Air Miles Review | How Canada’s most popular loyalty program works

**This post may contain affiliate links. I may be compensated if you use them.

Of all loyalty programs in Canada, Air Miles is the most recognized one and counts over 11 million members. Created in 1992, it has since made partnerships with over 200 retailers and travel-related suppliers. Honestly, Air Miles is probably the first loyalty program I ever heard of since my dad used to collect Air Miles at the Petro Canada near where I grew up.

Air Miles has many long-time loyal collectors but also many critics fueled by weak earning rates, lack of redemption availability and the 2016 announcement of points cancellation saga. However, if you look past these concerns, Air Miles is still a solid program and can bring good value. Read my Air Miles review now and find out how it can work for you.

How to earn Air Miles

With over 200 partners and more than 25 years of presence in Canada, there are now many ways to earn Air Miles. If you’re an Air Miles collector, then make sure you’re aware of all the following ways to earn Air Miles.

  • In-store: Show your Air Miles card in-store to get miles based on your purchases. There are over 100 retailers offering Air Miles including Shell, IGA, Sobey’s, Metro Ontario, Lowe’s, ACE, Staples, Jean Coutu, etc. You can earn double the points at these merchants if you pay with an Air Miles credit card.
  • Booking hotels and car rentals: When booking with select hotel and car rental chains, you can opt to earn AirMiles instead of hotels or car rental points. This includes Alamo, Avis, Budget, National, Best Western, Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, etc.
  • Shop online using airmileshops.ca: When making online purchases, you can earn Air Miles if you first login into Air Miles shopping portal at airmileshops.ca. Similar to rakuten.ca or greatcanadianrebates, airmileshops will reward you for your online shopping by giving you Air Miles on your purchases. The list of available online merchants is 150+ long and includes Amazon, Apple, booking.com, eBay, expedia.ca, GAP, H&M, hotels.com, Hudson Bay, Indigo, Lowe’s, Macy’s, Nike, Priceline, Reitmans, Sephora, Staples, Ticketmaster, etc.
  • Book travel using travelhub.airmiles.ca: You will earn Air Miles if you book hotels, flights, car rentals or travel packages through the Air Miles travel portal.
  • Take advantage of promotions: Air Miles runs many promotions that earn you extra points such as:
    • Promotions with partner retailers – search for them in your local flyers
    • Bonus earnings on airmileshops.ca
    • Targeted offers by mail or on Air Miles app
    • Big nationwide promotions like Mega Miles or Shop the Block

Earn AirMiles on all your expenses with credit cards

There are more than 10 credit cards that will earn you Air Miles in Canada, but I think the following two are the best bang for your buck.

BMO Air Miles World Elite Mastercard

  • $120 Annual fee (first year free)
  • 2,000 Air Miles signup bonus after you charge $3,000 in the first three months
  • Earn 1 Air Mile per $10 spent on all purchases
  • 15% Discount on all Air Miles flights in North America with no blackout periods
  • Free membership in Mastercard Airport Experiences provided by LoungeKey, plus two annual passes
  • Comprehensive travel insurance package included

The BMO Air Miles World Elite Mastercard is widely considered the best Air Miles credit card since it earns you 1 Air Mile for every $10 spent and you get a 15% discount on air miles flights within North America. Right now, the current promotion gives you 3,000 Air Miles as a welcome bonus and the annual fee of $120 is waived for the first year. For more details, you can read my BMO Air Miles World Elite Mastercard review now.

American Express Platinum Air Miles Card

  • $120 annual fee
  • 2,000 Air Miles sign-up bonus after spending $1,500 in the first 3 months
  • $120 annual fee
  • 2,000 AIR MILES sign-up bonus after spending $1,500 in the first 3 months
  • Earn 1 Reward Mile for every $5 spent at restaurants, grocery stores, gas and transit purchases, up to $30,000 annually
  • Earn 1 Reward Mile for every $10 spent everywhere else
  • Annual travel redemption benefit – Get 25% of the miles used back (up to a maximum of 750 miles). 
  • Receive 500 Air Miles as a bonus if you refer a friend to this card
  • Travel accident & Car rental theft and damage insurance
  • Purchase protection & Buyer’s assurance

Although there’s an annual fee of $120 that’s not waived for the first year, the American Express Platinum Air Miles card is still popular since it comes with a good earn rate and a decent welcome bonus in 2,000 Air Miles. People like this card since you can use the Amex Refer A Friend program and get an extra 500 Air Miles for every referral. Although it’s not one of the best travel credit cards in Canada, I still think it’s decent. This card did see some changes recently with the earn rate going up quite a bit but the annual fee doubled. The new annual travel redemption benefit where you get 25% of your miles back will be a winner for those who make regular redemptions. Read my American Express Platinum Air Miles card review now if you want to learn more.

Dream miles vs. Cash miles

Most people don’t realize is that there are two types of Air Miles: Dream miles and Cash Mile

Dream miles can be exclusively redeemed for flights, travel booking on Air Miles travel portal, merchandise or attraction tickets. Hence the term “dream.”

