Air Miles is one of Canada’s most popular loyalty programs, especially among those living in the eastern provinces. While the name suggests that it’s a frequent flyer program of some sort, the reality is that Air Miles is more of a shopping rewards program with a vast network of retail partners throughout Canada.
Air Miles isn’t necessarily the best program for luxury travel, and is not without controversy due to Air Miles’s unpopular decision to impose a strict expiry policy (which was rolled back in 2016 after many panicked redemptions).
However, the program does provide Miles & Points collectors with an additional option for redeeming points for certain type of travel, and therefore very much ought to be on your radar.
Earning Air Miles
There are a few different options when it comes to earning Air Miles, including earning at a relatively slow rate at their retail partners (typically 1 mile for every $20 spent), promotional offers that allow you to earn thousands of Air Miles at once, co-branded cards with generous welcome bonuses, in-store promotions, and even an e-store.
Before we talk about the methods to earn Air Miles, it’s important to note that there are really two different types of Air Miles you can earn: Cash Rewards and Dream Rewards. Cash Rewards are easily redeemed at partner retailers at a fixed ratio of 95 Air Miles = $10, while Dream Rewards are redeemed towards other types of rewards, like merchandise, attraction tickets, and travel.
You can specify your preference between Cash and Dream Rewards in your Air Miles account, and you can even choose to split your earnings into both categories.
Credit Card Signup Bonuses
Let’s begin with the credit cards. Air Miles has co-branded credit cards issued by both BMO and American Express.
BMO offers three different credit cards that earn Air Miles at a decent value. Their top offering is the BMO Air Miles World Elite MasterCard, which has a generous welcome bonus of 2,000 Air Miles when spending $3,000 within the first three months, along with the annual fee waived (otherwise $120).
To further increase the value of this card, it also comes with MasterCard Airport Experiences by LoungeKey which includes two lounge passes each year, a 15% discount on flights redeemed through Air Miles, and a very generous insurance program which covers most, if not all, forms of travelling when you redeem points for flights in addition to when you pay cash.
BMO also offers a BMO Air Miles MasterCard without the World Elite label, as well as a student version of the card. Both have no annual fee and include a welcome bonus of 800 Air Miles when spending $1,000 within the first 3 months. These lower-tier cards should be considered for those who wouldn’t meet the requirements for the World Elite card.
American Express also offers a few different cards that earn Air Miles instead of other points currencies. While I wouldn’t recommend using the cards for any everyday spend, getting the cards for their welcome bonus can make sense, especially when chasing Air Miles status (more on that to come).
The American Express Air Miles Platinum Card doles out a welcome bonus of 2,000 Air Miles for spending $1,500 within the first three months. The annual fee is $120 for this card.
This is probably the best-value product among Amex Air Miles cards, thanks to its relatively low annual fee, generous welcome bonus, and the ability to unlock more Air Miles offers (such as earning bonus miles by using your card for 25 transactions or spending a certain amount during Shop the Block promotions).
Besides the Amex Air Miles Platinum, the following cards are also available:
The top-tier American Express Air Miles Reserve Card comes with a welcome bonus of 2,400 Air Miles when spending $3,000 within the first three months. There are a few extra perks including a companion flight worth up to 1,700 Air Miles, Air Miles FlexFly (which allows redemptions on even more flights at a rate of 770 miles per $100) and top-tier Air Miles Onyx status. While it comes with the largest bonus, it’s also the most expensive with an annual fee of $299.
The no-frills American Express Air Miles Card comes with a welcome bonus of 500 miles for spending $500 within the first three months. While it’s not a glamorous card by any means, it’s definitely an option for individuals opposed to annual fees.
Air Miles Promotions
One of the best ways to earn Air Miles is through the program’s frequent promotions, which typically involve completing a few different activities at their partner merchants in order to receive a very generous bonus.
The most recent promotion was Air Miles Mega Miles, which offered a very generous 1,000 Air Miles for completing five different activities, many of which are quite easy. For those in Ontario, picking up some Sobeys gift cards, filling up your car at Shell, and then redeeming Air Miles Cash miles would get you more than halfway towards the big bonus.
Air Miles will send out emails about these offers, so it’s definitely something to keep your eye out for. In addition to Air Miles Mega Miles, there have been other offers in the past, so you’ll want to crunch the numbers to see if you can complete the offers with minimal effort or a nominal amount of additional spending to get a nice bonus.
Air Miles are traditionally collected at retail stores at the point of sale. Usually, when you’re shopping at a participating retailer, the cashier will ask you “Air Miles?” and swipe your card to earn points.
Normal earn rates are low – for example, you’ll earn 1 Air Mile for every $20 spent at Sobeys, Safeway, or Metro, or 1 Air Mile for every $45 spent at Staples. However, Air Miles regularly puts on promotions on the earning rates, which you could ideally take advantage of when making purchases that you would’ve made anyway. Examples include bonus miles on Shell gas, bonus Air Miles coupons for Staples purchases, and bonus miles on select grocery items when shopping at grocery stores.
