I write a lot about optimizing your travel and how to improve personal finances. These two subjects share a common hack which can be a very powerful one: taking advantage of loyalty programs. Many people know the basics of loyalty programs, but when you understand how they work and use one of the best travel credit cards, you can get a lot of value out of them.
Earning a lot of points and miles is easy with the sign up bonus and while earning is pretty straightforward, redeeming for maximum value can be challenging. This article will show you some redemption sweet spots that can give you the most value for your hard earned miles and points.
Marriott is the largest hotel chain in the world and Marriott Bonvoy is the largest and the best hotel loyalty program in my opinion. It can be overwhelming to read everything about such a massive program like Marriott Bonvoy so here are the best strategies to get maximum value out of your Bonvoy points:
5th night is free on points
When you redeem Marriott Bonvoy points for a stay, your room is free and if you pay with points for 4 nights, you get the 5th night free! For example, 5 nights at 25,000 points per night hotel would only cost you 100,000 points. This means you get a 25% bonus for your points if you happen to need 5 nights.
Book at high season and during big events
Marriott introduced low, standard and peak season point costs in 2019 so the cost per night now varies depending on demand. That being said, you can still get a lot of value during peak season and popular events since the number of points required is still fixed at a certain level and doesn’t follow what the nightly rate would be.
Let’s take a look at a category 5 hotel in New Orleans. This hotel would cost 35,000 points at the standard rate, 30,000 at low season and 40,000 at high season. The regular rate for a room can be as low as $120 CAD during low season which would still require 30,000 points for a value of 0.25¢ per point. During Mardi Gras weekend, a night can easily cost $650 CAD and would require 40,000 points for a value of 1.62¢ per point. That’s an excellent redemption.
This doesn’t apply to just major events. Always calculate the value of your points before making a redemption.
Low category hotels
Luxury hotels like St. Regis, Ritz Carlton or over-the-water bungalows in the Maldives get a lot of attention in the miles and points world. Personally, I find that low category Marriott hotels usually yields great value! A category 2 only costs 12,500 points per night, so this means with 50,000points you can get 5 nights!
Combining all Marriott Bonvoy hacks
You can combine all the tips mentioned above to get the best of all worlds. A friend of mine redeemed 50,000points for 5 nights (tip #1) during summer (tip #2) in category 2 hotel (tip #3) at the TownePlace Suite Belleville as a base for a south-central Ontario vacation. The paid fare for 5 nights in the summer was over $1,200, but he got the required 50,000 points from the sign-up bonus on the American Express Marriott Bonvoy credit card. That’s $1,200 in value from one credit card sign up! Note that the TownePlace Suite Belleville hotel is being moved up to a category 3 hotel as of April 1, 2020.
American Express Membership Rewards
I rank American Express Membership Rewards as the best bank travel rewards program in Canada. If you can read my Membership Rewards review, you’ll see that the program offers a lot of flexibility and it can be quite lucrative. Here is how I prefer to use my Membership Rewards to get the most value out of them:
Transfer points to partners
You can convert Membership Rewards into several airline loyalty programs including Aeroplan miles, British Airways Avios miles, Delta Skymiles and Cathay Pacific Asia Miles. All of these transfer partners have their own sweet spots and can yield a lot of value. You can also convert to Marriott Bonvoy program if the redemption is worth doing it.
American Express Fixed Points Travel program
American Express is most known as a credit card provider, but it’s also a world renowned full service travel agency. You can book airline flights directly with American Express Travel and you can pay with Membership Rewards at a 1¢ per point rate. American Express also offers the Fixed Points Travel program where you can get better redemption rates. For example, you can book a round-trip between Toronto and New-York for 15,000 points and it will offset the base fare up to $300 giving you a value of 2¢ per point.
Note that the American Express Cobalt card earns 5 Membership Rewards per dollar spent on grocery, restaurants, bars, convenient stores and bars which mean $3,000 of spending in these categories is enough for this round-trip flight! Or you could also consider that the 60,000 points sign up bonus from the American Express Platinum Card is enough to redeem for 4 round-trips and have a value of up to $1,200 using the Fixed Points Travel program.
Fine Hotels & Resorts program
Amex Platinum and Business Platinum cardholders have access to the American Express Fine Hotels & Resort collection which gives competitive pricing and adds many perks to hotel bookings. If you book a hotel through the Fine Hotels & Resorts program, you will get complimentary WiFi, a room upgrade, noon check-in, 4PM check-out, free daily breakfast for two up to $60 USD value and a $100 USD credit for food and drinks per stay (may vary per hotel). The hotels in the collection are high-end hotels, but I have seen some hotels nights at $200 CAD so getting an additional $160 USD in food and beverage credits at that price can be a steal!
