Rich Rewards, If You Know How to Use Them

The Virgin Atlantic World Elite Mastercard®, issued by Bank of America®, can be a great fit for knowledgeable fans of the Virgin Atlantic frequent-flyer program, aka Flying Club. But typical U.S. flyers might find some negative surprises — not so much with the card, but with its rewards currency.

The card can quickly rack up valuable Flying Club miles with a highly regarded airline, thanks in large part to the 1.5 miles per dollar you earn on all non-airline spending, which is outstanding for a co-branded airline credit card. And your transfer partners are useful, including Delta Air Lines, which directly owns 49% of Virgin Atlantic. Plus, unlike a lot of airline cards, there’s a way to earn a companion ticket each year if you spend enough.

But Americans accustomed to cashing in miles to earn free flights — or nearly free after nominal taxes and fees — might quickly sour on the card when they learn they have to shell out hundreds of dollars in fees to use their Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles on Virgin Atlantic flights. Those steep fees mean that transferring miles into other airline programs is often the best use of Virgin’s miles. But that’s an additional hoop to jump through.

And those companion tickets? Those are good only when you book an award flight with Virgin Atlantic, not with partners, like Delta. And you can’t get a companion pass in a better cabin unless you have elevated frequent-flyer status.

In sum, the card is valuable for accumulating miles, but those miles are best used by travel-points fans who know what they’re doing or those who are willing to put in the time to learn.

Virgin Atlantic World Elite Mastercard®: Key features

Sign-up bonus: For a limited time: 60,000 bonus Virgin Points after spending $2,000 or more on purchases within the first 90 days of account opening. The total bonus is divided up into a new cardholder bonus with required spending; anniversary miles with required spending; and adding authorized users.

Companion reward: Get a companion reward in the same cabin class when you redeem Flying Club miles for a Virgin Atlantic reward ticket. You must spend $25,000 or more in purchases annually to qualify.

Rewards rate: Earn 3 miles per $1 spent directly on Virgin Atlantic purchases and 1.5 miles per $1 spent on all other purchases.

APR: The ongoing APR is 16.74% – 24.74% Variable APR.

Balance transfer fee: Either $10 or 3% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.

Foreign transaction fee: None.

Credit score required: Good.

Highlights of the Virgin Atlantic World Elite Mastercard®

High rewards on everyday spending

The card offers 3 miles per $1 spent directly on Virgin Atlantic purchases, but its highlight is 1.5 miles per $1 spent on all other purchases. If you can use the miles strategically, that can be a great value for spending you were going to do anyway — on everything from gas and groceries to medical bills and meals out.

Companion ticket or upgrade

If you spend $25,000 or more in the same year, you qualify to receive a companion reward in the same cabin class when you redeem Flying Club miles for a Virgin Atlantic reward ticket. But earning the companion ticket “in the same cabin class” is restricted because it depends on your Virgin Atlantic frequent-flyer status at the time of booking.

If you have the lowest frequent-flyer status, Red Tier, you can only redeem miles for an Economy Classic or Premium primary award seat and Economy Classic cabin or Premium companion ticket. You’ll need Silver or Gold status to cover the full price of a companion ticket in other classes. Red tier members can purchase an Upper class companion ticket at 50% off.

You’ll also be responsible for paying taxes, fees and surcharges for the companion fare.

In sum, a companion-fare feature is a nice perk, but on this card, it’s quite restricted.

A different option if you spend $25,000 on the card is to instead receive a cabin upgrade. You can only upgrade your seat by one cabin. So if you purchase an Economy ticket, you can upgrade it to a Premium cabin, but not an Upper cabin.

Progress toward elite status

With the card, you’ll earn 25 tier points per $2,500 in purchases for a maximum 50 per month.

Useful partners

Virgin’s airline partners include Delta and Hawaiian Airlines in the U.S., as well as a number of international carriers.

Low-ish annual fee

The annual fee of $90 is a little lower than fees for other co-branded cards from large U.S. airlines, which typically charge $95 or $99.

Drawbacks and alternatives to consider

No checked-bag benefit

The Virgin Atlantic World Elite Mastercard® does not include a baggage fee waiver. Most Virgin Atlantic tickets come with a checked bag benefit already. An exception are the cheapest fares, called Economy Light. If you buy that fare, you must pay for a checked bag. The credit card has no perk that gives you a free one.

Using miles can be complicated

When redeeming miles to book Virgin Atlantic flights, you’ll likely have to pay substantial surcharges in cash, making that usual type of redemption uninviting. Transferring miles to other programs, including Delta Air Lines, can be a good deal, but that will take additional knowledge and effort. If you’re mostly interested in mile transfers to Delta, you could consider a Delta co-branded credit card like the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card, with an annual fee of $0 intro for the first year, then $99 (see rates and fees). It allows for simpler redemptions on Delta and comes with perks — including a checked-bag benefit — that don’t come with the Virgin Atlantic World Elite Mastercard®.

Other travel cards offer more flexibility

Consider the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card. Enjoy a one-time bonus of 75,000 miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel. Earn 2 points per dollar on purchases. With this card, you’re not limited to redeeming points toward flights with a specific airline. Redeem as a statement credit to cover any travel expenses. The annual fee is $95.

Some general travel rewards cards even come with no annual fee. The Discover it® Miles, for example, gives you 1.5 miles per $1 spent on all purchases. It also has a great sign-up bonus for a card with a $0 annual fee. Discover phrases the offer this way: “UNLIMITED BONUS: Only Discover will automatically match all the Miles you’ve earned at the end of your first year. For example, if you earn 35,000 Miles, you get 70,000 Miles. There’s no signing up, no minimum spending or maximum rewards. Just a Miles-for-Miles match.

Side perks are few

Should you get the Virgin Atlantic World Elite Mastercard®?

If you know you can use Flying Club miles strategically, the Virgin Atlantic World Elite Mastercard® can be a great choice for accumulating miles with a good sign-up bonus and everyday spending you would do anyway. But if simplicity matters, a general travel card might be the way to go.

To view rates and fees of The Platinum Card® from American Express, see this page. To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card, see this page.

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