Well, everyone, it’s finally happening. We’re going to talk about Air Miles.
I haven’t given Air Miles too much attention here at Prince of Travel thus far, mainly because it doesn’t quite stack up to some other programs out there in terms of the value you can extract from the program. Nevertheless, over 10 million Canadians are Air Miles collectors, and they certainly deserve to know how they can maximize the points they’ve earned, don’t they?
I’ve just added a Guide to Air Miles to the Points Programs section of the website, which provides a high-level outline of all the best ways to earn and redeem Canada’s most popular loyalty currency. We’ll start talking about the program in much more detail in future posts, but for today, I wanted to flesh out the possibilities of redeeming Air Miles for flights and provide a few practical examples of ways to book flights at a good value.
Air Miles: Setting Expectations
Before delving into the redemption ideas just yet, we should talk a little bit about the general expectations of what you can accomplish with Air Miles.
First off, Air Miles’s award chart is really only useful for economy class flights, as there is no provision in the award chart for business class or First Class flights. As discussed in the Guide to Air Miles, you can book premium flights using the FlexFly perk that comes with the Amex Air Miles Reserve Card, but that’s essentially a fixed-value redemption scheme that ultimately won’t be very useful for booking flights in premium cabins that cost thousands of dollars.
Next, there are a few significant shortcomings in terms of the functionality of the Air Miles award search engine. First off, the award pricing doesn’t necessarily conform exactly to what’s given in the award chart, as there seems to be an element of dynamic award pricing involved (i.e., a more expensively priced flight might require slightly more Air Miles to book).
But even more frustratingly, the search engine won’t show you the search results if you don’t currently have enough Air Miles in your account to book! This really isn’t a consumer-friendly feature at all, as it makes it quite difficult to plan for larger redemptions with Air Miles.
Taken together, the lack of premium cabins and the lack of transparency in terms of the redemption prices mean that the value of Air Miles is generally reduced compared to a program like Aeroplan, which by comparison is excellent for flying business class and provides a clearly laid-out award chart.
Searching for value within Air Miles can therefore be quite a challenge, and I wouldn’t recommend treating the program as your main focus when collecting points. Nevertheless, Air Miles are quite easy to earn given the wealth of retail partners they have, so they’re best thought of as the “gravy” on top of the other major points programs – after all, everyone needs to book a quick, no-nonsense economy class flight every now and then, and as we’ll see below, Air Miles does provide a few pockets of value for those types of trips.
The last thing to mention relates to the nominal value of Air Miles. The “baseline” value of Air Miles should be thought of as 10.5 cents per point (cpp), because that’s the value you’re getting when you trade them in for groceries at a ratio of 95 Air Miles = $10. When you redeem Air Miles for flights, you should therefore be seeking to get a value of at least 10.5cpp, because otherwise you’re better off just using them for groceries instead.
But 10.5cpp seems like an exceptionally high value, doesn’t it? Most of the points currencies we’re familiar with exist in the range of 1–2cpp, and something like 10cpp is usually considered to be unbelievable value.
Well, it’s really just a matter of different programs using different conventions for the nominal values of their points. While a program like Aeroplan usually quotes its mileage amounts in the five-figure range, Air Miles uses the four-figure range – for example, you can typically start to redeem flights at 1,000 Air Miles.
Accordingly, the signup bonuses and earning rates are also adjusted: while Aeroplan credit cards grant five-figure signup bonuses and earn 1 mile per dollar spent, Air Miles cards grant four-figure signup bonuses and earn 1 mile for every $10 spent, so it all works out to be the same. Don’t be fooled by this!
With all that said, let’s see if we can disprove Air Miles’s less-than-stellar reputation and hunt for some value within the program. All of the below flights are priced out for one traveller, and keep in mind the key tips that are discussed in the Guide to Air Miles: the BMO Air Miles World Elite MasterCard will get you a 15% discount on flight redemptions (which is reflected in the below examples), having Air Miles Onyx status will open up more availability, and having a companion voucher (a legacy perk of the BMO credit card) just about doubles the value of these trips if you redeem for at least two passengers.
1. Short-Haul Flight within North America
One of the most reliable high-value uses of Air Miles is for short-haul flights within North America. This is because short-haul flights can get kind of expensive despite the limited distance they cover, opening the door to a distance-based award program like Air Miles to provide added value by covering the cost of the flight with a relatively low required mileage.
Take the below long weekend trip from Toronto to Montreal, which would cost you $394 if booked with cash. The Air Miles pricing gives you the same journey for 1,594 Air Miles (taking into account the 15% discount from the BMO Air Miles World Elite MasterCard) plus $109 in taxes and fees. This works out to 19.3cpp in value, which far exceeds the baseline value of 10.5cpp that you’d get by redeeming Air Miles for groceries.
Another way to think about this is that if you didn’t redeem those 1,594 Air Miles on this flight, you could instead redeem them as $167 towards free groceries (since 95 Air Miles = $10 in free groceries). You’re therefore paying just $167 worth of grocery money plus $109 in taxes and fees (a total of $276) for your weekend trip, a much more reasonable price compared to the full fare of $394.
As a point of comparison, Aeroplan would charge you 15,000 miles plus a similar amount of taxes and fees for the same journey on Air Canada instead of WestJet. Would you rather part ways with 15,000 Aeroplan miles or 1,594 Air Miles? The answer will vary from person to person, but in general, since Aeroplan miles can be used towards much more valuable redemptions like Mini-RTW trips or premium cabin flights, it might well make more sense to use Air Miles for these “smaller” redemptions instead.