Cash miles can be redeemed directly in stores to reduce the cost of your purchase or can be redeemed for gift cards. Think of this as a cash back type of redemption.

One really annoying rule of Air Miles is that you need to decide if you want to earn Dream miles or Cash miles. You can allocate any percentage for Dream and Cash (e.g. 60% Dream and 40% Cash), but once those miles are in an account (Dream or Cash), they are locked in that account and can’t be transferred into the other one. The good news is that you can change your allocation percentage at any time.

How to redeem Cash Air Miles

Cash Air Miles are very easy to use. They can be redeemed at retail outlets just by swiping your Air Miles card or can be redeemed for gift cards online at a ratio of 95 Air Miles for $10.

The list of stores where you can redeem cash Air Miles is quite extensive and includes Shell, Rona, Sobey’s, IGA, Safeway, Metro (Ontario), Hudson’s Bay, Jean Coutu, Cineplex, Starbucks, ACE, VIA RAIL, Toys’R’Us, The Keg…

Air Miles merchants different based on your region so make sure you check out the complete list of stores for here

How to redeem Dream Air Miles

Dream Air Miles can be redeemed online for merchandise, attraction tickets (ex: DisneyWorld), hotels, car rentals, flights or travel packages.

Redeeming for flights is what makes Dream miles popular since they’re arguably the best way to get the most value out of Air Miles. The Air Miles redemption chart is based on distance flown, but note that they also have seasonal pricing which can increase or decrease the number of points required to get a free flight. Here are a few examples of redemption costs in miles (low season / high season) within North America: 

  • Toronto – Washington : 1,300 / 1,600
  • Montreal – Halifax : 1,300 / 1,600
  • Calgary – Portland : 1,400 / 1,700
  • Vancouver – San Diego : 1,900 / 2,600
  • Toronto – Miami : 2,800 / 3,500

For other continents, the number of miles required varies based on distance but flights can easily cost more than 10,000 miles. To see how many miles you need for a particular destination, you can look it up on their interactive chart here.

Since the Air Miles redemption chart is based on distance and not cost, it means that short but costly flights can yield a very good value. As an example, flights within the same province like Sandspit – Vancouver, Sept-Iles – Montreal or Labrador City – Saint-John can easily cost more than $500 but can be redeemed from 1,200 to 1,400 miles only. This is a fantastic value for Air Miles.

It’s important to note that only a limited amount of seats per flight are allocated to award redemptions so you need to book in advance or be flexible on your dates in order to book popular routes or popular dates. When redeeming for flights, the miles only cover the base fares of the flight so you would need to pay for the taxes, fees, fuel surcharges and aircraft surcharges.

When do Air Miles expire?

Technically, Air Miles don’t expire. However, your Air Miles account will become dormant if you don’t have any activity in your account in 24 months. If your account goes in dormant status, your points will be removed. If you want them back, you will need to pay $0.15 per mile to reinstate them. In other words, make sure you don’t let your account go dormant!

How my friend got $2,000 in free grocery from Air Miles in a year

A friend recently told me that he and wife redeemed $2,000 of free grocery out of Air Miles.

Remember, it takes 95 Air Miles for $10 in free groceries so they would have needed 19,000 Air Miles to claim $2,000. You would think that it would have taken them years to earn that many points, but you’d be surprised.

Earning 19,000 AirMiles seems impossible if you only consider the regular earnings from spending at participating retailers since you would need to spend $380,000. However, by focusing on signup bonuses and yearly major promotions on 2 accounts, they were able to pull it off. 

Here’s the breakdown of how they earned 19,000 Air Miles in only a year:

  • Signup bonus from BMO World Elite MasterCard: 2 x 3,000 = 6,000
  • Spending on BMO World Elite MasterCard: 2 x 1,000 = 2,000
  • Shop The Block promotion: 2 x 2,000 = 4,000
  • Mega Miles promotion: 2 x 1,500 = 3,000
  • Bonuses from other promotions: 1,500
  • Airmilesshops.ca earnings (regular and promos) : 2,000
  • Earning miles on regular spending at participating retailers: 500
  • TOTAL: 19,000 Air Miles 

Obviously, they relied a lot on promos, but as you can see, Air Miles can be lucrative.

Are Air Miles worth it?

My Air Miles review is positive. Although Air Miles does have ridiculous rules, the credit card signup offers and in-store promotions can give great value for little effort. It costs nothing to join, so you might as well sign up.

Air Miles Review | How Canada’s most popular loyalty program works

About Barry Choi

Barry Choi is a Toronto-based personal finance and travel expert who frequently makes media appearances. His blog Money We Have is one of Canada’s most trusted sources when it comes to money and travel. You can find him on Twitter:@barrychoi

15 Comments

  1. Kari on October 31, 2019 at 10:37 AM

    We’ve chosen Cash miles for years, and currently get about $1,300 in free groceries per year. We don’t fly often as a family, and it’s usually in high season now that the kids are too old to pull out of school for a week.

