The Conundrum of Redeeming Points to Europe

Canadians love going to Europe. Go on, ask your coworker what trips they’re planning for the next year or so – chances are that Paris, Vienna, or Rome will figure among their responses (maybe Portugal or Croatia if they’re the trendier type).

And why not? Nowadays you can easily pay a cheap fare, get on a plane after work, and wake up across the pond in the morning. Moreover, it’s a relatively safe continent for tourists, people speak great English wherever you go, and there are centuries upon centuries worth of monuments and attractions to pore over. You really can’t go wrong planning a trip to Europe!

A consequence of this is that you see lots of Canadian travellers scraping together 60,000 Aeroplan miles and saying, “Hey, I want to redeem my miles for flights to Europe.” But the problem is that the very popularity of travelling to Europe has given rise to some factors that mean that travelling to Europe might not be the best use of your points. Whether you’re looking to fly in economy or business, you may well find that it can be a better deal to save your points for your next trip…


Economy Class: Cheap Flights Everywhere

When you’re redeeming your miles for travel, you need to be thinking about the “value” of your points in terms of how much cash you’re saving by using your points instead. As a reminder, value is usually calculated as the following:

(price of cash ticket – award taxes and fees) / points redeemed

Generally, getting at least 2 cents per point (cpp) in value is ideal. That’s because if you earn the majority of your miles via spending on a program-affiliated credit card and you dip below 2cpp, then in theory you could’ve done better for yourself by putting that spending on a 2% cashback card instead. Of course, this is moot if you earn your miles via signup bonuses, as many of us do.

Getting between 1.5cpp and 2cpp is fine as well, though you certainly won’t want to dip much below that if you’re looking to get the most out of your points.

With that crash course out of the way, let’s have a look at the value proposition of redeeming points to Europe. A roundtrip flight in economy class starts at 60,000 Aeroplan miles, so doing the math, we see that it’d only be worthwhile to do so if the cash prices were in the $1,000 to $1,200 range, and ideally above that – remember, the taxes and fees associated with Aeroplan bookings can usually mount to at least $100, and that’s assuming that you avoid the high-surcharge carriers like Air Canada, Lufthansa, Austrian, and TAP Portugal.

Well, how is an Aeroplan trip for 60,000 miles supposed to compete with stuff like this?


Or this?


Or even this?

These kinds of deals pop up every few weeks for folks in Western Canada, and every few DAYS for those of us in the East. (To be fair, those in BC and Alberta tend to get the better deals for destinations in the Asia-Pacific, which makes sense geographically.) 

Therefore, a good case can be made that if you’re planning a trip to Europe, it’s best to save your points for somewhere else and instead just subscribe to a site like Secret Flying or NextDeparture – they’ll take care of you with a killer deal or two in no time. 

Granted, with the exception of the TAP Portugal deals out of Toronto and the occasional fare sale by Air Canada and its partners, many of these deals will have you flying on budget carriers like WestJet, Air Transat, Primera Air, Icelandair, or WOW Air. Some may impose added fees for checked bags, which can eat into the savings, while others might have you making a few layovers on the way to your final destination.

However, at those price points, even a few ancillary charges are unlikely to tip the scales in favour of points redemptions. And not only are layovers often unavoidable when using points as well, but several budget airlines allow you to transform a layover into a stopover in a place you might otherwise not get to visit – indeed, Icelandair, WOW, and TAP all do this!

 A free stopover in Lisbon? Sign me up!

A free stopover in Lisbon? Sign me up!

And even in the absence of these “great deals”, European fares on the mainline carriers tend to hover in the range of $800 to $1,200, meaning that you still aren’t stretching the value of your points very far once you do the math on the 60,000 miles plus the taxes and fees.  


Business Class: Availability Gods, Have Mercy

Redeeming miles for economy class travel to Europe can be a tough value proposition. On the other hand, if you were saving up the miles for a business class redemption, it can be tough to even book the trip to begin with!

As much as I’m sometimes guilty of waving my hands and making it seem like it’s really easy to travel luxuriously on points, the truth is that there are quite a few obstacles to doing so. The biggest obstacle by far is the reality that everyone wants to book the flights that have low fuel surcharges, and availability on these flights therefore tends to be quite limited, especially on routes to/from Europe. 

