Free Virgin Mobile + Virgin Atlantic / Alaska discounts: Deal or no deal?

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On the heels of Sprint’s recent (and still valid until 6/30) promotion for one year of FREE Sprint cell phone service, Virgin Mobile announced a few days ago that they are also offering nearly free wireless service for 12 months, as well as opportunities for 2-for-1 travel on Virgin Atlantic and up to 20% off some Alaska Airlines flights. However, there is a catch….or two or three or four. The main catch is that you have to buy an iPhone from Virgin Mobile (models from $279.99) — more on that in a minute. To wrap up my thoughts in a nutshell: this deal probably isn’t worth it to me — but it might work out well for a segment of readers. Read on to find out why.

Free Virgin Mobile cell service for one year

The Deal

  • Buy a Virgin Mobile iPhone, get first 12 months of unlimited service for $1 (plus monthly taxes) (phone is carrier-locked)

Eligible Phones:

  • iPhone SE (various colors)
    • 32GB $279.99
    • 128GB $379.99
  • iPhone 6 (Space Gray)
    • 32GB $319.99
  • iPhone 6s (various colors)
    • 32GB $549.99
    • 128GB $649.99
  • iPhone 6s Plus (various colors)
    • 32GB $649.99
    • 128GB $749.99
  • iPhone 7 (various colors)
    • 32GB $649.99
    • 128GB $749.99
    • 256GB $849.99
  • iPhone 7 Plus (various colors)
    • 32GB $769.99
    • 128GB $869.99
    • 256GB $969.99

Note: You should be able to go through ExtraRebates.com for $10 cash back. I’ve never used this site, but it was the only option listed on CashBackMonitor.

Additional Virgin brands perks

  • A round-trip companion ticket to the United Kingdom on Virgin Atlantic (subject to taxes, surcharges (likely hefty fuel surcharges), blackout dates and a booking and travel window between 9/30/17 and 3/31/18)
  • Stay 2 nights, get one free at Virgin Hotels: Currently they have a location in Chicago and there are more cities to come. Subject to blackout dates (details here)
  • $170 savings on an introductory offer to Virgin Wines club (15 bottles of red wine for $70)
  • Up to 20-percent off flights on Virgin America or Alaska Airlines (20% off on Tues-Wed-Sat, 10% other days, many blackout dates)
  • 20-percent off on the Virgin Sport San Francisco Festival of Fitness (Oct. 13-15)

Key Terms

  • Valid for sign ups through July 31st, 2017
  • If you break the contract and leave before 12 months is up, you will be charged for the $50 a month plan + taxes (according to the terms)
  • Virgin Mobile may terminate service if off-network roaming use in a month exceeds: (1) 800 mins or a majority of mins.; or (2) 100MB or a majority of KB
  • Virgin Mobile runs on Sprint’s network
  • Phone appears to be locked to Virgin Mobile for 12 months

But you have to deal with Virgin Mobile

This deal has a handful of inconsistencies. Note that I can’t find some of the above terms on Virgin’s site. I got those terms from Slickdeals — I’m trusting that the Slickdeals editors didn’t make them up but rather were given those terms from a Virgin rep. And that’s part of the problem — Virgin Mobile is not the most reliable or consistent carrier. As a quick example, the phones are being sold at full retail price. With most carriers, paying full retail price would mean that your device is unlocked (and could therefore be brought to another carrier and/or used internationally). And, in fact, if you just looked at the Virgin Mobile website, you might think that the phones are unlocked and you can bring them to another carrier:

However, in a discussion on the Virgin Mobile community forums yesterday, a Virgin Mobile social media agent said that the website is wrong and the phone will not be unlocked unless first kept active for 12 months in a Virgin Mobile account.

Meanwhile, another agent responded in a different discussion thread that seemingly contradicted this information. According to this agent, Inner Circle members (the $1/year plan) can return the phone within 14 days or for immediate network unlock.

The moral of the story? It’s hard for me to definitively know the truth on this point. At the end of the day, whether or not the phone can be unlocked might not seem like a dealbreaker since you have to stay on Virgin Mobile for a year anyway. However, if you want to travel internationally, this makes a big difference. With an unlocked phone, you can simply buy a local SIM and pop it in the phone and go. If the phone is locked, you’ll need an entirely separate phone for overseas use as Virgin has no international roaming/service.

Promotional Pricing – the no-contract-but-really-a-contract deal

Virgin Mobile says that they have no contracts. That’s kind of true. You are free to cancel at any time. However, according to Slickdeals, if you cancel before the 12 months of promotional pricing is up, you forfeit promotional pricing. In other words, if you have the service for six months and just can’t deal with Virgin Mobile any more, they are going to charge you more than $300 to leave. Charging you three hundred bucks to leave…..that sounds an awful lot like an Early Termination Fee. But only contracts have those. This is just a forfeiture of promotional pricing. Call it what you want: I call it the no-contract-contract. Note that I don’t find this term on Virgin Mobile’s site – so it’s possible that Slickdeals has this wrong.

How about the travel perks?

A two-for-one companion ticket and 20% off Alaska and Virgin America flights sounds enticing on the surface. But when you consider the fuel surcharges on Virgin Atlantic, that doesn’t sound like a very exciting deal at all. In fact, here’s a round trip between New York and London. As you can see, the actual fare is $61.50 each way. Your two-for-one ticket is essentially a $123 discount on a $583 ticket.

