The world of Frequent Flyer benefits: Qantas Vs. Virgin Australia

What super power do you want?

Surprisingly I’ve been asked this a couple of times and my answer has always been and still is to teleport! How amazeballs (google the word if you don’t know it, I only learnt it recently) will it be to drop by anywhere in the world (or out of the world) in just a flash…yum cha at Tin Lung Heen Hong Kong overlooking Victoria Harbour, a bit of shopping along 5th Avenue then perhaps dinner at Le Grand Véfour Paris.

So in a world where super power doesn’t exists, the reality of travel is having to arrive at the airport 2-3 hours in advance or an hour for domestic flights and worrying about being stuck in traffic on the way and missing your flight. Then once you’re at the airport, that’s really just the start. The long check-in queues, security clearance, customs, walk to the gate, wait to board and then finally fly for how many hours to reach your final destination, disembark, customs, border security, collect luggage…tired already?

Unless you’re one of the privileged few that travels by private jet, one of the ways to ease the pain is to become a loyal customer of an airline (or group of airlines) and enjoy the perks that comes with frequent flyer status.

In Australia, the two major airlines Qantas and Virgin Australia both run their own frequent flyer program and it’s big business. Qantas’ lucrative loyalty division (valued at around $2.5 billion) reported a pre-tax profit of $160 million for the first half of FY14/15 and $286 million for the full FY13/14. Whilst Virgin doesn’t report on financials directly related to it’s Velocity Frequent Flyer program, it sold a 35% stake of the program to Affinity Equity Partners in August 2014, valuing the program at an enterprise value of $960 million.

With 10.5 and 4.8 million members respectively, being just part of the program isn’t quite enough and it’s not really until you reach the shinny Gold or better still Platinum status that the real attractive perks kicks in, but you’d have to spend a fair bit to get and stay there.

The convenience of “status” starts well before you fly, from priority phone assistance for bookings/upgrades to advanced selection of reserved seats generally at the front of the plane which can mean saving 10-15 minutes getting off the plane on arrival.

At the airport, members get priority check-in, extra checked baggage allowance, priority boarding, priority baggage which basically translate to getting in and out of the airport quicker. For domestic travel, you get the added luxury of premium security lanes and with Virgin, there’s premium valet and kerbside entry for even more streamlined access.

Once you’ve breezed past the formalities at the airport, the lounge is a nice place to catch your breathe before flying out. Starting the day with a nice cup of freshly barista made coffee, light breakfast and the morning paper; ending it with a glass of wine (or two) whilst using one of the many power points scattered around the place to recharge your mobile that’s down to its last 15%.  Yes, the lounges can get quite busy during peak periods especially in Sydney and Melbourne but so is the rest of the airport in general.

International lounges are slightly less hectic, have a larger selection of food and beverage and generally better facilities. Business class lounges are good but it’s the first class lounges that you should aspire to. Generally restricted to first class passengers or platinum-grade frequent flyers, here you’ll enjoy a la carte menus designed by famous chefs, premium wine and even a relaxing spa session before the flight.

In an ideal world, you’d want to maintain a Gold or above frequent flyer membership with both Qantas and Virgin Australia but unless you’re doing a lot of International travel at the pointy end, that’s easier said than done.

If you’re choosing between one or the other, I’d start with Velocity. Not only because it’s won Program of the Year for three consecutive years in the freddie awards but the fact that members can family pool points, and more importantly status credits, means you’ll reach Gold or beyond faster (it also has a lower barrier to entry). Apart from reaching Gold quicker, Velocity also opens up equivalent partnerships with IHG or Hilton hotels, and Europecar or Hertz car hire, making travel even easier.

Qantas though is part of the oneworld alliance which opens door to over 600 oneworld lounges across the globe as well as reciprocal travel privileges with alliance partners including American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific and more. By comparison, Virgin only gets you access to 150 lounges worldwide through it’s partner airlines. Both programs allow frequent flyers accumulate points quicker through bonus points which will be useful for upgrades or reward seats.

At the end of the day, it pays to be loyal to one airline (or group of airlines)…at least until you can afford business/first class travel each and every time.

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