taken in coach in a very long time and dreading every minute of it.

  5. $190 is high for Main Cabin Select to F.
    My data points are: DAL-LGA, typically $70-90.
    DAL-LAX – $90-110
    DAL-SFO – $100

    I did try to upgrade a companion the other day. DAL-LAX = $400 total, so $110 for me and $290 for her.

  6. Hal, just did this SFO-HNL with a 3 year old. She was able to sit on the ground (Row 3) with a blanket over the tray table and have a “tea party” with her dolls. Gave us a chance to watch a movie and have a couple of cocktails in peace. Not sure it’s worth $600 (we booked on points). The food and drink alone in worth $50 at absolute most…and we tried our best šŸ™‚

  7. @MisterM because for every person that gets irritated at the usage of “in my opinion” there are 100 others on the internet ready to comment that something mentioned was “wrong” despite the fact that what was written was clearly an opinion….just not an opinion preceded by the phrase “in my opinion”.

  8. @Luis – Everyone’s opinion may be different, but I would jump at the chance to pay $199 for an upgrade to VX F. The seats are larger, the food is better and free, and the drinks are free as well.

    I have never regretted flying in VX F, especially for a 5.5 hour flight with turbulence. You do have a family of three, so cost could be a factor here. But I’ve always enjoyed VX’s F service without question.

  9. I paid to upgrade once on OGG-SFO, using the online “bid for upgrade” system. The system worked fine, but the F experience on that route was awful.

  10. “Paid upgrades to Virgin America first class can only be processed by phone,”

    Not true. I’m VX Gold and get the 1st upgrade prompt (if seats are avail) as I go thru the web check-in sequence. No need to call and deal with VX’s inconsistent phone reps.

  11. Presented in the FWIW mode . . .

    a) Living in the SF Bay Area, the only time I fly First Class (FC) on VX is if I’m flying to ORD *or* further (e.g.: JFK, BOS); flights of a shorter duration, and I’m perfectly happy in Main Cabin Select (MCS).

    b) I usually fly MCS, but I don’t think I ever paid for it *except* if I’ve had no elite status.

    c) As an VX elite (Gold), I have *never* not been upgraded to MCS . . . except ONCE, when the gate agent asked me what seat I had (an aisle seat) and told me the only MCS seat available was a middle seat — I opted to keep my aisle, and he smiled and said, “Good choice.” (One of the people I would have sat with was, um, “rather large,” and the other — while looking more fit — was built like a linebacker!)

    d) As an AS MVP Gold — owing to my VX status — I have *never* been upgraded, period.

  12. VX phone sends you to Alaska but many Alaska reps don’t even know what MCS is and if you booked through AS they can’t even see those rows. Some dont know they need to contact a VX rep. It’s a mess. Best advice is to tweet VX to get anything done if you are AS bookef.

  13. @Lucky —> I recently booked a flight for January 2018 on VX . . . BUT I did it through the AS websiteĀ¹. The seat map *only* showed Economy seats, nothing else (i.e.: no options to upgrade for cash, as the VX seat maps [shown above] give you). As an MVP Gold on AS (again, through being Elevate Gold on VX), I was not even offered a chance to say I wanted an upgrade via the Alaska website from Main Cabin to Main Cabin Select. However, on the final page (showing me that payment was made and my confirmation numbers — one with AS, and one for VX), there was a text box displayed that said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that if I wanted to change my seat or upgrade them, to go to the VX website.

    Logging into Virgin America’s site and entering my VX confirmation code, I was immediately able to book in row 4, rather than row 22 at no additional charge AND request an upgrade to MCS if available.

    ____________________
    Ā¹ Not sure why I did. I think I figured for flights in 2018 I would *have* to use Alaska’s. Had I booked it on the VX website in the first place, everything would gone even more smoothly than it did.

  14. Agree with Tim G. First Class upgrades can be made online at time of check-in and don’t need to be done via telephone. Also, the error message you got is very common and tends to happen when you are using the Chrome browser. I’ve had this happen many times on the VX website. Like a previous poster said, their website has been a bit of a disaster.

  15. +1 to the questions on fare class. If paying is there any impact. Would love to jump a fare class for mileage earning – would nail 75k for me.

  16. I’ve nearly always been successful upgrading without status on VX. It’s been interesting, as I’ve flown with some high profile seatmates, including Jeff Bridges & Josh Brolin on a JFK-LAX flight.

    On my last VX flight a few months ago, which was only the quick hop from LAS-LAX, I grabbed the last available seat in F, and was found Harvey Levin (TMZ) sitting next to me.

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