Like many other programs, Air Miles has its own shopping portal where you’ll earn a certain number of Air Miles by clicking through the portal when you shop online.
The base earning rates are about the same as other shopping portals out there, which aren’t too spectacular; however, Air Miles often puts on promotions which offer a multiplier on purchases ranging from 2x to 10x or even higher, which can be a great deal.
The stores vary all the time, but it’s a best practice to compare the portals and go with the best available offer (Air Miles, Aeroplan eStore, GreatCanadianRebates, Rakuten, etc.)
Redeeming Air Miles
Compared to other loyalty programs, it can be relatively tough to plan an Air Miles redemption properly due to the lack of a formal award chart, varying prices, and constantly changing availability.
However, there are definitely a few optimal redemption options out there which are worth keeping your eye on.
Cash Rewards are typically redeemed at the point of sale in participating stores, but can also be redeemed online for vouchers. The value is fixed at 95 miles = $10; however, certain stores often have special redemption offers where they give you bonus Air Miles simply for redeeming your existing ones.
A recent promotion during the Mega Miles event in April 2019 saw Metro offering 50 bonus Air Miles through a coupon when redeeming 95 Cash miles (worth $10). During the same weekend, Metro was also offering 50 bonus miles when redeeming 95 Cash miles as a store-based promotion which was automatically applied.
Accordingly, by stacking the two offers, you’d receive 100 Air Miles for redeeming 95 Air Miles. You’d gain a net 5 Air Miles and $10 in groceries in total, which is a great deal in anyone’s book.
Since Cash Rewards can only be redeemed at the fixed value of 95 miles = $10, this represents the baseline value of an Air Mile. In terms of cents per point (cpp), this equals 1,000 / 95 = 10.5cpp.
If you chose Dream Rewards instead, you should really be aiming to redeem them for a value above 10.5cpp, since otherwise you really should’ve just chosen to earn Cash Rewards instead. Note that Cash and Dream Rewards aren’t interchangeable once they’ve already been earned.
Dream Rewards: Merchandise & Attractions Tickets
Let’s take a look at how you can achieve at least 10.5cpp in value, and hopefully more, with Dream Rewards. While Dream Rewards are a little trickier to optimize, there’s also a wider pool of options available to you, such as merchandise, attraction tickets, and travel.
Redeeming Air Miles for merchandise doesn’t usually get you very good value, although as with most things about the program, the occasional promotions can sweeten the deal. As an Air Miles collector, it doesn’t hurt to watch your emails, especially when you can often earn bonus miles for subscribing.
Attraction tickets are a more popular redemption among many avid Air Miles collectors. For example, 4,500 Air Miles will get you a five-day ticket to Disney World, which usually retails for around $650, so you’re getting a very healthy 14.4cpp.
That’s not a bad value at all for a Disney World getaway, particularly if, say, you’re redeeming Marriott Bonvoy points at the Swan & Dolphin hotels, since points redemptions can’t be bundled with theme park tickets.
Dream Rewards: Travel
In the travel category, Air Miles allows redemptions for a few different travel options, including flights, hotels, and car rentals.
Let’s begin with the flights. There are a few challenges with redeeming Air Miles for flights: while the program advertises a distance-based award chart, in practice the search results only loosely conform to what the award chart says a certain trip will cost.
Furthermore, Air Miles won’t actually let you complete a search unless you have enough Dream Rewards in your account to book the trip, which is downright terrible for planning purposes.
Lastly, unless you book through Air Miles FlexFly (more on that below), Air Miles can only be redeemed towards economy class flights, so you’ll want to focus on other programs, like Aeroplan or Alaska Mileage Plan, if you’d like to redeem miles for business class instead.
Despite these challenges, there are still pockets of value for you to find. First off, since Air Miles is a distance-based program, short-haul flights can represent good value: flights within the same province or neighbouring provinces can often be quite expensive when paying cash, but Air Miles pricing can be much more reasonable.
Here’s an example: this flight from Toronto to Val-d’Or, which would cost over $500, can be booked for a mere 1,105 Air Miles and $111 in taxes. That works out to be 38.8cpp in value, which is far better than the baseline Cash miles redemption.
Air Miles can deliver solid value when it comes to long-haul flights within North America as well. This trip for two people from Sudbury to Vancouver for summer travel costs $791 per person, or 4,165 Air Miles plus $143 in taxes. That works out to 15.6cpp, which is again an improvement over earning Cash miles.
Overall, Air Miles might not be the best option when economy tickets are cheap otherwise; however, when ticket prices soar during peak season, there’s definitely value to be had.
Air Miles can also be redeemed for hotels. It’s not immediately clear to me which hotels are part of the redemption pool, but they mostly seem to be mid-range properties, and there aren’t many luxury hotels available.
For example, staying at the Courtyard Toronto Airport for two nights would cost you $315, but you could also redeem 2,175 Air Miles plus $50 in taxes. That works out to 12.2cpp, which again exceeds the value you’d get from Cash miles.
Note that by booking a hotel with Air Miles, you wouldn’t get any elite benefits or qualification towards elite status with your preferred hotel chain.
