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Editors' Choice Awards 2011: Best Paid Perk

by SmarterTravel Staff
Editors' Choice Badge: Paid Airline Perk
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on May 15, 2011. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, American, Continental, first-class airfare, JetBlue, low-cost airline, upgrade, Virgin America.

Winner: Day-of-Flight Upgrades on Virgin America

First class for $270? Sounds like a pretty good deal. And that's exactly the deal Virgin America offers every day on its longest flights. Short-haul flights are less expensive, with medium-haul (Virgin uses Los Angeles to Seattle as an example) going for $110 and short-haul (San Francisco to Las Vegas) going for $70. Prices are even cheaper if you're upgrading from Main Cabin Select, Virgin's premium economy class.

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Economy-class customers can also upgrade to Main Cabin Select for $110, $55, and $35 (long- to short-haul, respectively). The value isn't as strong, but this is also a good deal.

So, why pick this as our top perk? Well, imagine grabbing a Boston-to-San Francisco flight for, say, $159 one-way, then tacking on the $270 first-class upgrade. That's $429 for a first-class seat with 55 inches of legroom, free food, drinks, and on-demand movies, and two free checked bags ($50 total otherwise). It's a low price threshold for an excellent product, which can easily cost hundreds or thousands more on other airlines, and even on Virgin.

Further, in an industry where a "perk" is usually either A) something of marginal value or B) something that used to be free, Virgin's upgrades represent a perk in the truest sense. Consider the following so-called perks, many of which were introduced since our last Editors' Choice Awards.

  • American lets you board and deplane a little bit quicker than the rest of your fellow passengers, for as much as $39. Estimated maximum number of minutes this saves: seven.
  • Continental lets passengers lock in a fare for up to a week, at a cost of between $9 and $29 or more. All this to reserve a fare you will most likely book anyway. So why not just book it?
  • JetBlue's "Even More Legroom" program upgrades passengers to a seat with 38 inches of legroom; this past September, the airline added early boarding to the package. The cost? Up to $55 on a long-haul flight. A good deal, but not quite as comprehensive as Virgin's first-class upgrade or even its Main Cabin Select upgrade, the latter of which includes complimentary food and drinks, free entertainment, dedicated luggage space and priority check-in, 38 inches of legroom (same as JetBlue's perk), and one free bag (standard on JetBlue).

A "perk" should be exactly that—an indulgence that improves your flight in a dramatic way—and first class is as indulgent as it gets. Virgin's first-class upgrade represents an extraordinarily good deal compared to the market value of a first-class seat, and the benefits of spending the money far outweigh what other airlines offer. It is exactly the sort of perk that should win this category, and so it does.

Editors' Choice 2011 homepage

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