Booked: The Canadian Hopper

Vancouver 2018
Booked: The Canadian Hopper

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I’m off to the West Coast this weekend to host the Vancouver Miles & Points Meetup. It’s going to be another awesome get-together with the community and I’m really looking forward to meeting everyone. We’re very nearly approaching a sold-out crowd for the event – as of the time of writing, there’s only one ticket left! Who’s going to be the one to get it?


The Flights

People have been loving these “Booked” posts lately, so I knew that there’d be widespread disappointment if I had just booked a simple roundtrip between Toronto and Vancouver.

And so, as I was planning my travel, I thought about how I could make this trip a little more interesting. 

One of my major frustrations as a traveller is how costly it is to travel within Canada itself. I’d love to discover more of what lies within our borders, but thus far, I haven’t seen nearly as much of our country as I’d like to. When it costs the same to fly to a different province as it does to fly to a different continent, you can be sure which option will always seem more attractive!

Edmonton, Alberta

Edmonton, Alberta

So then I wondered: hmm, what if I were able to do some long layovers in various Canadian cities on my way back from Vancouver?

We all know that the Aeroplan program lets you have layovers of up to 24 hours for no additional cost on your international bookings. However, I wasn’t sure whether the 24-hour layover rule still applied to domestic itineraries, so I called Aeroplan to verify. 

It turns out that when a booking is purely domestic or transborder (i.e., within Canada and the US), you’re still allowed to have long layovers, but only up to 12 hours in duration. Anything over 12 hours will count as a stopover instead.

Now, a 12-hour layover isn’t quite as enough time as a full day of truly immersing myself in a city, although it’s still better than nothing, and should be plenty of time to catch up with a friend or see a few significant local or regional points of interest.

So I went ahead and charted my course across the country. My goal was to build an itinerary that would allow me to visit friends in Calgary, Ottawa, and Montreal, while also visiting a few corners of the country I had never been to before, all whilst ensuring that no connection exceeded 12 hours in duration (and therefore booking the whole thing on a single one-way ticket). Within those constraints, the more convoluted the routing, the better!

Winnipeg, Manitoba

Winnipeg, Manitoba

Of course, I had to work entirely within Air Canada’s flight schedule, which meant that certain city combinations simply wouldn’t work. For example, if the last flight of the night arrived into a city at 9pm, but the next flight to out in the morning didn’t depart until 10am, then that routing simply wouldn’t be valid.

Availability was another factor I had to contend with. Normally, it’s pretty easy to find award availability on Air Canada domestic flights, whether in economy or business. But since it was Remembrance Day the upcoming weekend, many routes had already been booked up by people travelling for the long weekend. 

Between the scheduling and the availability, it was rather tough stringing together a series of flights that could connect onto one another within 12 hours, but eventually this is what I ended up with:

  • Toronto to Vancouver on Air Canada, departing 8pm and arriving 10:08pm, economy class


  • Vancouver to Edmonton on Air Canada, departing 10:25am and arriving 12:54pm, business class

  • Edmonton to Calgary on Air Canada, departing 8:25pm and arriving 9:26pm, economy class

  • Calgary to Winnipeg on Air Canada, departing 9am and arriving 11:55am, business class

  • Winnipeg to Ottawa on Air Canada, departing 4:25pm and arriving 7:48pm, business class

  • Ottawa to Montreal on Air Canada, departing 6:40am and arriving 7:32am, economy class

  • Montreal to Saint John on Air Canada, departing 1:45pm and arriving 4:20pm, economy class

  • Saint John to Halifax on Air Canada, departing 8:35pm and arriving 9:20pm, economy class

  • Halifax to Toronto on Air Canada, departing 5:25am and arriving 6:55am, business class

map (15).gif

The outbound is a one-way in economy class booked for 12,500 Aeroplan miles, while the return flight is a single one-way ticket (!) in business class for 25,000 Aeroplan miles.

Here’s a detailed breakdown of my “milk run”…

  • Edmonton (7.5 hours): This should be plenty of time for me to get downtown and check out the West Edmonton Mall, the largest mall in North America. That’s always been a minor bucket list item that has quite intrigued me for a long time. If I have time, I might head on to the Alberta Legislature or one of the museums and get a closer look at Alberta’s capital. 

  • Calgary (12.5 hours): This is an overnight layover, so I’ll likely just be getting dinner and catching up with a friend before heading back to the airport in the morning.

  • Winnipeg (4.5 hours): A quick one here in Manitoba, but Winnipeg’s airport seems to be located quite close to the city centre, so I’m thinking that 4.5 hours will be enough time for me to check out The Forks, a historic meeting place of Aboriginal Peoples located at the confluence of two rivers.

  • Ottawa (11 hours): Another overnight layover, another dinner with some friends followed by a quick night’s sleep at the airport hotel.

  • Montreal (6 hours): A brief stop in Québec for a morning brunch. I’ll be lucky if I have time to do anything else, although I’d definitely make a detour for some original poutine if that’s the case.

Now, by this point, I’m pretty content with the itinerary already, but there was one more thing that I wanted to do on this trip.

Namely, since I’m already hopping around the country primarily on Air Canada turboprops, I’d be remiss if I didn’t try out a flight on the Beechcraft 1900, which is a plane that’s so tiny that Air Canada doesn’t even include it as part of its fleet on its website.

