When Australian Business Traveller compared Qantas Frequent Flyer with Velocity Rewards in June, one of the most obvious deficiencies in Virgin Australia's program was the (lack of) ability to upgrade with points.
At the time, we noted:
Virgin's system for upgrades is extremely limited in comparison to Qantas. Passengers can only upgrade from domestic economy to premium economy. In fact, it's only a limited-time promotion until 31st August, called a "Premium Economy Taster".
You can only apply for an upgrade by calling Virgin Australia customer service three hours before your flight -- there is no online system to use.
Upgrades for international flights are not available at all through Virgin Australia.
(Virgin Australia is promising to relaunch its frequent flyer program with a new one in coming months that it believes will be better than Qantas Frequent Flyer -- so that had better include a comprehensive upgrade system!)
This relaunch has now happened, with Virgin Australia CEO John Borghetti unveiling a markedly expanded, family-friendly version of Velocity Rewards.
One of the key improvements is the ability to use Velocity points for cabin class upgrades.
There's a whole section of the Velocity Rewards website dedicated to upgrades, listing the points cost of upgrades based on the length of the trip.
For example, upgrading to 'premium' from Sydney to Melbourne costs 4,900 points. On Qantas, it's a similar amount - 5,000 points.
From Sydney to Perth it's 9,900 points. Again, Qantas is similar, at 10,000 points.
A Velocity member can use their points to upgrade another passenger’s flight using their points, which is good.
The many downsides of Virgin Australia's upgrades
Unfortunately, there's still no online system to actually do the upgrade -- you still have to ring Virgin Australia's call centre.
There are also some rather disappointing terms and conditions.
Upgrades are only available from "flexi ticket" fares, not discount economy.
Bad luck for people whose employers have a policy of booking the cheapest discount economy but want to use their Velocity frequent flyer points to upgrade a longer trip to be more comfortable.
Qantas, on the other hand, does allow discount economy passengers to upgrade business class.
After all, points are just a currency of sorts -- given credit card companies and retailers buy them from airlines, they have a distinct financial value, so it's hard to understand why an airline would restrict discount economy passengers from burning points on an upgrade to business class.
Upon first verifying that a premium redemption seat is available online, members may call to request an upgrade at anytime up to 24 hours prior to scheduled departure time. Upgrades will not be accepted any less than 24 hours prior to travel.
Well, that's a let-down. Although Qantas cuts off upgrade requests 24 hours before a flight for standard travellers, it lets Qantas Frequent Flyer gold and platinum, and Qantas Club members apply for a domestic flight upgrade "on departure" -- at the Qantas Club just before the flight.
Upgrades are available on eligible Virgin Australia, Pacific Blue, and Polynesian Blue flights.
Which means no international flight upgrades with Singapore Airlines, Etihad or other long-haul Virgin partners.
Catering cannot be confirmed on upgrades.
If you upgarded from economy class to business class on any route longer than Sydney-Melbourne and were served no food, you'd be pretty disappointed.
No changes or cancellations permitted; Points will be forfeited
This is very disappointing. Qantas will refund the points used for upgrades if you have to cancel your flight -- as long as you cancel 24 hours before the flight.
Members will earn Points and Status Credits based on the original fare class purchased.
This is also disappointing and contrary to what most people would expect -- but it's also Qantas' policy, so at least Virgin Australia is no worse on this point.