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Booked: The First Trip of a New Era

Almost six months after returning from the Maldives just as the pandemic began to take hold, it’s time to dip my toes back into travel with a quick domestic trip to Canada’s western provinces.

The Trip

Like many of you, I had been tempted into making several bookings for domestic trips under Aeroplan’s 50% Miles Back promotion in late June.

While I’ve since had to reshuffle a few of those trips around, I’ve been able to do so easily using Aeroplan’s continued generous policy of allowing one free change on award redemptions, which still preserves the promise of receiving the 50% mileage rebate even if you change the dates, destination, or class of service, as long as the original ticket was issued before 8pm on July 1.

In booking this trip, I wanted to take advantage of one of the best Aeroplan sweet spots that will be disappearing come November 8: the round-trip within North America for 25,000 Aeroplan miles in economy or 50,000 Aeroplan miles in business, with a free stopover included.

I’ll be visiting Vancouver for three days for a mix of business and pleasure, followed by a first-time visit to the province of Saskatchewan with a two-day stay in Saskatoon, its largest city.

(Why Saskatoon? Well, it’s time to quench my long-standing fascination with this perfectly rectangular province located smack-dab in the middle of Canada, and I hear that the late summer and early fall is as good a time to visit as any. I’m looking forward to exploring the “Paris of the Prairies” as much as possible, although to be honest, I suspect I’ll have plenty of free time left over to catch up on work as well.)

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

The Flights

The most attractive and most popular use of the 50% Miles Back promotion was likely to redeem for transcontinental Air Canada business class on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner with lie-flat pods, and I of course had that option at my disposal between Montreal and Vancouver as well.

However, having flown this product a few times already, I decided I may as well take the opportunity of my first trip in six months’ time to try out something new.

I’m looking forward to reviewing Air Canada Airbus A220 business class, which I’ve only had the pleasure of witnessing at its launch event in January thus far, and sharing my impressions from what will be the backbone of Air Canada’s regional route network in the years to come.

Air Canada Airbus A220 business class

I’ll fly the A220 on the Montreal–Calgary route, which leaves me a short one-hour hop away from Vancouver, which I was only able to book in – wait for it – economy class.

Hopefully, selecting a preferred seat in the forward rows will allow me some extra personal space, and I’ll also be able to comment on what it’s like to fly in economy class these days, as it’s ultimately going to be a reality for the vast majority of those who do choose to travel.

As a relatively minor airport within the overall Air Canada network, Saskatoon unfortunately only receives CRJ narrowbodies from both Vancouver and Toronto, although at least the CRJ has a 1-2 configuration in business class with optimal social distancing on the left side of the cabin.

(I suppose I’m lucky that these flights are still being operated in the first place, given how badly the current flight schedules have been decimated.)

And finally, between Toronto and Montreal, I’ll still get a chance to indulge in a lie-flat bed on this trip, since Air Canada is running a few of their Dreamliners on these short-haul routes at this time.

Across all five takeoffs and landings, I’ll have the chance to visit the reopened Maple Leaf Lounges in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal (assuming that Air Canada’s stated timeline of “reopening by Labour Day” holds true). It’ll be interesting to see how the flying experience has evolved since the eerily empty airports I witnessed when I flew on Air Canada Jetz back in June (my only flight during the pandemic era thus far).

Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge Vancouver (from T.J.’s recent visit)

I’ll also be looking to assess the restored meal and bar service on select flights, although it’s my understanding that only select mainline routes are receiving full service at this time, with many regional routes continuing to receive minimal bottled-water service. That’s what I get for going to Saskatchewan, I suppose, and I’ll be sure to make up for it with some extra glasses of bubbly on the longer flights. 😉

My overall routing for this six-day getaway looks as follows:

  • Montreal to Calgary, business class, departing 1:45pm and arriving 4:22pm
  • Calgary to Vancouver, economy class, departing 6:30pm and arriving 6:55pm
  • Vancouver to Saskatoon, business class, departing 8:30pm and arriving 11:24pm
  • Saskatoon to Toronto, business class, departing 8am and arriving 1:04pm
  • Toronto to Montreal, business class, departing 2pm and arriving 3:13pm

The Hotels

Even though this trip doesn’t take place until next week, I’m writing about it today because I wanted to highlight the Stay Richmond promotion, which ends in a couple days’ time and makes for an excellent opportunity to stay around Vancouver – and perhaps rack up some elite qualifying nights for your Marriott Bonvoy account – at very low rates.

