The recent changes at Aeroplan have some of its members thinking about booking a one-way ticket to another travel rewards program.
Ah, but which one to choose? There are lots of alternatives, and all of them will require compromises of one sort or another.
Aeroplan has always had its, um, less-enthused members. But if recent e-mails to this column are any indication, unhappiness with Aeroplan has reached new heights as a result of a new policy that allows it to take away the points members have earned.
To quickly recap, Aeroplan said earlier this month that it will close the accounts of people who don't earn or redeem points in a year, and it will also date-stamp points starting Jan. 1 so that they expire seven years after the month in which they're earned. Aeroplan has also opened more seats for its members on flights, but at a cost of having to use many extra points beyond what you'd pay under its marquee ClassicFlight plan.
Before we look at your options, let's get something straight about Aeroplan. As noted in a Personal Finance column written when Aeroplan Income Fund went public in June, it has the potential to be the most efficient, user-friendly program of its type for converting points into reward flights.
There are no mandatory Saturday night stays with Aeroplan, there are no requirements for advance booking, and you can book business-class tickets. Another important benefit is that Aeroplan lets you redeem your points for a flight, no matter how much it costs in the marketplace. Some competitors cover the cost of a flight only to a certain amount.
That's Aeroplan in its most perfect state. In the real world, trying to get actual reward flights out of Aeroplan for a reasonable number of points can give you fits. Also, Aeroplan has given itself permission to take back the points it gave you in certain circumstances.
Ready to fly the coop? Then read on.
All the Aeroplan competitors we're going to look at are credit cards that allow you to build travel reward points by spending on your usual goods and services. Some of these cards allow you to book on specific airlines, but most offer generic points good for any airline.
Here are the contenders.
Diners Club. A credit card pioneer, Diners Club has sunk into near invisibility in recent years. But a recent alliance with MasterCard means you can now use the card anywhere MasterCard is accepted.
That's good news for people who want travel rewards because the Canadian version of the Diners Club card (offered by Citibank Canada) offers a very competitive program that lets you book on a variety of airlines. The number of points required to fly to various destinations is slightly higher than Aeroplan's ClassicFlight in several cases, but it's much lower than the new ClassicPlus level (which allows you to book most any seat).
Diners Club caps the dollar value of its reward tickets, but at levels that are $50 higher than most rivals. You can also book customized travel, and convert your points into frequent-flier points on 10 airlines.
Cost: $99 a year, plus $35 for a supplemental card.
Booking flights: If there's an available seat on a flight, you can book it with few restrictions; first-class seats can be booked as well.
Signing bonus: 5,000 points.
CIBC Aventura. The lesser-known sibling of the ever-popular CIBC Aerogold (linked to Aeroplan) will appeal to people who don't want to sever their ties to Aeroplan completely. Aventura allows you to book flights on 100 different airlines, or you can convert your points into Aeroplan miles in 10,000 increments.
Aventura offers lots of other travel rewards, including cruises, tours, car rentals and such. Watch out for the price caps on the reward tickets you book --they start at $350 for short-haul flights, compared with $400 for Diners Club.
Cost: $120 a year, plus $50 for a supplemental card.
Booking a flight: No requirement to stay over Saturday night, and same-day booking is possible; first-class tickets can be booked.
Signing bonus: 5,000 points.
MBNA WorldPoints. MBNA offers several travel cards, but says its main one is WorldPoints MasterCard, which is a general-purpose travel card with a $29 annual fee that undercuts most competitors.
The tradeoff is that you need 25,000 points at minimum to book a flight (you get one point per dollar spent), and you must book travel 14 days in advance. Then again, this card has few restrictions on booking, it has no price caps on flights and it allows you to use points for any kind of travel.
Cost: $29, supplementary cards are free.
Booking a flight: First class is available.
Signing bonus: 1,000 points on first qualifying transaction and 1,000 points on your account anniversary date.
Coming soon: Three more Aeroplan alternatives -- Air Miles as used through cards issued by Bank of Montreal and American Express, RBC Avion and TD Gold Travel.