>In this post: How I bid my way to a first class upgrade on Virgin America and a Trip Report (with photos) about my experience…
Last week I used my Virgin America Elevate points (26,000 of ’em!) to buy a roundtrip economy class ticket between San Francisco and Washington, DC– and I lucked out in both directions.
Here’s what happened:
About a week before my trip, I received an email from Virgin America inviting me to bid on an upgrade to first class for the return leg (DCA-SFO) of the trip. Since I knew I’d be tired and ready to kick back after an very busy three-day trip, I thought “hmmm I deserve this, let’s check it out.” It had been a long time since I had enjoyed a transcon flight in Virgin’s big marshmallow white seats, and I knew I’d appreciate the space, service, meal and cocktails on the evening return flight.
Plus, I thought that it could be the last time I’d fly on the “real” Virgin America since its takeover by Alaska seems imminent.
I was psyched to receive the upgrade offer because I’d booked my economy class roundtrip a little late, and the seat selection was poor. I had aisle seats, behind the wing, in both directions. Yuck. So I bit. And I clicked on “Make an offer” and found out that I could only get the upgrade on the return flight. Still, an upgrade in one direction is better than no upgrade at all, right?
The click led to a screen that asked me to name my price for the return flight– but it would not allow me to submit a bid for less than $400. It included a helpful little toggle switch that helped gauge my “offer strength” and also showed a photo of those big leather marshmallows to tempt me.
$400 seemed high to me, so I had to think about it. A few hours later, I decided, once again, “I deserve this.” So I went back and made a bid at the cheapest possible price: $410. If I got it, fine, if I did not, no biggie. I’d suffer at the back of the plane. This was a “free” ticket anyway since I’d used my points, right? What’s another $410? Plus, when I checked, roundtrip first class flights were running at about $3,000 roundtrip on Virgin America.
Once I submitted my bid, I received another email saying that my bid was under consideration- and that I could modify it or cancel it at any time. I liked that. I did not feel like I was stuck. I could up my bid, or I could bow out completely. Virgin said that my credit card would only be billed if my bid succeeded, and that they’d email to let me know if I’d won.
This all took place on Tuesday. My outbound flight departed Thursday morning, and the return was Sunday evening.
When it became time to check in for my flight on Wednesday, I took a quick look to see if any better coach seats have opened up. Lo and behold, one had: a non-reclining exit row window seat 9F– yes! Since it does not recline, Virgin does not charge extra for it, and I don’t ever recline in economy anymore, so I grabbed it. I also noticed that the middle seat next to mine was empty and hoped it stayed that way.
And you know what? It did stay empty! When the door to the plane closed, the guy in the aisle seat and I did a fist bump 🙂 An empty seat next to you on an exit row is almost as good as first class, right? Well, kinda. But I was able to stretch out, get some work done, use the middle seat tray table for overflow. The 4-5 hour flight passed quickly, I had a nice fast Gogo internet connection, a protein plate for lunch (my favorite Virgin meal) ordered from the seat back.
Dear Alaska Airlines: Figure out a way to preserve and expand Virgin’s seatback food and drink ordering system. After eight years, no other airline has copied it and it works so well– for both passenger and crew.
I was in DC for a meeting on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. As I struggled through a sunny bright DC Saturday morning stuck in a windowless conference room, I remembered my bid for first class on the flight home. A few minutes later, my phone buzzed with an email:
Wooo hooo! I got it! I won the bid! I went to check my options and settle on seat 1A. I felt like standing up in the middle of the meeting and giving myself a high five! I’d be flying home in style. My favorite hometown airline had come through for me. So here’s how that went:
Boarding the flight was fast and easy at Washington Reagan National. There are only eight seats in Virgin’s first class. Only one was empty for the the flight to SFO.
First thing I noticed was how old the plane felt. It must have been one of Virgin’s original A320s. I could tell by the older version of inflight entertainment, the scuffs and scrapes on that big white seat and surrounding area. (It did not look as pristine as the Virgin-supplied photo above.) Looking out the unpolished, murky window, I could see paint chips on the big red engine under the wing. While still nice, the hippest, coolest airline in the world looked a little long in the tooth. Alaska Air is going have to give some of these planes a nip and tuck here and there to keep up the Virgin image.
Service was great as usual. One of my favorite things about flying Virgin is how the pilots, in their black uniforms, stand at the head of the cabin to make pre-flight announcements. It’s interesting and reassuring, and I hope it’s a touch that Alaska Airlines keeps.
Flight attendants helped stow my carry on since I was in the bulkhead. They also distributed huge black pillows and comforters– these are seriously large and cozy. I declined, however, since I knew I’d be working on this flight.
Overall, I feel like that $410 was money well spent. I got plenty of work done on the flight. Once again, I had a speedy Gogo connection— fast enough to upload photos, which is rare. I arrived back in SFO in good shape after the 5 hour slog.
I’m going to miss Virgin America. It will be tough to say goodbye to our fun, sassy, innovative, high-style airline. But I believe it will be in good hands with Alaska, which seems to have an open mind about integrating the best parts of the Virgin experience.
What do you think about losing Virgin America? Did you ever get to fly upfront? Ever play the upgrade bidding game? Please leave your comments below.