Finally, Air Miles offers car rental redemptions, which is a popular option since there aren’t many points programs that allow you to benefit from free car rentals, other than those of the car rental companies themselves.
In the below example, a one-week car rental costing $986 can be booked for 3,310 Air Miles plus $195 in taxes and fees, which nets you a very good value of 23.9cpp – significantly better than redeeming Cash miles for groceries.
Moreover, while most credit cards’ auto rental insurance policies require you to charge the full cost of the rental for the insurance apply, the BMO Air Miles World Elite MasterCard only requires the full or partial cost to be charged to the card to receive insurance coverage, so you’d still be eligible for insurance when redeeming your Air Miles for a car rental and putting the excess taxes and fees on your BMO MasterCard.
Tricks of the Trade
As with most loyalty programs, there are many little tips and tricks that you’ll get to know once you’ve built up some level of comfort with the program. Here are just a few…
Book on Sales: Air Miles routinely runs promotions which can take 15–25% off the cost of a flight. If you’re flexible when it comes to destination and dates, flights on sale can be a no-brainer. For example, at the time of writing, Toronto to Deer Lake is on sale for 1,650 Air Miles plus $136 in taxes, whereas the retail price is $432. That works out to 17.9cpp in value, which is a great deal for a summer trip to Newfoundland.
BMO Air Miles World Elite 15% Flight Discount: One of the key benefits of the BMO Air Miles World Elite MasterCard is the 15% discount on flight redemptions within North America. The discount automatically shows up when booking, which makes it very easy and intuitive to use. Picking up the BMO MasterCard should therefore be one of your top priorities if you’re an avid Air Miles collector.
Companion Flight Rebate: Previous welcome bonuses on the BMO Air Miles World Elite MasterCard included a companion voucher which would have the cost of the second award ticket refunded automatically whenever you redeem Air Miles for at least two passengers.
Travellers who often fly as a couple or family could therefore use the Companion Flight Rebate to capture some pretty significant savings, as this would approximately double the value of all the Air Miles flight redemption examples that we outlined above.
However, the Companion Flight Rebate currently isn’t being offered as part of the signup bonus on the BMO Air Miles World Elite, so we’ll have to wait and see if it eventually comes back again.
Air Miles FlexFly: FlexFly is another less-discussed redemption option that is exclusively available with the American Express Air Miles Reserve Card. FlexFly allows redemptions on even more flights, including business class and First Class seats, at a rate of 770 Air Miles = $100 (equivalent to 13cpp).
The value isn’t spectacular (after all, you’d need a huge amount of Air Miles to come close to booking a premium cabin flight, which can retail for thousands of dollars), but the FlexFly perk could justify getting the Amex Air Miles Reserve if it makes sense for your situation.
Air Miles Status: Air Miles allows you to earn status with the program, although ultimately the status perks aren’t the most meaningful. The benefits are a bit abstract (“Our widest selections of flights and merchandise available to you”), but I suppose having more availability is always a good thing when it comes to booking awards.
Blue status is where everyone starts out, Gold status is attained by earning 1,000 Air Miles in one calendar year, and Onyx status is achieved by earning 6,000 Air Miles in one calendar year.
Air Miles’s regular promotional offers make it pretty easy to qualify and re-qualify for status. Completing Shop the Block for 2,000 Air Miles, Mega Miles for another 1,000 Air Miles, and getting the BMO Air Miles World Elite MasterCard for 3,000 Air Miles, all of which aren’t too difficult by any means, would get you to Onyx status.
Frequently Asked Questions
What's better: Cash Rewards or Dream Rewards?
If you’re an Air Miles collector, whether or not Cash Rewards or Dream Rewards are better for you depends on your personal preference, travel style, and which other points currencies you collect.
How can you earn Air Miles faster?
To accelerate the speed at which you earn Air Miles, you’ll want to take advantage of all the promotions to receive bonus miles, such as Mega Miles or Shop the Block promotions, credit card welcome bonuses, or shopping portal bonuses.
Can you get greater value than $10 per 95 Air Miles from Cash Rewards?
Yes! Air Miles occasionally offers bonus miles for the act of redeeming your Cash Rewards, effectively giving you a redemption value higher than the standard 95 Air Miles = $10.
Does Air Miles use dynamic award pricing?
Unfortunately, yes. The Air Miles search engine won’t return results if the cash price of the associated award is too high; moreover, even when the search engine does return results, the price of Additional Flight Rewards will often sometimes be higher than the published award chart.
Why are the fees so high when using Air Miles to fly overseas?
Air Miles doesn’t levy fuel surcharges when flying within North America (including the Carribean and Hawaii), which is great for award tickets. On the other hand, Air Miles does levy fuel surcharges when flying overseas, which make up a large portion of the additional fees you must pay.
With over 10 million members in Canada, Air Miles is evidently one of Canada’s most popular programs. While it’s most likely not going to unlock any premium cabin redemptions, Air Miles can help you save money on any economy class flights, hotels, or car rentals that you need to book along your travels, especially with some savvy planning on the earning side through the regular Air Miles promotions.