The Beechcraft 1900 has space for only 18 passengers. There’s a single aisle with nine rows and one seat on each side, and I hear that there isn’t even a cockpit door – you can just see the pilots flying in plain view. I’m not that big of an aviation geek, but I’ve been fascinated by this aircraft ever since I first heard about it, so I couldn’t miss this opportunity to try it out.

 
Screen Shot 2018-11-02 at 12.49.18 PM.png
 

Air Canada operates the Beechcraft on a tiny handful of regional routes, and the only way I could get on one of the Beechcraft flights was by flying between Saint John and Halifax. Therefore, the remainder of the route plays out as follows:

  • Saint John, New Brunswick (4 hours): There doesn’t seem to be much to do at Saint John Airport, so I’ll either hang out in the concourse or find a way downtown and wander along the main streets for a bit. It’ll be cool to have a look around New Brunswick, which I’ve never visited before, however briefly.

  • Halifax (8 hours): An overnight layover that doesn’t really let me do much. My flight out is at 5am the next morning, so instead of getting an airport hotel, I’m inclined to follow the advice of SleepingInAirports.net and “slum it” for an evening!

And then, finally, back to Toronto. After spending three days in a row flying on turboprops, I’ll probably be quite exhausted at the end. Fortunately, some of the legs had space in business class, so at least I’ll have some room to stretch my legs on a handful of the flights.

There was only one problem stopping me from booking this – the convoluted routing had exceeded the MPM between Vancouver and Toronto, and the routing was therefore invalid! 

Not to worry, though, because I had Useful Aeroplan Trick #8 up my sleeve. Indeed, by adding on one last segment from Toronto to St. John’s, NL, the overall routing suddenly became valid, and I was able to ticket this for 25,000 Aeroplan miles and $350 in taxes and fees.

That’s the one caveat of doing something this: while it’s awesome to be able to see as much of the country as possible on your way from one coast to another, you do have to pay quite a bit in taxes and fees. That’s because, as the Aeroplan agent helpfully explained, any layover of over four hours in duration will incur the Canadian Airport Improvement Fee of about $40 apiece. 

Given that I have seven separate takeoffs and landings all on the same ticket, you can see how that adds up quickly; however, it’s still a tiny price to pay when you think about how much a similar ticket would cost if booked with cash!

The Air Canada confirmation page couldn’t handle this itinerary at all…

I can’t help but wonder how far you can take this. An Aeroplan e-ticket is limited to 16 segments, so you could totally use up that allowance between St. John’s and Vancouver.

After all, I skipped over Saskatchewan entirely on this trip, and if availability had permitted, I could’ve also fitted in an extra city between Calgary and Edmonton (either Grande Prairie or Fort McMurray), between Vancouver and Calgary (Cranbrook, Kelowna, Kamloops, etc.), between Ottawa and Montreal (Quebec City), etc. 


The Hotels

The hotel side is much more straightforward this time around. In Vancouver, I’ll be hosting the event at the Sheraton Vancouver Wall Centre Hotel, so it made sense that I stayed there for a few nights as well. The hotel comped me a night for hosting the event, so for the other night, I had the choice between paying $267 or redeeming 35,000 points for the Category 5 property. At those rates, I thought the cash price was the better value, so I paid $267 and used MR Select points from my Cobalt Card to offset the cost.

Sheraton Vancouver Wall Centre Hotel

Sheraton Vancouver Wall Centre Hotel

If you think about it, using MR Select points to pay for hotels directly can be a better value than transferring to Marriott. In this case, 35,000 Marriott points would’ve been equivalent to 29,166 MR Select points, whereas it only took 26,700 MR Select points to offset the cost directly. The lesson here is to always be judicious when redeeming your points for hotels!

It was a similar story over at the JW Marriott Parq Vancouver, which is where I’m staying for another two nights. I had heard amazing things about this new hotel – the first JW Marriott property in Canada – and so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to stay here myself.

I could either pay $281 per night, or redeem 50,000 points for the Category 6 hotel. That would’ve been terrible value, so I went ahead and paid cash for the stay, using MR Select points to reduce my out-of-pocket cost to zero.

JW Marriott Parq Vancouver

JW Marriott Parq Vancouver

For the rest of the trip, the only hotel booking I needed was an airport hotel in Ottawa. The pickings were relatively slim, so I ended up redeeming 17,500 points for a quick no-nonsense stay at the Fairfield Inn & Suites Ottawa Airport, which is a Category 3 hotel within the Marriott loyalty program.

In terms of reviews from this trip, I look forward to reviewing the two Vancouver hotels and hopefully a few Maple Leaf Lounges in the various airports I’ll be visiting, since some of you may find those useful. I also look forward to sharing my impressions from my brief time in each city, as well as the 45-minute hop in the Air Canada Beechcraft 1900D, which promises to be a one-of-a-kind flight!


Conclusion

The magic of Miles & Points lies in the fact that they allow us to push the boundaries of travel, seeing the world in ways that are unconventional and out of the ordinary. Sometimes that means flying extravagantly around the world in business class or First Class, while other times it means taking advantage of a quirk in the program that allows for 12-hour layovers and using it to traipse across the continent to your heart’s desire.

It’s always a pleasure to see a new side of Canada, and I look forward to embarking on an eye-opening cross-country journey after getting together with the Vancouver community this weekend.