Unless I’m mistaken, with your 2-for-1 coupon, two of those tickets will run you $1,042.52 after the coupon. That doesn’t seem like a discount at all. And it’s only valid for travel both booked and completed between 9/30/17 and 3/31/18 — meaning that you can’t even book for a couple more months. While that might constitute a deal from many cities, that price feels high from New York in November (and indeed it’s nothing special as you can book the same dates on Icelandair right now for $447 round trip — or add a stop in Iceland and still be under the “2-for-1” price. It’s a small discount if you plan to fly on Virgin Atlantic anyway — as long as you don’t run into blackout dates or capacity controls, both of which are in the terms.

On the other hand, the discount on Alaska Airlines and Virgin America might be interesting. Here are the key terms. Of course, there is a contradiction on the page — in one place it says you have 80 days from the date the code is issues to make your booking. In another place on the same page, it says you’ll have 60 days. In a nutshell, you’ll get one code that is valid for at least 60 days and can be used to book flights 330 days out. Here are the key details:

  • Offer good for up to 20% off fares on flights departing on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday, and 10% off for flights departing Sunday, Monday, Thursday and Friday
  • Excludes Cuba
  • Not valid on “most discounted first class fares”

The following are the blackout dates:

US and Canada (Excluding Hawaii):

  • 2017:  November 17-19, 21-22, 25-27, December 22-24, 26, 29-31.
  • 2018: January 1-2, February 15-19, March 8-11, 15-18, 23-25, 30, April 1, 6-8, November 16-28, 21, 24-26, December 21-24, 26, 29-31.
  • 2019: January 1-2.

Hawaii, Mexico, Costa Rica:

  • 2017:  November 17-19, 25-28, December 15-31.
  • 2018: January 1-3, February 15-19, March 16-18, 23-25, 30, April 1, 6-8, November 17-19, 24-27, December 15-31.
  • 2019: January 1-2.

While that’s a lot of blackout dates, this is the key benefit that might really make this deal worthwhile. If you live in a city services by Alaska/Virgin, you might be able to recoup a significant portion of the cost of your cell service in one flight. This could make your service for the year nearly free — or maybe even better depending on how you use it.

And after all, the service is $1 for a year – am I being greedy?

Maybe I am. If you bought the cheapest possible phone, you’d be paying about $280 — let’s say that with tax you’ll be in for at least $300. Three hundred bucks for a new phone and 12 months of service doesn’t sound bad. Although, you may be on the hook for a few dollars more. According to the Slickdeals terms, you’ll be charged the full $50/month plus taxes if you leave before your 12 months are up. So you have to make sure you complete 12 full months. At that point, service will be auto-billed at $50 a month. Virgin Mobile is prepaid, so you would be charged immediately at the beginning of your 13th month. I’m not sure if they pro-rate a cancellation at that point. You might be on the hook for that first $50 after your year has ended — bumping your annual total to $350.

For more or less unlimited LTE service (up to 23GB per month before being throttled), that’s a good price. And you’ll have an iPhone that you should be able to get unlocked at that point. Sell the phone and your year of service will have cost you even less. If you’re able to use any of the additional perks, you might come out ahead.

Of course, Virgin Mobile runs on Sprint’s network. Two thoughts on that: If you have a Verizon device, you could just move to Sprint and avoid having to buy a new phone while still getting free service for the year (offer expires 6/30). Second, Sprint’s network is not nearly as widespread as those of Verizon, AT&T, and even T-Mobile. And just a little bit of roaming could easily be too much (I’d probably pass 100MB of roaming data very quickly and risk account shutdown — and potential forfeiture of my promotional pricing). To me, that makes the Virgin Mobile deal a tough sell over the Sprint deal. If you’re going to accept the more limited network, you’d be better off skipping out on the 100MB roaming cap.

However, the Sprint deal requires a port-in of a number from Verizon, AT&T, or T-Mobile. I’ve read conflicting reports as to whether or not new customers need to port in a number to get the Virgin deal. However, even if you do have to port in, I imagine Virgin would accept a port-in from any carrier (rather than limiting it to the big three “legacy” carriers). I would expect that you could, for example, port in from Straight Talk or H2O, etc. Of course, if you ask two different Virgin Mobile agents, you might get two different answers on that.

The Sprint deal also requires a credit check as it is a post-paid service. I don’t believe Virgin Mobile requires any credit check as it is a prepaid service. If you’re concerned about the extra pull on your credit report, Virgin Mobile might make more sense.

Final Word

Dollar-for-dollar, this is a pretty good deal on cell service for the year if you live in a place with good Sprint coverage and you won’t roam much. I don’t think there is a prepaid service that beats Virgin in terms of year 1 cost-per-Gigabyte. Even if you end up into this for $350 and you get at least $100 out of the ancillary perks, you could probably sell your phone in a year and have had service for close to free. If you manage to use the free third night at a Virgin Hotel or maximize the flight discount and get a couple hundred out of the ancillary perks, it could even be better than free. The locked phone, limited network, and inability to tether will keep me on the sidelines on this deal. But what about you — will you consider switching to Virgin Mobile?

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