Similar to the Stay Vancouver promotion that provides prepaid gift cards for staying in Vancouver’s Downtown hotels during the summer, the Stay Richmond initiative incentivizes travellers to stay at the many hotels near Vancouver Airport and explore more of the city of 列治文 Richmond, with the SkyTrain’s Canada Line providing easy access into Vancouver as well. And since I’ve stayed closer to downtown on my last few Vancouver visits, I thought that this promotion would be a perfect fit for my trip this time.

The promotion lasts until September 4, and is valid for stays until September 13, so it could be useful for anyone who might enjoy a Vancouver getaway similar to mine over the coming weeks.

For the higher-end hotels, you’ll get an American Express prepaid gift card of $125 for your first night, followed by a $50 prepaid gift card per night for the second through fifth nights.

Clearly, the best deal is available when you book a one-night stay, or if you don’t mind the inconvenience of – or dare I say, derive actual enjoyment from – “hotel-hopping” between multiple properties on multiple nights.

In my case, I decided to book the Sheraton YVR, Marriott YVR, and Hilton YVR on three subsequent nights, whose Stay Richmond rates all fell within the region of $200 after-tax (including a Junior Suite at the Marriott!), which will each be offset by a $125 prepaid gift card.

Junior Suite at the Marriott Vancouver Airport

And by emailing the hotel after making my reservations via the Stay Richmond website, I was able to add my Marriott Bonvoy and Hilton Honors membership numbers to each reservation, ensuring that I’ll earn points and elite nights for each stay, as well as getting to enjoy my Titanium and Diamond elite perks.

(Throw in Marriott’s current global promotion of 2,500 bonus points per stay, the elevated 10x earning rate on the US-issued Marriott Bonvoy credit cards, as well as a few Amex Offers on my Amex US cards for US$50 off US$200 in Marriott purchases, and the deals are sweetened even further.)

All three hotels are within a block of each other and a few minutes’ walk from the nearby SkyTrain station for travelling into Vancouver, so all I need to do is walk from door to door on each of my days in town, as well as taking the complimentary airport shuttles to and from YVR at either end.

This trio of airport hotels may not be quite as glamorous as my last hotel-hopping journey in Doha, but hey, after staying home for the better part of six months, I’m sure I’ll derive plenty of joy from the sheer variety of new experiences, even if they’re four-star rather than five-star.

Then, in Saskatoon, there was only one hotel I was looking to try: the Delta Bessborough on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River, one of Canada’s historic grand railway hotels and a city attraction in and of itself, which is priced quite favourably as a Category 3 hotel within Marriott Bonvoy.

Delta Bessborough, Saskatoon

I found a very generous combined off-peak and PointSavers rate of 12,000 Bonvoy points for my one-night stay, which was sufficiently good value compared to the cash rate of $181 after-tax, so I went ahead and redeemed points for the stay.

And since I’d be flying into and out of Saskatoon on late-night and early-morning flights, respectively, my one night at the Delta will be flanked by cheap overnight stays at the Courtyard adjacent to YXE.

As I first came to realize during my staycation at The Ritz-Carlton, Montreal last week, the hotel experience is certainly much-transformed these days, with low rates and low occupancy across the board, combined with an emphasis on providing guests with safety and cleanliness over the usual full suite of amenities.

With a good handful of hotel stays lined up on this trip, I’m excited to get a more comprehensive view of the overall hotel experience as a Marriott and Hilton elite member.

Conclusion

Feel free to prove me wrong, but I genuinely think this is the most excited anyone has ever been to visit Saskatoon. 😉

It cannot be emphasized enough that travelling at this time should only be undertaken with an abundance of caution and a certain level of risk tolerance. That includes testing for COVID-19 before travel (an experience I hope to report back on shortly), continued social distancing and limiting contact with others, avoiding indoor spaces whenever possible, fastidious mask usage, and a general respect for the fact that the threat of the virus remains ever-present and must be taken seriously.

While not all of us will feel comfortable travelling at this time, there’s arguably a much more serene and affordable (albeit very different) experience awaiting those of us who do have the appetite to travel in a safe and responsible manner. I’ve enjoyed hearing the impressions of many readers who have travelled domestically this summer, and I look forward to sharing my own impressions from this quick getaway.

One thing I’m certain of: even though lots will have changed, the excitement of travelling again will be as strong as ever.