When I’m asked about the best travel credit cards in Canada, I tell people about the generous sign up bonuses and benefits you’ll get. What people don’t realize is that it’s the travel rewards program that they’re tied to that often makes them so great. Credit card offers change all the time and what’s a good card now may not be a good choice tomorrow. However, the best travel loyalty programs are constant as long as you understand what makes them so great.

Of course, these travel loyalty programs could also change at any given moment, but you’re usually given quite a bit of notice and there are ways to use or transfer your points before the changes kick in. Here are the best travel rewards programs in Canada and how you can use them to your advantage.

American Express Membership Rewards

When it comes to the best travel rewards programs that credit card providers offer, my vote goes to American Express Membership Rewards. The reason they stand out is that you can transfer your points to Marriott Bonvoy and multiple airlines. The Marriott Bonvoy transfer ratio is 1:1.2 For example, if you transferred 10,000 Membership Rewards points, you’d get 12,000 Marriott Bonvoy points. With Aeroplan, your transfer ratio is 1:1. The reason this is so important is that Marriott is the largest hotel chain in the world while Aeroplan is the rewards program for Air Canada, Canada’s #1 airline.

There’s also some real value with Membership Rewards points if you don’t transfer them. American Express has its own travel portal where you can claim 1,000 points for $1 in travel. You can also charge any type of travel purchase to your credit card and then redeem points towards that purchase at the same ratio. That means you have the flexibility to book any type of travel.

To get even more value out of your American Express Membership Rewards, you can book travel via their fixed points travel program. As the name implies, you can travel to different parts of the world for a fixed amount of points. There is a maximum base ticket price associated with each redemption, but quite often this can work in your favour. E.g. For 40,000 points, you can fly anywhere within Canada and the U.S. (except Hawaii and Alaska) as long as the base price does not exceed $700.  

So what’s the best way to earn American Express Membership Rewards points fast? There’s the American Express Platinum Card that gives you 60,000 points when using a referral link if you spend $5,000 in the first three months of card membership. If you have a lot of expenses coming up, consider the American Express Business Platinum Card that gives you an insane 75,000 points when you charge $7,000 to your card in the first three months.

Marriott Bonvoy

With over 7,000 properties in more than 110 countries, Marriott is the largest hotel chain in the world so it only makes sense that their loyalty program, Marriott Bonvoy is one of the best travel rewards programs in Canada and the world. With Marriott Bonvoy, you earn points whenever you stay at any Marriott owned property. You can also earn points by signing up for the Marriott Bonvoy American Express Card which gives you up to 51,000 Marriott Bonvoy points as a welcome bonus.

Once you’ve earned points, you can start redeeming them for free nights. Every hotel is assigned a category number between 1-8. The higher the number, the more points you need to pay for a free night. There’s also peak and off-peak pricing for free nights to factor in. That means a free night could cost you as little as 5,000 points per night or 100,000 on the high end.

Marriott Bonvoy has five tiers of status: Silver, Gold, Platinum, Titanium, Titanium Ambassador. With every status level you reach, you’ll earn extra points and benefits. For example, silver gets you free Wi-Fi and early check-in. Once you reach Titanium, you’ll have lounge access and access to free suite upgrades.

What also makes Marriott Bonvoy interesting is how you can transfer your points to a bunch of different airlines. The regular transfer ratio for most of the airlines is 3:1 but when you transfer 60,000 Marriott Bonvoy points, you get an additional 5,000 points which is a pretty good value. You also have the options to use your Marriott Bonvoy points on Marriott Moments which are exclusive experiences such as dining, entertainment, sporting events and travel.

WestJet Rewards

Since WestJet is Canada’s second largest airline and based in Calgary, it’s often overlooked by many Canadians who prefer to fly Air Canada. Here’s the thing, WestJet Rewards is not only one of the best travel rewards programs, it’s also one of the best loyalty programs out there.

What makes WestJet Rewards so appealing is that it’s a cash back program, not points. You earn your WestJet dollars on every qualifying spend. Your status tier starts at Teal (you get this just by signing up) and then you can move up to Silver, Gold, and Platinum. Every tier you go up gives you a higher earn rate and additional benefits. Platinum gives you an incredible 8% back in WestJet dollars on WestJet flights.

WestJet Rewards is ones of the best travel travel rewards programs on its own, but when you combine it with the WestJet RBC World Elite Mastercard, you can earn rewards so fast. This card gives you 2% on WestJet flights and vacation purchases while all other purchases earn you 1.5% back. The card stacks with your status so if you’re a Platinum member, you would earn 10% back in WestJet dollars on WestJet flights and vacation purchases. The WestJet Mastercard also gives you an annual companion voucher starting at $99 CAD, plus your first checked bag free which is an incredible savings.

Aeroplan

Ever since Air Canada bought Aeroplan, people were worried that the program would change for the worse. It’s true that some new rules they’ve implemented have made some redemptions less desirable, but the reality is they were closing a loophole that was abused by select customers. The good news is that they also made positive changes to the program where you can cancel award bookings within 24 hours without having to pay a fee.

The program itself can be a bit complicated. The miles you earn can be redeemed for flights. How many miles it’ll cost you to get to a certain destination is based on regions. E.g. 25,000 miles for a round-trip ticket to anywhere within the continental U.S. and Canada. What’s tricky is that not every seat is available so you may need to be flexible to make a redemption. They do have a market rate option where you can book on just about any flight, but the number of points it’ll take you to make a redemption will obviously increase. Don’t forget, you still have to pay taxes on your flight redemptions.

Since flying can be expensive, it’s no surprise that many people prefer to collect Aeroplan Miles. The easiest way to earn miles is to get one of their co-branded credit cards such as the TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite Card. The earn rate is great at 1.5 Aeroplan miles per $1 spent on grocery, gas, drugstore and aircanada.com purchases; and 1 Aeroplan mile per dollar spent on all other purchases. If you sign up right now, you’ll earn 15,000 Aeroplan Miles after your first purchase which is pretty sweet considering the annual fee of $120 is waived for the first year. In addition, for the first three months of card membership, you’ll earn double the Miles so there’s a real opportunity to rack up those points.

RBC Rewards

Similar to American Express Membership Rewards, RBC Rewards is one of the best rewards programs in Canada offered by a bank. With RBC, you can transfer your points to WestJet Rewards, American Airlines, Asia Miles and Avios Miles. If you like to collect any of those airline rewards points, then collecting RBC Rewards is a good way to complement your earn rate. I should also note that American Express Membership Rewards doesn’t allow you to directly transfer your points to any of those airlines which is another reason why RBC Rewards can be popular.

Just like Amex MR, RBC Rewards also has a Travel Redemption Schedule. The RBC chart can be a bit complicated since the number of points it takes to make a redemption varies depending on where you’re flying from and where you’re headed, but there’s no denying that there can be a lot of value for some rewards.

What’s interesting about RBC Rewards is that the RBC Visa Infinite Avion Credit Card often has a promotion where the annual fee of $120 is waived for the first year. The signup bonus also varies from 15,000 – 25,000 points after your first purchase so you can get a lot of RBC Rewards points fast with little effort.