As many followers of Miles Per Day will know, Virgin America is offering a promotion where transferring 80,000 Membership Rewards points to the Virgin America (VX) Elevate program will grant you VX Gold status until February of 2017. For frequent VX flyers, this could be a great deal because it offers free Main Cabin Select upgrades (typically $50 a pop) and increased earnings on cash fares.



Although the status is not particularly valuable to me outside the ability to cancel award tickets free of charge (the benefit is technically called an ‘Elevate redeposit fee waiver’), I decided to bite. Why? So I could take advantage of Alaska Airline’s fairly generous status match program. I submitted my request for a match to I haven’t heard back from them yet, but I should at least receive Alaska MVP Gold and perhaps even MVP Gold 75k if I’m lucky. I’ll keep you guys updated as I hear more.

Bring Your Own Elite

Ironically, this marks the first time I’ve ever held elite status. Well, that’s not quite true, as I’m a two-year gold member of Milenomics’s BYOE program. But nonetheless, I’ve never been on an upgrade list, never flown a premium cabin, and never had the opportunity to pull a ‘DYKWIA’ (google it if you’re curious) upon being slighted before, during, or after a flight.

A fundamental tenet of Milenomics is that elite status is a trap. Status, while offering the illusion of value through the promise of complimentary seat upgrades, lounge access, free checked bags, and priority boarding, typically leads people to paying more than they otherwise would have. Moreover, many of these benefits (checked bags, lounge access) can be had for free or at a significant discount by strategically holding certain credit cards (e.g. United MileagePlus Explorer, American Express Platinum). I obviously acknowledge that this is not an absolute rule, especially given that I decided it was worth it to take advantage of the VX status offer, but there are a number of psychological principles that prime our decision-making in a way that makes us rationalize differences in cost (I’ll explore these some time in the next couple of months).

Given that I take such a mathematical approach to travel (hacking), I would have expected that I would be largely immune to the allures of status. Six inches of extra legroom? Heck, I’m willing to sleep in an airport instead of paying for a night at a hotel. But status got the better of me — well, nearly — precisely because it changes the math.

Lost earnings

I keep a spreadsheet of all my potential and actual miles and points redemptions to get a sense of the value I’m getting from them. Part of my computation includes subtracting out the value of the miles (both credit card and loyalty program) I would have earned had I paid cash. My formula therefore looks something like this*:

Value = $ cost of flight / (miles cost of flight + credit card miles lost + airline miles lost)

So where did status trip me up? Looking at the formula, the more miles that I miss out on by not paying cash, the less value I get out of my points. Therefore, since one of the benefits of status is increased miles earning (and for VX Gold, the bonus earnings are 100%), my redemption values have decreased relative to when I didn’t have status. To make it more concrete, consider the fact that you earn 5 VX points per dollar spent normally, whereas with status you earn 10/dollar. On a $200 flight (ignoring taxes and fees) which cost me 8960 VX miles, I would have earned 1000 VX points by paying cash if I didn’t have status, and 2000 if I did. My ‘value’ then, would have been 200 / (8960 + 1000) = 2.00 cents/mile before I was granted status, and 200 / (8960 + 2000) = 1.82 now that I have it. If I redeemed enough points, that would end up being a big difference — $180 over the 100,000 points I currently have in my account!

Because of this, and the fact that I won’t re-qualify for status after this promotion is over, I almost opted to pay cash, saving my points for later when they’re theoretically more valuable. But I don’t live in a theoretical world, so thankfully, I thought twice about it, which saved me both the out-of-pocket cost and gave me an idea for a blog post ;).

*People will give you a million different responses for how to compute the value of your points. This is nothing more than the million-and-first.