    • Barry Choi on October 31, 2019 at 10:40 AM

      Kari,

      That’s incredible! Air Miles Cash Miles can have good value if you shop at merchants where you can earn Air Miles.

  2. Steve b on August 18, 2020 at 12:44 AM

    S shadow of its former self. Now u need double or triple the amt of miles since they tried to cancel or expire earned miles. Goods also cost way more miles for the same thing. The new rules amont to a cancelation of earned miles. We switched everything to royal Bank rewards.

  3. Larry. N on August 21, 2020 at 11:13 AM

    My complaint is that at one point Airmiles offered that you could buy extra Airmiles at 0.20$ per air mile, but when we went to redeem the Airmiles, they valued the Airmiles at 0.13$ per Airmiles, that was a loss of 0.07$ per airmile , not cool, kind of a rip off….

    • Barry.Choi on August 21, 2020 at 9:08 PM

      Larry,

      Generally speaking, buying any type of miles or points isn’t worth it unless there’s a really good promo going on or you have a specific reason for doing so.

  4. Leo Ss on October 12, 2020 at 9:17 PM

    I’m a collector since 1994 and it used to be really fair if You spend decent money the rewards were really good, in the last 5-6 years they are such a nickel and dime type of business always trying to cheat You by doubling or even tripling the amount of miles to get rewards really sad I was an avid fun/collector.

  5. Tracey No on November 2, 2020 at 4:42 AM

    I think it’s rediculous how much you have to spend to receive 1 air mile…I’ve received maybe 5 times a $10 off my groceries at Sobeys…I’ve had air miles for years..
    When u don’t have much money to spend it’s almost impossible
    To be honest…I prefer optimum points where u get 10 points for each dollar spent…with my prescriptions…and such…I get approx $40 off per month…plus going to superstore …when I can get there…which is cheaper than Sobeys….I get even more

  6. David on November 19, 2020 at 1:13 AM

    If the only way you’re getting Air Miles is through spending you’re doing it wrong. You’re supposed to go for the promotions. That’s where you can find incredible value. Air Miles you really need to read the fine print more so than with the other programs out there so it’s a bit of a game. I got into it two years ago because of my father who’s been collecting for years he’s got at least a 40k balance last I checked his account. I myself I am already at 12k so it’s not a bad program and not hard to get points.

    For reference, I am also am a fan of and collect Optimum points, Aeroplan Points, Avios Miles, Delta Miles, Marriott Points, Hilton Points & Best Western Points. Each program has a niche and strong points you just have to find them. I realize not everyone has time to learn all the programs but I try. There may be some other programs out there but so far these are the ones I have found the most value with.

    • Barry Choi on November 19, 2020 at 4:00 PM

      David,

      All fair and excellent points. My review is based on the general public. For example, my dad has collected Aeroplan Miles for close to 40 years and all he’s claimed are free car washes. He barely uses the internet and would have no idea how to take advantage of the promos.

      • David on November 19, 2020 at 4:54 PM

        Exactly, it all depends on how you use the program. I meant to put my reply under one of the other reader’s responses. Good article. Thanks for giving the program a review. Already planning today with my father now how we’ll get our 7 partners for the current Shop the Block promotion going on.

        • Barry Choi on November 19, 2020 at 5:01 PM

          David,

          Ha, I was doing the same for Aeroplan. After reading the terms and conditions, I was like this is too complicated.

  7. Non-techie Talk on July 14, 2021 at 12:14 PM

    Not worth the effort to me. PC Optimum is the best I’ve seen. For example, each Tuesday, they typically offer 33% back, which is available for redemption immediately. So, I’ll spend $75, get 25,000 pts added to my account which allows $25 to be discounted on my next purchase. And that’s without signing up for cards I don’t need, or rushing out to buy things I don’t need on some promotion. It’s cash, every week, on the things I need and regularly buy.

    • Barry Choi on July 14, 2021 at 12:30 PM

      I agree, PC Optimum is a much easier and better program.

      • Non-techie Talk on July 14, 2021 at 1:04 PM

        I appreciate your writing this article! I got one of those “don’t let your Air Miles expire” emails and was wondering whether to bother keeping it active. It’s clear, thanks to you, that there is value in the program for some people – those who enjoy this program are encouraged to continue to do so, but I’m out.

  8. Colin G Gruchy on September 6, 2021 at 11:57 PM

    PC Optimum points is the best loyalty program. Airmiles are useless for travel. Most of the time the taxes, fees and surcharges are the lion’s share of the airfare, and the miles don’t provide much value. Once LCBO and Pharmaplus stopped issuing Airmiles I got nervous about the longevity of the program. I just redeemed 8900 miles for a beautiful new Samsung TV. I have 700 miles left and they are useless to me. PC points for me!

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