With changes to Air Canada’s rewards program coming in 2020, now’s a good time to come up with a game plan for cashing in your hoard of points
Most frequent travellers and/or greedy points-hoarders will have heard, Air Canada and Aeroplan announced last month that they will consciously uncouple three years from now.
Aeroplan will still exist, and will likely continue to be affiliated with Air Canada in a less official way; it’s likely you will still be able to book Air Canada flights using Aeroplan points after 2020.
Beyond that, an element of uncertainty hangs over the future of those points. What will you be able to use them for after the changeover?
Aimia, Aeroplan’s parent company, assures us that the points will be redeemable for flights on “industry-leading” airlines from July 1, 2020, onward. And according to Air Canada, the airline “expects to continue making Air Canada flights available for Aeroplan redemption [but] Star Alliance partner rewards will only be available through the new Air Canada program.”
If that all sounds a little vague, it’s because no one’s exactly sure what the future will look like yet. Pierre-Jean Mayol, head of air rewards for Aeroplan, said as much in a recent interview with Billy. “As far as after June 2020, we’re definitely still committed to providing flight redemption options to our members. The details of that is something we’re working on at the moment,” Mayol said.
“If we are going to make significant changes to the program, we will let members know.”
In the meantime, Mayol promises the situation will remain business as usual until 2020. And with three years to go before the changeover, he says, “For now there are really no reasons to rush. There’s plenty of time to redeem.
“If we are going to make some significant changes to the program, we will let members know well in advance for sure, so they can decide best what to do with their miles.”
Three years might seem like a long time, but for some of us, it’s within the horizon of planning of that big dream trip. In my case, I hoarded points for a little longer than three years with the aim of cashing most of them in at once for an an open-jaw jaunt to Asia. (While writing this story, I finally booked it: Toronto to Hong Kong, then Tokyo back to Toronto, both direct flights, for 78,500 points – using the “market fares” tab – plus $168 in fees. Huzzah!)
Don’t wait too long
For others in a similar situation, does it make sense to use the points soon? Yes, says Patrick Sojka, who runs Rewards Canada, a portal for users of Canadian-based rewards programs.
Many of his readers are pining for something truly special – an ostentatiously luxurious experience, such as flying Singapore Airlines suites class. The the trouble with that strategy, Stojka says, is that the number of points/spending required to reach such a reward can keep increasing. He notes that regardless of what happens as of July 2020, the Aeroplan program has changed many times in the past (PDF link). Often the changes involve an increase in the miles required for a particular category of reward (although in fairness to Aeroplan, the changes have made the plan more generous at times, too).
“Sometimes those dream trips will always be out of reach.”
Meanwhile: Rules change, partners change, and in 2020, a lot of things will probably change.
All in all, for peace of mind, it has always been wise not to sit on points excessively long, saving up for a reward that could vanish before you reach it. Being realistic, Stojka says, “sometimes those dream trips will always be out of reach.”
So, he notes, mile hoarders perhaps “could have had more value over these years redeeming in economy class” instead of squirrelling away for that Big Reward.
Funnily enough, Aeroplan’s mythbusting page says, in huge letters as a sort of slogan, “the sooner you can soar.” Maybe it should finish the thought with: “… the better.”
And if you are going to going to redeem sooner rather than later, what’s the best way to use the points you have?
Stretching those miles
The first thing to bear in mind: Aeroplan miles are exchangeable for a whole host of things, from rental cars to gift cards. The common wisdom among frequent travellers says you should ignore those distractions and focus on flights.
I did a little bit of arithmetic to check out that theory. I won’t bore you with the number salad, which involves fractions of pennies and so on, but the hypothesis generally checks out: Buying, say, a digital camera or a barbecue or booking a hotel room is typically an inefficient use of points compared to cashing them in for flights.
“The farther you go, the more value you get out of your miles.”
When it comes to flights, a second important thing to know is the difference between Fixed Mileage Rewards and Market Rewards. The former are seats reserved for Aeroplan users, and cost a fixed amount of miles (as the name implies), from 15,000 for a short flight within North America to a 90,000-point spend for a North America-to-Australia route (in economy class, in both cases).
With a Market Rewards flight, the number of miles required to book varies with the demand – so a flight could cost 50,000 points one day and 80,000 the next. And while they can be costly, Market Rewards flights can also be a good bargain, as I have personally experienced.
Now that we’re up to speed on the basics, here are some tips from the experts:
1. Long flights often offer the best value
“The farther you go, the more value you get out of your miles. That’s true more than 90% of the time,” Sojka says.
For example, some travellers gleefully note that trips from just about anywhere in Canada to Hawaii make a lot of sense to book on points – 45,000 Aeroplan miles for a flight from Eastern Canada (using the Fixed Mileage program) is a great deal, for example. Ditto flying from Canada (especially the eastern half) to major hub cities in the “Asia 1” zone, such as Tokyo, Taipei and Shanghai. Some flyers love to book flights to South America for the sake of value as well.
2. The sweetness of a deal often depends on airline surcharges
The cost of booking with airlines partnered with Air Canada/Aeroplan depends a lot on their surcharges, which vary – and based on our tinkering in the system, we can at least anecdotally confirm the rumour that European airlines are relatively expensive. (Local facility and security charges can add up, too.) Airlines based in Asia, on the other hand, generally don’t seem to charge very high fees, relatively speaking.
Sojka says it’s worth checking whether Turkish Airlines can get you to where you’re going – on the way to final destinations in Europe or Asia – because its fees are lower than with many competitors. A stopover in Istanbul may be worth the difference.
“And then a lot of people just jump on United [Airlines], because the fees are really low,” Sojka says, “and connect through the U.S.”
For people who absolutely hate paying surcharges in cash, note that Aeroplan introduced the option of paying for them with points as of April 2016.
3. Aeroplan doesn’t load up all the seats for a particular route 355 days in advance, as is rumoured online
“They are loaded at various times of year, and it varies a lot,” Mayol says. Seats are loaded continually, and “what we encourage our members to do is come back frequently. There is no specific date where we can say to our members, ‘Go on this date and you will find a seat.’ It’s constantly being updated by the system.”
Anything you read that says otherwise, Mayol says, is probably “based on how the system used to work, not how it works now.”
4. That being said, the best time to book is often well in advance (though the last minute can work, too)
And in the latter case, Sojka says, “you have to be ready to travel within about two weeks.”
5. Remember the around-the-world reward
Mayol brings up the around-the-world ticket offer – which costs 200,000 miles in economy class – as an example of a semi-hidden treasure within the system. The deal allows the redeemer to circle the globe one time, including five stopovers and one open jaw. Anything else goes as long as you start and finish in the same country.
“Usually it’s usually the trip of a lifetime,” Mayol says, “and everybody who has been fortunate to go on one of these has been amazed by the value provided.”
If you’re sitting on a couple hundred thousand points, what are you waiting for?