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Reward flights are the big attraction from credit cards linked to the Aeroplan and Air Miles customer-loyalty programs, plus the RBC Avion and CIBC Aventura cards. At their best, these cards are an efficient way of converting the spending you do on your card into vacations, but there are pros and cons to each. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Reward flights are the big attraction from credit cards linked to the Aeroplan and Air Miles customer-loyalty programs, plus the RBC Avion and CIBC Aventura cards. At their best, these cards are an efficient way of converting the spending you do on your card into vacations, but there are pros and cons to each. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

ROB CARRICK

Which travel rewards program is best for your future vacation needs? Add to ...

Now’s the time to start planning your 2016 summer vacation.

There’s no rush on the destination, but you’ll do yourself a favour by picking the right credit card travel rewards program now and then using it for the next 12 months to rack up points. People sweat the details on which specific card to get, but there’s a bigger question that has to be addressed beforehand. Do you want a card that gets you reward flights, or one that offers generic points you can use for any travel at all?

Having tried both types of cards, I have to say I like generic travel points. They have their drawbacks if you want business class seats, but they more than make up for it with the flexibility they offer.

Reward flights are the big attraction from credit cards linked to the Aeroplan and Air Miles customer-loyalty programs, plus the RBC Avion and CIBC Aventura cards. At their best, these cards are an efficient way of converting the spending you do on your card into reward flights. In real life, there can be problems like these:

1. There are no available reward flights for the trip you want to take, or reward flights are available only if you use many additional points.

2. Your reward plan prices flights at the regular rate and won’t let you take advantage of seat sales by using fewer points.

3. Taxes, fees and surcharges apply and must either be paid in cash or by burning up additional points.

A reader ran into a classic situation with one of these reward cards recently. He had to use more points than he felt was warranted, given seat sales on flights to his European destination. And then he was charged $500 a ticket in additional fees and taxes.

Patrick Sojka, CEO and founder of RewardsCanada.ca, a website devoted to travel rewards, said these extra costs are typical of reward programs offering flights. He recently booked flights on Aeroplan and did quite well in scoring six tickets from Calgary to Los Angeles. However, the extra cost per ticket was about $130.

International fees are worse. Mr. Sojka said redeeming points for an international reward flight is essentially like getting only half your trip covered because of the hefty fees and taxes to be paid. Find a good seat sale and the total cost of your ticket could be roughly comparable in price to the fees and taxes on your reward flight.

Mr. Sojka said you can use points to cover taxes and fees with Aventura and Avion at a ratio of 100 points per dollar. Aeroplan recently tested an offering with some customers where they could pay taxes, fees and surcharges with miles, but there’s no planned date for rolling out this service for all clients.

Generic travel rewards are kind of like cash-back that you use for any travel-related expense – flights, car rentals, train tickets, hotels and more. Toronto-Dominion Bank’s website includes a customer comment about the TD First Class Travel Visa Infinite card, saying the bank allowed points on the card to be used for kennelling cats while on vacation.

Mr. Sojka’s list of top names in generic travel rewards includes American Express Gold Rewards, BMO World Elite MasterCard, Capital One Aspire Travel World Elite MasterCard, MBNA World Elite MasterCard, Scotiabank Gold American Express and TD First Class Travel. Some differentiators to consider when choosing cards include:

Travel booking

Some cards let you book your trip anywhere you like and then redeem your points, while others may require you to book through an in-house travel service.

Reward rate

Mr. Sojka said these cards generate points at a rate of 1 to 2 per cent of your spending, but some offer bonuses for charges made in specific places such as gas stations, drugstores and restaurants.

Points redemption

Mr. Sojka said Amex allows you to redeem as few as 1,000 points for a $10 credit; other programs typically allow you to redeem in increments of $50 or $100.

Retroactivity

The question here is how long after a trip is complete can you use points to offset travel expenses (you get a credit on your card balance); the TD card lets you redeem points as many as 90 days after the travel purchase is made.

Where generic travel points don’t measure up to flight rewards is in business- and first-class travel. Mr. Sojka said that if you can get one of these flights on a program like Aeroplan, you’re getting roughly double the bang for your buck compared to generic travel points.

Tops in travel rewards

RewardsCanada.ca says these are its top travel points credit cards with an annual fee.

CardAnnual FeeWelcome Bonus PointsDollar Value of Welcome Points
BMO World Elite MasterCard$15030,000$300, zero annual fee in first year
Capital One Aspire Travel World Elite MasterCard$12010,000$100
Scotiabank Gold American Express$9915,000$150
TD First Class Travel Visa Infinite$12020,000$100
CIBC Aventura Visa Infinite$12015,000Short-haul Canada/ U.S. flight with a $400 maximum ticket price*
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