Travelling can be expensive, but one easy way to offset your costs is to use a travel credit card. Some people prefer flexible cards that let you redeem your points for any type of travel. However, if you’re the type of person who likes to maximize your value, it can be well worth it to choose a card affiliated with a specific travel loyalty program.
All travel loyalty programs operate in the same way: They reward customers for sticking to a brand. As you earn more points or miles, you can redeem them to pay for flights, hotels, or vacation packages. Generally speaking, the more you spend, the better the perks you get. Companies want you to keep coming back, and a loyalty program is the easiest way to get you to do so.
Loyalty programs are available from just about every travel company in the world. However, a few popular Canadian loyalty programs stand out:
Aeroplan is Air Canada’s loyalty program, and it has more than 5 million members. With Aeroplan, you can use your points to purchase any available seat on Air Canada flights with no blackout dates. Alternatively, you can use your points on select seats with one of more than 40 airline partners. Since Air Canada is the country’s largest carrier and has a vast network of partners, you can use Aeroplan points to get just about anywhere in the world.
Based in Calgary, WestJet is Canada’s second-largest airline. Their loyalty program is called WestJet Rewards, and it acts like a cash-back program. You’ll earn WestJet dollars on eligible WestJet purchases and any purchase when using a WestJet credit card. Since you’re earning “cash,” there’s no need to worry about blackout dates or having enough points. As long as you’ve earned at least 15 in WestJet dollars, you can redeem them toward a flight.
Launched in 1992, Air Miles has nearly 11 million active collectors. Since Air Miles isn’t associated with any particular travel brand, you can redeem your miles for flights, hotels, or car rentals. That said, only a limited number of seats on each flight are available to Air Miles collectors, so you may need to be flexible with your travel plans.
Many people only go on vacation once or twice a year, so it’s important to be strategic about which rewards programs have your loyalty. In most cases, you should consider four factors before signing up:
While earning points is a vital component of a loyalty program, many people would argue that the ability to redeem your points is even more critical. After all, collecting points is a waste of time if you can’t spend them on anything of value to you. That’s why you need to know what your points are worth, especially if you’re debating between two redemption options.
Using a co-branded travel credit card is one of the quickest ways to earn points and miles in a loyalty program. Most cards offer a generous welcome bonus to get you started, but the earn rate and additional benefits can make a significant difference in how quickly you can start redeeming rewards.
To calculate the value of one point, take the ticket cost (not including any additional fees you’ll need to pay, like taxes) and multiply it by 100 to get the value in cents. Then, take that number and divide it by the number of points required for the redemption.
Let’s say a one-way Air Canada flight from Toronto to Los Angeles costs $300 or 23,100 Aeroplan points. Your formula would be (300 x 100) / 23,100 = 1.3 cents per point.
Perhaps you’re also considering booking a return flight from Toronto to Vancouver that costs $400 (not including taxes) or 25,100 Aeroplan points. The formula is (400 x 100) / 25,100 = 1.6 cents per point. Using your points to fly to Vancouver (and back!) instead of Los Angeles gives you more value.
Besides the earn rate, look for any additional perks that may interest you, such as lounge access, travel insurance, and extended warranty protection.
What’s interesting about most travel loyalty programs is that you can double-dip if you have a co-branded credit card as well as your program membership card. For example, when shopping at a partner merchant, show your loyalty program card when checking out, and then pay with your co-branded card to get double the points. This works both in stores and online.
Although some people will try to stick to one travel rewards program to maximize their value, it’s beneficial to join more than one. Not every merchant has the same loyalty program partners, so collect points wherever you can. Then, just charge your purchases to your preferred rewards program credit card, and you’ll be travelling for less in no time.
Barry Choi is a personal finance and travel expert. His website moneywehave.com is one of Canada's most trusted sites when it comes to all things related to money and travel. You can reach him on Twitter: @barrychoi.