Use all your benefits
When you are booking flights, accommodations and car rental, make sure you take into consideration all the benefits your credit cards give you. The American Express Platinum card comes with a long list of benefits including access to 1,200 airport lounges, Hertz 5 stars status, Marriott gold elite status and Hilton gold elite status. Knowing these benefits could influence your choice of connection to opt for an airport in which you have lounge access for free food and a more relaxing layover. Similar if two hotels are priced the same, you could favour a Hilton property since Hilton gold elite status will give you free breakfast.
RBC Rewards is RBC’s travel loyalty program and the best of the big 5 banks in Canada. There are a few ways to get more value than the usual 1¢ per point you can get when booking travel on RBC Rewards’ travel portal.
Transfer points to partners
Similar to Amex Membership Rewards, RBC Rewards has transfer partners who you can convert your RBC Rewards points to. The list includes Westjet Rewards, British Airways Avios miles, American Airlines AAdvantage and Cathay Pacific Asia Miles. Each of these programs can give good value when well used.
RBC Rewards Air Travel Redemption Schedule
RBC has a fixed points flight program which can give value up to 2.33¢ per point. For example, you can redeem 15,000 points for a value up to $350 for a round-trip within or to an adjacent Province/Territory/U.S. State. This is available for all paid flights and can be practical when there is no award flight available or you want specific flights. I personally used 15,000 points for a Toronto-Ottawa last minute trip and it saved me $350. You can see the full chart here.
Travel gift cards on promotion
For most programs, redeeming for gift cards is a bad value compared to travel redemptions. RBC Rewards is the exception since you can claim your RBC Rewards points at 1¢ per point when redeeming for gift cards. These gift card partners include Air Canada, WestJet, Carlon Wagonlit, hotels.com, Porter Airlines, Best Western and more. RBC often runs promotions with rebates of up to 25% on gift cards/transfers so you could get 1.33¢ per point for these gift cards.
Flight Fixed points program
You can redeem Aventura points for flights at 1cent per point but CIBC Rewards also offers a fixed point program for flights. Flights to an adjacent province/state cost 10,000 points to 20,000 points and cover up to $400 of the base fare. A long-haul in Canada/USA costs 25,000 to 35,000 points and covers up to $800 of base fare, etc. These redemptions easily trump the standard 1¢ per point value.
Call CIBC Rewards to book
This is not advertised much, but CIBC Rewards is also a full service travel agency and you can call to have them book anything you see on Expedia.ca. You can then use your Aventura points to pay at 1¢ per point which includes flights, hotels, car rental and attractions. While it doesn’t yield more than 1¢ per point, it gives you many more options.
Many Aeroplan members have a love/hate relationship with Aeroplan since the program can be rewarding but also frustrating. Knowing how to use Aeroplan and ways to optimize your miles is key to take advantage of this complex but powerful program. Here are my favourite Aeroplan features (note that are redemptions cover only base fare so you need to pay fees):
Flights within Canada/USA
Short-haul flights are 15,000 miles round-trip on Air Canada. This includes flights within and adjacent provinces/states but also some further destinations like Atlanta, Nashville, Washington DC from Toronto or Montreal. This is particularly great for intra-Canada flights to more remote airports since these flights can be really pricy. For example, a round-trip Thunder Bay-Sept-Iles costs the same 15,000 miles as a Toronto-Montreal flight while the paid fare is easily 5x the price.
Long-haul flights at 25,000 miles round-trip can also yield a lot of value when you consider that a round-trip Vancouver-Halifax costs $800+ during the summer which means you can get a value of near 3¢ per point. Earning enough Aeroplan miles for these redemptions is fairly easy with Aeroplan credit cards.
Did you know that you can add a free stopover for no cost on all redemptions? You can book a Calgary – Las Vegas (stop 4 days) – San Francisco (stop 7 days) – Calgary itinerary for 25,000 miles which is the same as a regular round-trip redemption. This also means you can book Montreal-Halifax (stop) – Newfoundland (stop) – Montreal for 15,000 miles since these are all within the short-haul zone. To book a stopover, you need to select the multi-city option.
