Along with draconian liquor laws and being called America's hat, Aeroplan is probably among the top things that Canadians love to hate. Every few weeks, the newspapers come out with a spate of articles on how eager miles-earning Canadians are frustrated by blackout dates, surcharges, and limited availability. One almost wonders how many in the CBC newsroom would be out of a job if Aeroplan were to shut down tomorrow.
Certainly, Air Canada's spun-off frequent flyer program divides opinion. Some swear by it as the most valuable points program in Canada, while others toot the CBC narrative of how difficult it is to redeem your miles, some even decrying it as a "scam". Clearly there's a bit of effort required to learn how to get the most out of Aeroplan. And that's why we're here today: to help your efforts with a complete guide to one of Canada's most popular loyalty programs.
As one of the dominant Canadian rewards programs, Aeroplan makes it very easy to for members to earn miles. First off, as we mentioned in last week's Guide to American Express Membership Rewards, you can transfer Membership Rewards points to Aeroplan at a 1:1 ratio. Transfers are quick and painless, and the ease with which you can amass MR points makes earning lots of Aeroplan miles an equivalently simple task.
In addition to earning miles through the American Express cards, Aeroplan also has a few co-branded credit cards of its own. These are issued by CIBC and TD, and allow you to earn 1 mile per dollar spent on all purchases or 1.5 miles per dollar spent in certain bonus categories, depending on the card (typically gas stations and travel purchases). I've listed below a few of the cards that usually have the best offers.
The CIBC Aerogold Visa Infinite currently offers 15,000 Aeroplan miles upon your first purchase. While the $120 annual fee isn't waived, it's not uncommon for CIBC to offer first year fee waivers from time to time for in-branch or over-the-phone applications.
The CIBC Aerogold Visa Card for Business currently offers 20,000 Aeroplan miles upon your first purchase. The $180 annual fee isn't waived, though like the Aerogold Infinite, first year fee waivers pop up pretty reliably every few months, and the bonus on this card is sometimes as high as 25,000 miles as well.
Besides credit cards, you can also earn Aeroplan miles by shopping at partner retailers through the e-store, taking advantage of special offers and promotions... and of course, by flying! After all, Aeroplan used to be Air Canada's proprietary frequent flyer program before being spun-off into the loyalty and rewards landscape. You can earn Aeroplan miles on any flight operated by a Star Alliance airline according to each airline's earnings chart, which you can find here.
Redeeming & Maximizing
In this section I'll be drawing upon previous posts in the Miles & Points Intro series, since I used Aeroplan as an example to illustrate many concepts in those posts.
Let's start with the Aeroplan Reward Chart, where you'll figure out how many miles are required for your desired flight. Below is a snippet from the chart, showing the round-trip mileage requirements for flights from Canada and the U.S.:
As I touched on in the Beginner's Guide to Redeeming Points, business and first class flights, on airlines that don't levy surcharges, usually offer the best value redemptions. If you look at the reward chart above, you'll see that the mileage cost of business class flights is usually 1.5x to 2x the mileage cost of Economy. Meanwhile, the same "multiplier" when looking at cash fares can be up to 4x or 5x, especially for longer, more complicated itineraries.
For first class, the concept is the same, except the cash multiplier can be as high as 10x or 15x whilst the mileage multiplier is, at most, in the 2.5x range.
That's not to say that redemptions in economy class can never be good value. Using miles for last-minute tickets, for example, could be extremely valuable since cash fares are likely sky-high.
Or, if you can't get enough time off to go too far from home, redeeming for economy class might make more sense than plonking all that extra mileage on a mediocre business class seat for just a few hours.
And some people simply don't care for luxury travel, preferring to use their miles to take more trips in coach instead – fair play to them as well. The only thing I'd say here is that cash fares can be ultra-low when fare sales, discounts, and "glitches" happen, and it can often be a better deal to buy tickets with cash and save your points for the next trip.
One of the most valuable ways of squeezing every drop of value out of your points was covered in our feature on leveraging stopovers. By taking advantage of Aeroplan's generous stopover rules, you can visit up to three places for the price of one – two stopovers in addition to your destination.