Want to fly out without having to connect in the US? Unless you can find space on the Brussels Airlines flight from Toronto to Brussels, the Swiss flight from Montreal to Zurich, or the Turkish flight from either to Istanbul, you’ll be faced with the unenviable prospect of paying $500+ in fuel surcharges.

Sure, that’s no problem for those who are willing to inconvenience themselves a little and pass through the States for the pleasure of flying business class. Doing so opens up more options with more airlines, although it’s still something of a miracle to see wide-open availability anywhere, and you generally need to spend some time using the various tools out there to search.

Just the other day, I was looking for any kind of transatlantic business class availability on a certain date – any at all – and the only flight I found after many hours of searching was an SAS flight from Miami to Oslo. I started building my itinerary around that flight, only to find that positioning to Miami would require connections in Columbus and Chicago. 

Oh, and the routing would’ve taken me over the maximum permitted mileage (MPM) for the overall journey – after all, I’m basically flying south to Miami just to fly east to Europe – so I had to add a throwaway segment at the end (see #8 in this article) in order to make the MPM work. 

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As I was finalizing the itinerary, I took a step back and thought to myself, “Who in their right mind would subject themselves to this sort of tedium and toil just to book a flight with points?” And it’s true – while finding creative routings has become second-nature to me thanks to many years of experience, there’s no way the average person would be willing to jump through this many hoops. 

Faced with a search engine that stubbornly spits out “mixed cabin” routings with a one-hour flight in business and a 10-hour flight in economy, many frustrated points collectors would simply abandon their efforts and pay cash for economy instead, and I wouldn’t really blame them.

And to make matters worse, the Aeroplan back-end has been having significant issues in recent days in terms of showing all the space that’s available, thus further compounding the problem.

Brussels Airlines, Swiss, SAS, and LOT flights – in addition to airlines from other parts of the world, like ANA and Thai – have all been intermittently offline both on the website and over the phone, making it particularly difficult to secure business class seats for a European getaway. I wouldn’t be surprised if these issues continue in the lead-up to the Air Canada transition in 2020 either.


What Can You Do?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying you shouldn’t use your points to go to Europe, full stop. Instead, it just might be more challenging than you think, especially since it’s often relatively easier to find space on desirable flights to Asia, Australia, or even Africa these days. 

If your heart is set on Europe, though, what can you do in order to make your trip happen while maximizing the value of your points?

As I’ve emphasized before, understanding the Star Alliance route network is a large component of learning how to sidestep the “no availability” quandary and weave some creative routings en route to your destination. Spend some time familiarizing yourself with the North American cities that are served by the major low-surcharge carriers. 

For example, I had no idea that the SAS Miami–Oslo route even existed until this week. It turns out that Miami also receives direct flights to Copenhagen, Zurich, and Istanbul, all of which will cost you $0 in surcharges, so it might be a good place to look if the searches from your home airport aren’t playing nice.

 SAS business class

SAS business class

Other interesting routes include the LOT Polish Airlines flights from Chicago to Kraków and Budapest, the Swiss flight from JFK to Geneva, and the Turkish Airlines flights from virtually anywhere to Istanbul. Once you know the major routes, you can systematically search for flights from each port of call using ExpertFlyer, United.com, or the Aeroplan search engine itself.

As for the question of maximizing value, especially for economy class flyers, the age-old solution here is to leverage Aeroplan’s generous routing rules in order to construct itineraries that wouldn’t be easily bookable with cash. Sure, WOW Air can get you over to the old continent for $350, but can it allow you to spend quality time in Dublin, St. Petersburg, and Baku for the same price? I don’t think so. 

By making full use of the ability to stop in three cities for over 24 hours at that same price point of 60,000 to 75,000 miles, you can use your points to go a lot further and see much more of the world than if you didn’t spend time collecting them. Assuming that you maximize your stopovers or open-jaws, a value of 2cpp+ should be pretty easy to achieve.


Conclusion

When the average Canadian thinks about putting their hard-earned Aeroplan miles to good use, one of the first places they look tends to be across the pond. However, the reality is that with so many people travelling to Europe each year, the prices of economy class tickets have seen downward pressure for many years – calling into question the value of a points redemption – while the most desirable flights in business class tend to get snapped up very quickly.

Stopovers and open-jaws can go some way towards solving this conundrum, but if you have any desire to visit other parts of the world as well, it might be worthwhile to save your points for those trips instead, where they can take you further and give you less of a headache along the way.