From California

From California…

For my flight home for Thanksgiving, I booked an award flight on Virgin America (VX). As I had just completed the Membership Rewards 80,000 point transfer promotion, it would be my first flight as a VX Elevate Gold member. Although the benefits of Gold status aren’t the most amazing (since VX doesn’t offer complimentary F upgrades), I was able to take advantage of the free award cancellations to save $65 in points when three days before my flight the price randomly fell to $173 (the price jumped to $349 after immediately after I made my booking).

New York, New York!

…to the New York Island

So while nice, my status hadn’t gotten me much, in particular because although VX offers complimentary Main Cabin Select (MCS) upgrades to Gold guests, they don’t apply to award bookings. At least, that’s what they tell you.

When I checked in at the gate, I knew that the plane was fairly empty so I figured that I might as well ask about F upgrades on the off chance I got it comped (which I knew wouldn’t happen). I set my ‘price’ at $200, and much to my surprise, the gate agent told me it would be $240 for the upgrade (it had been $399 at check-in). I asked her how much time I had to decide (until boarding) and then thanked her for her time.

When it came time to board, I walked back to the gate, and the agent pointed out that there were MCS seats available and that they would be free to me as a Gold member. She told me to head over to the other agent at the desk who would take care of me. Despite my confusion and knowledge to the contrary (as I was flying on an award booking), I kept my mouth shut, just as I had done at the VX lounge at LAX a few weeks ago.

VX Main Cabin Select

Lots of legroom 🙂

After checking with the other agent, I was upgraded to MCS with an empty seat next to me. As it turns out MCS is as close as you can get to a Premium Economy seat on a US carrier, as it comes with unlimited food and drink and free in-flight entertainment in addition to the extra legroom. So that was quite nice.

During the flight I tried to make sense of what had happened. Here’s how I described it to a friend:


The gate agent was explaining that apparently it’s normal practice not to opt in to complimentary MCS upgrades when booking paid flights since it might put you in a middle seat. Then she advised that for my next flight, I should go to the gate before boarding and ask to be put on the list for an upgrade, which will allow me to ‘check availability myself’ before opting in. I’m guessing what happened this time is that at the gate they can’t actually tell the difference between an award booking and a paid booking, since VX doesn’t have traditional fare buckets as do other carriers.

So I guess I learned a new hack today. Well…let’s call it a ‘soft’ hack.

So, what’s a soft hack?

Whereas a hard hack is exploiting a glitch or some other technical property, a soft hack is taking advantage of uncertainty to your benefit. For example:

Best rate guarantees are hard hacks since they’re endemic to the delay in pricing systems and availability buckets. Hidden city ticketing is a hard hack since airline pricing is typically dependent on the endpoints of your itinerary, not your transit points.

Whereas hard hacks persist (at least until fixed) and are repeatable under identical circumstances, soft hacks require uncertainty and are thus ephemeral. That said, they usually stick around forever barring some explicit training to the contrary.

Handing a hotel receptionist a $20 bill in hopes of getting a room upgrade is a soft hack. The hospitality industry explicitly gives employees discretion to treat their customers in order to provide the best possible experience, but not every receptionist will feel comfortable accepting a bribe.

Experiment, experiment, experiment.

As I’ve described to many of my friends who ask me how I got started with travel hacking, it was the ‘hacking’ part of the term that piqued my interest. Although signing up for credit cards and manufacturing spend can be incredibly lucrative, they aren’t the things I get most excited about. Finding new hacks, both hard and soft, and telling stories about those hacks (and hopefully learning something about why they worked) get me going. After all, as long as it doesn’t cost me anything, why not?

Any other soft hacks you’ve discovered?