What I didn't mention is that you are allowed to replace one of your two stopovers with an "open-jaw", which is the industry term for a break in the itinerary. For example, you could fly into Beijing and fly out of Shanghai on the same itinerary, making your way between the two cities on your own (you could drive, take the high-speed train, or book a separate flight).
You can also add unlimited layovers (connections of less than 24 hours) to your itinerary, meaning that you could visit five, eight, or even ten places all for the price of one. You'd only be allowed to stay for more than 24 hours in three of those, but you could in theory schedule 23-hour layovers in the rest and get an absurd amount of sightseeing under your belt.
There are of course a few limitations. Briefly, you can't route through the same city more than once on each "side" of your destination point; also, each origin–destination pair has a "maximum permitted mileage" that you aren't allowed to exceed.
I'd love to get into all the minute details of booking such a "mini-round-the-world" trip, but I'll leave it for another day since we've got plenty more ground to cover in this overview. I'll definitely do a big post on it relatively soon. [UPDATE: I have written a three-part series on the Mini-RTW: check it out here!]
For some concrete examples of how you can really stretch your Aeroplan miles to their full travel-optimizing power, have a look at my post on 9 Amazing Redemption Ideas.
Besides the earning and redeeming points side of the program, Aeroplan also allows its members to earn Aeroplan Status based on how many status-eligible miles they earn in a calendar year.
Note that credit card signup bonuses and miles transferred from Membership Rewards don't count towards Aeroplan Status (or else it'd be far too easy to earn Diamond).
In my opinion, the only standout benefit to Aeroplan Status is the Contact Centre Priority that comes with Diamond status. If you've ever called Aeroplan you'll know that wait times for the contact centre can be upwards of two hours. If you have Diamond status, you get placed into a priority sequence and can typically get someone on the line in one or two minutes. That's extremely useful for making a quick change to a reservation or finding out the maximum permitted mileage for a trip you're planning.
Diamond status also comes with lower fees for changing and cancelling award tickets, which can certainly be valuable as well.
Keep in mind that Aeroplan Status is distinct and separate from status in Air Canada Altitude, which is Air Canada's frequent flyer recognition program. Having said that, if you fly on Star Alliance airlines a lot and credit your miles to Aeroplan, you'll earn status in both programs.
Tips & Tricks
There are so many useful tips and tricks that you'll pick up once you start playing around with the program. In no particular order, here are a few select ones:
- Book early: Everyone is looking for the same award space, especially in long-haul business class cabins that do not levy surcharges. You'll want to start searching for space as soon as possible to avoid disappointment.
- Market fare: Besides using the fixed reward chart above, you can also redeem "market fare" awards, whose mileage requirements fluctuate based on the cash ticket prices. These represent poor value most of the time but can occasionally be cheaper than the fixed reward chart.
- Hidden cities: Hidden-city ticketing works with awards too! Want a one-way award ticket to Cairo, but reluctant to pay the 82,500 miles required for North America to North Africa? Just tack on a Cairo–Istanbul segment at the end and it becomes only 57,500 miles for North America to Europe 2! The usual hidden-city ticketing cautions apply.
- Schedule change: If your itinerary gets messed up as a result of an airline's schedule change, you can request to be rebooked on alternative flights, and you won't be hit with change fees or additional carrier surcharges. There's no way to plan for this, but it can be an opportune way to try out business class products that usually come with hefty surcharges, such as Austrian Airlines.
- Expiring miles: Your entire Aeroplan mileage balance will expire if there's been no earning or redeeming activity for a year. Don't be fodder for the CBC newswriters – swiping your Aeroplan card when filling up your tank at Esso is an easy way to keep your account active.
Over 5 million Canadians actively collect Aeroplan miles. Whether that's because the program offers outstanding value or because there's no better alternative is something each member must decide for themselves. I hope that this guide has shown you that Aeroplan is a program where you get back what you put into it. If you dedicate a little bit of effort to navigating the initial learning curve, Aeroplan will allow you to reap massive rewards.
Stay tuned for the full exposé on Aeroplan's "mini-round-the-world" booking. In the meantime, don't hesitate to hit me up with any questions you may have.