You can book a one-way flight for half the price of a round-trip fare. For example, a one-way Edmonton-Miami cost 12,500 miles. This is very practical for a few reasons: award tickets could only be available on one leg, paid fares can be really cheap on one leg making it not worth redeeming, you might want to redeem from another program for one leg, you might not know yet the date of the return, you only have enough miles for one leg, you want to book business class one way and economy one way…
Business class tickets are usually 4-5 times more expensive than economy class when paying for a flight. But on Aeroplan business class, it usually only costs about twice the miles. A one-way economy Toronto-Los Angeles is 12,500 miles and 25,000 miles in business class. Air Canada operates Dreamliners with Signature Cabins on some of these flights. This means that for 12,500 miles you get to upgrade to business class which includes Maple Leaf lounge access, free luggage, priority check-in and boarding, lie-flat beds and free food and drinks. This could definitely be worth the extra miles.
Star Alliance partners
Aeroplan lets you redeem for flights on Air Canada, but also on more than 25 other airlines from Star Alliance including Air China, Air New Zealand, ANA, Air India, Asiana, Austrian, Avianca, Brussels Airlines, Copa, Egyptair, Ethiopian, EVA, Lot Polish, Lufthansa, Singapore, Swiss, Thai, Turkish and United. This gives a lot more options, but also a chance to fly on some of the top airlines of the world like Singapore, EVA or Swiss for the same amount of miles of any other airlines. This also allows you to select airlines with lower fees.
Avoiding high surcharges
Surcharges are arguably the most frustrating feature of Aeroplan. On top of miles required, Aeroplan will add fees. Some of these fees like airport fees are mandatory, but a large part of the high fees are airline surcharges that are airline specific. This means you can avoid these fees by flying on airlines that don’t charge them on Aeroplan redemptions. Actually, most airlines don’t have these hefty charges so try to avoid Air Canada (for non-domestic travel), Lufthansa, Austrian and Air China. A round-trip to Europe would cost up to $650 in fees on Air Canada or Lufthansa but around $100 on Swiss, Turkish, Brussels Airlines or TAP Portugal.
Some countries have laws against surcharges so even on Air Canada, fees would be cheaper. This includes Australia, Brazil, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. Making a stopover in one of these countries should lower the surcharges.
Combine many hacks and make a round-the-world trip
Combine flying of the best airlines, avoiding surcharges, travelling in business class and taking advantage of the free stopover and you can book a (mini) round-the-world trip! You could indeed book a trip to Thailand with a stopover in Europe. That means you can visit two continents for the same amount of miles than just one destination while experiencing several different airlines during that trip!
WestJet doesn’t receive nearly as much attention as Aeroplan maybe because WestJet Rewards is similar to a cash back program as opposed to a points based system. This is a terrible way of thinking as WestJet Rewards has some amazing “hacks” you can easily implement.
WestJet Rewards Member Exclusive fares
When searching for flights on WestJet website, you can check the Member Exclusive farebox to show special fare only available to members. These fares can be much cheaper than paid fares but can only be bought with WestJet dollars. For example, a round-trip Halifax to Victoria in July would cost $1,000 when paying but only $250 WestJet dollars + $101 in fees. $250 Westjet dollars, in this case, would cover over $800 of base fare!
You can also redeem WestJet dollars for award flights on WestJet’s partners which are mainly Delta, Air France, KLM and Qantas. If you find availability, you can get flights to Europe for from $329+fees per way or about $658 WestJet dollars +$160 in fees round-trip on Air France. Asia would be from $529+fees per way or $1,058 WestJet dollars + $160 in fees round-trip on Air France or Delta.
WestJet companion voucher
The WestJet RBC World Elite Mastercard credit card comes with a very valuable benefit which is the WestJet Companion Voucher. This annual voucher allows you to add a second person on a round-trip flight for $119+fees for a trip within Canada or to the continental USA. That’s right: If you buy a Vancouver-Ottawa round-trip ticket, you can get a second ticket for only $119+fees! The companion voucher would be $299+fees ($399 as of April 1, 2020) for Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and Hawaii and $399+fees for Europe and the rest of the WestJet network. The voucher is good for either economy and premium class seats (no business or vacation packages).
Free checked bags on WestJet flights
The WestJet RBC World Elite Mastercard is one of my favourite credit cards. In addition to the sign-up bonus of $250 and the awesome companion voucher, the card also comes with the benefit of allowing the first free first checked bag for the primary cardholder and up to 8 additional guests travelling on the same reservation. A family of four could easily save $200+ on a round-trip flight if they were all checking bags.
Understanding the loyalty programs is key to get the most value of your miles and points and since each program has its own sweet spots, I always recommend diversifying your points and miles. Read my articles on the best bank travel programs and the best travel credit cards in Canada for tips on how to earn more points. Having points in different programs allow you to take advantage of each program’s sweet spots but also helps to avoid bad redemptions since you are not tied to only one program.