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 frequent promotion is Air Miles Bonus Boom, which offered a very generous 800 Air Miles for completing eight different activities, many of which are quite easy. For those in Ontario, picking up some gift cards at both Sobeys and Sobeys Urbanfresh, filling up your car at Shell, redeeming Air Miles Cash miles at Metro, and adding your Air Miles card to Samsung Pay would get you 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 Bonus Boom, 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 miles.
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 15x 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.
During recent Bonus Boom promotions, we saw Jean Coutu offer 25 bonus Air Miles redeeming 190 Cash Miles (worth $20), and Sobeys offer the same 25 bonus Air Miles for redeeming 95 Cash Miles (worth $10). During the same weekend, Metro was also offering 20 bonus miles upon spending $20 on Metro-branded items (Irresistibles, LifeSmart, or Selection Premium) which was automatically applied.
Accordingly, by stacking the two offers, you’d receive 45 Air Miles for redeeming 95 Air Miles. You’d lose 50 Air Miles, but would gain two offers towards the Bonus Boom promotion, which awards 400 bonus miles upon completing four offers.
Since Caousesh 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 mile (cpm), this equals 1,000 / 95 = 10.5cpm.
If you chose Dream Rewards instead, you should really be aiming to redeem them for a value above 10.5cpm, 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 10.5cpm 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. These used to represent a minimum of 14 cents per mile in value, but since Disney has moved towards dynamically priced tickets, so has Air Miles. Depending on the day you’re visiting, you can redeem a 3-day base park ticket at Disneyland Anaheim for 3,900 miles.
As the cash value of this ticket is US$330 (~$418.57), this represents a redemption value of 10.77 cents per mile. This is a marginally better redemption than the base 10.5cpm we use as the cash miles redemption rate.
A few preliminary searches shows redemption values of 10.37 cents per mile at DisneyWorld Orlando, so be sure to calculate the cent-per-mile redemption value as it’s not a simple 14cpm no-brainer redemption as it has been.
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. Air Miles currently uses a search engine that allows you to search for flights between two locations as long as each is served by one or more of its partner airlines.
Air Miles has recently revamped its search engine, and the program no longer advertises an award chart of any sort – flights will simply cost whatever result the search engine decides it does. It is a fully dynamic, with the price in miles corresponding to the cash price, except for a few circumstances (more on that below).
The good thing is, you are able to use the search engine to price out a flight beforehand without any miles in your account – giving you a sample goal to aim for. Since the number of miles required depends on the cash price, the estimate will increase or decrease depending on how the price of the flight changes over time.
Furthermore, there are small discounts in flight redemption depending on the status you hold, similar to how preferred pricing works on Air Canada using Aeroplan miles.
On another positive note, Air Miles can be redeemed for flights in any class of service, ranging from economy class to First Class. From the picture above, you can see that Emirates is an Air Miles partner – yes, you can redeem miles for Emirates First Class; however, the redemption value is less than redeeming cash miles for groceries, at least from a few preliminary searches we’ve ran.
For the above Emirates First Class flight, the redemption value is 9.99cpm.Therefore, you will be better off putting the money you saved from redeeming cash miles for groceries into a savings account and paying for Emirates First Class instead.
Most flights the search engine will return will have a redemption value close to, and maybe just above, the baseline value of 10.5 cpm. The second-best return on value will be for flights within North America, as we find international flights to have too many fees to making spending your Air Miles worth it.
The absolute best redemption value is for round-trip last-minute flights within North America, where the cash price will be ridiculously high and the number of miles required remains fairly reasonable, allowing you to extract value up to 40cpm.
Those holding the American Express Air Miles Reserve can use more Air Miles to offset the taxes and fees at a fixed value of 12cpm.
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 one nights would cost you $198.61, but you could also redeem 1,580 Air Miles plus $29.61 in taxes. That works out to 10.7cpm, which is in line with the cash and flight value.
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. The redemption value also decreases if you consider being able to save money booking directly with hotel such as using a best rate guarantee or using a corporate code.
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.
Do to Air Miles revamping their reward offerings, car rentals are not currently bookable online. They are still available when calling in, and a few test queries revealed a redemption value of right right along the 10.5cpm line, similar to cash miles, attraction tickets, flights, and hotels.
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 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 (especially last minute as seen above), flights on sale can be a great way to save miles.
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 Status: Air Miles allows you to earn status with the program, with the most beneficial perk being up to a 40% discount on flight redemptions. The rest of the benefits are a bit abstract (“exciting surprises”), and I suppose a 10% discount on merchandise is better than nothing.
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.
Status is earned by accruing miles, with Gold achievable upon earning 1,000 Air Miles per year, and Onyx achieved upon earning 6,000 Air Miles per year.
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 Bonus Boom, credit card welcome bonuses, or shopping portal bonuses up to 15x.
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. Air Miles is a fully dynamic program for booking flights, with the number of miles required directly correlating to cash price.
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 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.