Why book elsewhere?
The removal of the online discount has meant that the cost to book on another site will be the same as booking direct on the Virgin Trains East Coast site as long as the other site doesn't add on fees. Our article about the removal of the online discount shows how it can even be financially beneficial booking elsewhere due to sites like TopCashback.
So as long as you avoid sites such as The Trainline which add on fees you won't be paying more for your travel. Most other rail operator sites do not charge fees.
If you book elsewhere Virgin Trains East Coast needs to pay 5% commission to the site that you purchase the ticket from so booking elsewhere is a real financial incentive for Virgin Trains East Coast to reinstate the discount.
UPDATE: as from 22 December 2015 we're reconsidering our decision to book elsewhere as the additional recognition programme appears to be in the process of being rolled out so there is a chance that you will receive bonuses throughout the year if you book your Virgin Trains East Coast tickets direct. For most people that is likely to be more beneficial than a small amount of cashback.
Why we still travel Virgin Trains East Coast
Although travelling East Coast is no longer the automatic decision it became when East Coast Rewards was around there's still many circumstances where it's the best option. The on-board crews are as good as ever and the on-board weekday first class menu has recently been improved. Travelling by Virgin Trains East Coast can still be a good experience. That said it's worth exploring the other options such as other rail operators (e.g. Grand Central or Hull Trains) or airlines for longer distance travel to see if they suit you better.
Unfortunately no other rail operator has stepped up and offered a decent loyalty scheme, if such a scheme was offered it would make considering other options more attractive.
With the January increase in fares it's worth revisiting the options and also for the year ahead we have to have a close watch of the on-board service to ensure that the high standards we expect from East Coast continue to be maintained.