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. 😉
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
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?