2. Long-Haul Flight within North America
While some travellers have aspirations of jetsetting around the globe, others are content with a simple trip to somewhere warm once a year during the festive periods. Reasonable airfare down south during Christmas and New Year’s… is that too much to ask for?
Apparently. Check out the below fares from Vancouver to Arizona at the end of the year:
Instead of paying the $686 cash fare, what if we took a look at Air Miles? We can book the flights for 3,536 Air Miles plus $135 in taxes and fees, netting us a value of 15.6cpp. Again, that’s better than the baseline value of 10.5cpp, so it should be considered a decent use of your Air Miles.
If we asked ourselves “how much grocery money is this equivalent too?”, we’d find that 3,536 Air Miles amounts to $371 in grocery money. Add in the taxes and fees, and you’re looking at effectively paying $506 for your flights instead of $686 – a good chunk of savings.
Note that we’re getting good value here because we’re travelling in peak season, so the cash fares are artificially high – during low season, fares on the Vancouver–Phoenix route are often as little as $300, at which point it might not make sense to redeem Air Miles. Always be sure to check your redemption ideas against the cash fares to determine if it’s a good value or not.
3. Trip to the Canadian North
A few niche redemptions through Air Miles can deliver even better value. For example, visiting Churchill, Manitoba, the Polar Bear Capital of the World, can be very expensive if booked with cash. The trip below, which retails for almost $1,500, can be had for a mere 1,989 Air Miles plus $157.86 in taxes and fees. That amounts to a vertigo-inducing 63.6cpp in value!
If we were to think about this trip in terms of “grocery money”, 1,989 Air Miles is equivalent to $209 in groceries. Add in the taxes and fees and you’re effectively only paying $367 for a $1,423 flight – and thus scoring a 74% discount!
If you’re feeling even braver, you can even book a trip into the deep Canadian Arctic, which would take you to two or more destinations that are pretty cool indeed. For example, you could fly the below route from Ottawa to Edmonton, but with a few days each in Iqaluit and Rankin Inlet:
You’d piece together this trip on a segment-by-segment basis, but since each segment has an exorbitant cash price and thus gives you extremely high value for your Air Miles, the overall trip would give you an extremely high value as well.
I’ll spare you the litany of screenshots here, but in total, you’d be looking at spending:
2,040 Air Miles + $51 in taxes and fees for the Ottawa–Iqaluit flight (retails for $862)
1,193 Air Miles + $16 in taxes and fees for the Iqaluit–Rankin Inlet flight (retails for $1,446)
1,591 Air Miles + $51 in taxes and fees for the Rankin Inlet–Edmonton flight (retails for $1,637)
In total, you’re spending 4,824 Air Miles + $118 in taxes and fees, but you’re saving an eye-watering $3,945 on the retail costs of these flights. Value-wise, that amounts to 80.4cpp – this, my friends, is how you win in Air Miles.
Of course, this type of trip might not appeal to everyone, but if you do have an interest in exploring our country’s more remote Northern regions, Air Miles might well be the way to go. As a point of comparison, Aeroplan also lets you book flights on First Air and Canadian North up to the Arctic, but you wouldn’t get to customize your stopovers quite as much – and if you did want to do so, you’d have to pay for multiple awards.
4. Flying to Europe or Other Continents
Outside of North America, Air Miles tend to be less useful, and there are a few reasons why:
Economy class airfare to other continents are at a historical low, thus suppressing the average value you’d get from an Air Miles redemption
Air Miles imposes fuel surcharges on redemptions outside of North America, which can quickly eat into your savings
As a result, the occasions on which you might find it worthwhile to redeem Air Miles on long-haul international flights would be limited to when the cash fare is exceptionally high, perhaps during peak travel season. Take, for example, the below one-way flight from Toronto to Istanbul on KLM. It’ll cost you $1,117, or you could redeem 5,100 Air Miles instead, although you would have to pay the taxes, fees, and fuel surcharges totalling $387:
This gives you a value of 14.3cpp, which is good but not great. It’s about on par with the North America long-haul example from above, but pales in comparison to short-haul flights and a trip up to the Canadian North. Remember, though, as long as you’re exceeding the baseline 10.5cpp in value you’d get from redeeming for groceries, you’re coming out ahead of what the vast majority of Canadians blow their Air Miles on.
Generally, I’d say that while there are occasional opportunities in redeeming Air Miles for long-haul international flights, their optimal usage remains short-haul and long-haul flying within Canada and the United States. A very compelling strategy for the traveller who likes taking both kinds of trips, then, is to focus on Air Miles for North American flying while using another program, like Aeroplan, for the bigger long-haul trips instead.
Air Miles is a program that I’ve ignored for far too long. While it might not carry the glamor of luxury travel in cushy First Class suites, Air Miles gets the job done when it comes to those simple trips that you need to book (particularly within North America) where you’re looking for a way to avoid paying the full cash fare, and intrepid travellers will also do well to take note of the opportunities in redeeming Air Miles for travelling up to the Arctic tundra.
Overall, there are many ways to get over 10.5cpp in value from redeeming flights, and given how easily you can earn Air Miles through their vast range of retail partners, it’s a program that ought to be, if not your primary focus, then one of the many alternatives that you keep in your locker as you look to optimize your travel.