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rob carrick

The Aeroplan customer loyalty program is involved in a bizarre love triangle with two big banks.

Aeroplan members, you're the big winners here. Aeroplan has spiffed itself up considerably to attract the best possible bank partner, and the result is a noticeably improved product.

First and foremost, Aeroplan has reversed a decision announced back in 2006 to have points expire after seven years (points would have started expiring on Jan. 1, 2014). The level of anger from Aeroplan members over that move was such that I wrote multiple columns on Aeroplan alternatives. Now, Aeroplan is reversing itself. As long as you earn or redeem points every 12 months, your stash will be available for as long as it takes you to earn a flight or merchandise.

"This is huge for the general Canadian population because a lot of people are not collecting tens of thousands Aeroplan miles like the frequent fliers or big-time credit card spenders," said Patrick Sojka, CEO of Rewards Canada. "They collect points more slowly – one or two here and there."

Aeroplan's lead in introducing points expiry to mainstream customer loyalty programs in Canada was followed by Air Miles, which has a five-year limit on points that starts taking effect in 2017. Air Miles says it has no plans to change its own expiry policy.

The elimination of the expiry date on Aeroplan points was announced on the same day last week that Aimia Inc., Aeroplan's parent, unveiled plans to dump long-time partner Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and take up with Toronto-Dominion Bank. CIBC may yet manage to stave off TD as Aeroplan's co-pilot, but this is considered unlikely.

Regardless, there are several other customer-friendly changes to consider at Aeroplan. One is that the number of points needed for a one-way fare will now be half the total for a return flight, instead of two-thirds. "Now you can mix and match," Mr. Sojka said. "If you find a good one-way seat sale, you can book it and take Aeroplan back."

Also, Aeroplan is changing the name and rules for ClassicPlus Flight Rewards, where flights are made available to people willing to use more than a base level of miles in booking a trip. Under the option's new moniker – Market Fare Flight Rewards – the number of extra points required will decline by up to 20 per cent. Finally, Aeroplan has created elite new "Distinction" levels for its top points earners. Distinction members receive benefits that include being able to book Market Fare flights with fewer miles than regular members.

Yes, there are drawbacks. Mr. Sojka noted that the number of miles needed for first- and business-class flights to Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific have been increased. "The business-class redemption on Aeroplan to Asia was the best redemption by far in terms of value," he said.

You can collect Aeroplan points directly by purchasing goods and services at the likes of Esso, Sobeys and Best Western hotels, but you maximize your earning power by using an Aeroplan-linked credit card offered by CIBC or American Express. CIBC's Aerogold has long been a favourite in this category, but Mr. Sojka said it has slipped a lot in the past three or four years. "There have been other cards coming out with other benefits, better earning power. It's time for an update."

Enter TD, which has a pretty good premium travel card already in TD First Class Travel Visa Infinite. Even though the bank would pay a higher per-mile fee to Aeroplan, Mr. Sojka thinks a TD Aeroplan card would be an improvement for holders of Aerogold cards.

It's a hassle to change credit cards, but you may not have to.

If it doesn't salvage its relationship with Aeroplan, CIBC will develop a new travel card that can only succeed if it offers advantages over the competition.

Speaking of competition, expect other card issuers to make attractive offers to land former CIBC Aerogold customers. Don't sign up for a new rewards credit card until you see how all of this plays out over the next month or so.

With the expiry date issue now dead, the biggest knock on Aeroplan is how hard it is to find ClassicFlight rewards, where the minimum number of miles are required.

My wife and I have certainly become increasingly frustrated in trying to book reward flights in the past few years, even for short hops like Ottawa to New York.

Mr. Sojka said the key to using Aeroplan is to be flexible in your travel dates, and to be open to stopovers. "Everybody loves to have the direct flight, but look at the option of connecting flights."




The Rewards Canada website recently issued its top travel reward cards. Here's a selection:

Top Airline Credit or Charge Cards

#1 CIBC Aerogold Visa Infinite

#2 Capital One Delta SkyMiles World MasterCard

#3 WestJet RBC World Elite MasterCard

#4 American Express AeroplanPlus Platinum

#5 RBC British Airways Visa Infinite

Top Travel Points Credit Card (with annual fee)

#1 Capital One Aspire Travel World MasterCard

#2 Scotiabank Gold American Express

#3 TD First Class Travel Visa Infinite

#4 CUETS Choice Rewards World Elite MasterCard

#5 BMO World Elite MasterCard

Top Travel Points Credit Card (no annual fee)

#1 American Express Blue Sky

#2 Capital One Aspire Travel Platinum MasterCard

#3 American Express Air Miles

#4 BMO Air Miles MasterCard

#5 CAA Rewards MasterCard

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