Loyalty programs are all the rage these days. Just about every retailer seems to have one. It makes sense, by offering your customers something, they’ll hopefully stay loyal to the brand and spend more. Despite the fact that you may be giving up some of your data, I see loyalty programs as a good thing as it usually means you’ll get rewards and/or discounts.
There’s just one problem with loyalty programs. Not all of them are created equal. While some offer incredible value, others are terrible and not worth your time. Not only do you need to think about how you’ll earn points, but also how you’ll be able to spend them. Here are my picks for the best and worst loyalty programs for Canadians.
Best – PC Optimum
In my opinion, the best loyalty programs are where it’s easy to earn points quickly, and you can redeem your points effortlessly. With PC Optimum, you can earn points at the largest grocery store chain (Loblaws owned stores), the largest pharmacy chain (Shoppers Drug Mart/Pharmaprix), and one of the largest gas station chains in Esso. That’s a pretty good three-pronged attack for points collectors.
In addition, you can earn even more points if you have one of the PC Mastercards. The PC Financial World Elite Mastercard gives you 45 points per $1 spent at Shoppers Drug Mart/Pharmaprix, 30 points per $1 spent at Loblaws owned stores, and 10 points per $1 spent on all other purchases. If you become a PC Insiders member, you could increase your earn rate on some products.
With PC Optimum, it takes 10,000 points to redeem $10 in groceries or merchandise. However, if you save your points for special redemption events, you can get even more value. For example, Shoppers Drug Mart often has promotions where if you redeem 300,000 points, you’ll get an extra $100 off. Loblaws recently had a similar offer, but it wasn’t as generous.
If you shop at Loblaws owned stores and Shoppers Drug Mart on a regular basis, joining PC Optimum and getting a PC Mastercard is a must.
Worst – Rexall Be Well
When Rexall announced that they were dropping Air Miles (also on the worst list), I was very excited. It was clear that PC Optimum was one of the best loyalty programs, so surely Rexall would come up with something better. Why better? Because Rexall has fewer locations than Shoppers Drug Mart, so they need something that could potentially lure customers to them.
Unfortunately, Rexall Be Well is not very good. Although you’ll earn 10 points per $1 spent, it takes 25,000 points to redeem $10. For context, the base earn rate at Shoppers Drug Mart is 15 PC Optimum points per $1 spent. Remember, it only takes 10,000 PC Optimum points to redeem $10. In other words, your earn rate is lower, and it takes more points to make a redemption compared to PC Optimum.
Yes, Rexall does have many promotions where you can earn additional points, but the rate of return is still nowhere close to what you get with PC Optimum. Plus, Rexall Be Well doesn’t have a credit card where you can earn more points. This really is a missed opportunity.
Best – Aeroplan
Aeroplan completely overhauled its program in late 2020 and its grown on me. Admittedly, it now costs more points to fly to just about any destination, but it’s now easier for any travellers to make a redemption. That’s possible because Air Canada now makes every seat available on their planes available for redemptions and there are no more carrier surcharges.
Since TD and American Express have multiple Aeroplan cards, it’s quite easy to rack up a lot of points fast. Add in the fact that you get a Buddy Pass with the mid and top-tier cards, and that’s an easy way to save on flights. In the last year, Aeroplan has also added additional airline and merchant partners so there are more ways to earn and redeem points.
Since researching flights is part of my job, I’ve found many routes where you can get a value of 1.5 – 2 cents per Aeroplan point when redeeming for an economy ticket. However, if you’re looking to get a seat in premium, business, or first class, you can easily double that value.
Worst – Air Miles
Let’s be clear, Air Miles isn’t a terrible loyalty program. In fact, I rank it as positive in my Air Miles review. That said, when you compare it to WestJet Rewards or Aeroplan, it’s really not that good.
The biggest issue I have with Air Miles is that it can be difficult to earn miles. Even though there are multiple Air Miles credit cards, the highest tier card still has a base earn rate of 1 Air Mile for every $10 spent. That said, you can double dip at some merchants where you’ll earn miles by showing your membership and then paying with your Air Miles credit card.
The other issue I have with the program is how you make redemptions. You have to choose between cash and dream miles. Once you’ve earned miles in either category, you can’t switch them. Dream miles can be good for specific routes, but overall, it’s more complicated than other travel loyalty programs. Cash miles have arguably better value, but then you’re only really using it as cash back, so why not get one of the best cash back credit cards instead?
If you’re going to collect travel points, you want something that’s easy to earn and redeem points. Air Miles might actually be a good choice for some people, but I think there are better programs out there for the general public.
Best – Marriott Bonvoy
With more than 7,000 hotels in 115+ countries, Marriott has the most properties in the world. If you’re a frequent traveller, then staying at Marriott hotels is a no-brainer since you can quickly earn status and get additional benefits such as free room upgrades, free breakfast, and lounge access.
But what about casual travellers, should they join? It depends. If you’re the type of traveller who’s looking for the lowest price possible, then Marriott Bonvoy won’t matter to you. Now, if you’re the type of person who enjoys what hotels have to offer, then staying at Marriott properties and collecting Marriott Bonvoy points will likely be worth your while.
What makes Marriott Bonvoy appealing to Canadians is that it’s easy to earn points. If you sign up for the Marriott Bonvoy American Express Card, you’ll earn up to 51,000 points when you meet the minimum spend requirement. The earn rate is 5 Marriott Bonvoy points per $1 spent at Marriott properties and 2 points per $1 spent everywhere else. In addition, the card gives you an annual free night certificate that can be used to redeem a room worth up to 35,000 points.
Besides the benefits, Marriott Bonvoy is an excellent rewards program because there are so many ways to maximize your points. There are frequent promotions, you can transfer your points to airline loyalty programs, and you get the 5th night free when booking on points. Read my Marriott Bonvoy Review if you want to learn more about the program.
Worst – Best Western Rewards
Best Western Rewards gives you access to more than 4,200 hotels in 100+ countries, but quite often they’re found in suburbs of major cities. That said, In Asia and parts of Europe, there is a decent selection of hotels.
Similar to Marriott Bonvoy, the points required for a free night at a Best Western property is based on the hotel category. On the bottom end, it’ll cost you just 5,000 points, but top hotels cost 70,000 points. While that may seem comparable to Marriott Bonvoy, it’s the details that are troublesome.
In recent years, one of the higher tier hotel redemption rates went from 28,000 points to 36,000 points. Shortly after, it jumped to 56,000 points. Devaluations are normal, but this rapid jump is pretty insane. On top of that, hotels priced in the 36,000 range were never a good value to begin with. It was almost always better to pay cash.
Another reason why I consider Best Western Rewards one of the worst hotel loyalty programs is that it’s difficult to earn points. Yes, there is an MBNA Best Western credit card available, but unless you’re staying at a lot of Best Western hotels, your base earn rate is only 1 point per $1 spent. Can you imagine spending $56,000 just to get a room that’s worth only about $400? That’s less than a 1% return you’re getting.
To top it all off, the higher tier statuses give you limited benefits. You’ll get the standard increased earn rate, welcome gifts, and room upgrades, but there’s no free breakfast or lounge access. If you’re staying at hotels on a regular basis where you can earn status, you might as well do it a better chain.
It’s important to note that the best and worst loyalty programs in Canada are completely subjective. If you happen to shop at one merchant more than others, you may find their loyalty program better. Alternatively, if there happens to be one hotel chain that’s more convenient whenever you travel, then obviously you’d rank their loyalty program better than others. In the end, choose programs that benefit you and learn the ins and outs so you can maximize the value of your points.