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It is a good time for Canadians to look at which rewards programs offer the greatest perks, upgrades and benefits in exchange for their loyalty.CAROLINE CHIA/Reuters

As travel slowly begins to recover and faraway destinations beckon, it is a good time for Canadians to look at which rewards programs offer the greatest perks, upgrades and benefits in exchange for their loyalty. In the last year, many of the largest programs – from Aeroplan to Air Miles – have made changes that promise more flexible options and valuable redemptions. The key, of course, is determining exactly how much it will cost to reap these greater rewards. “Whenever a loyalty program says we’re offering more options for consumers, it generally means it’s going to cost you more,” says Ricky Zhang, founder of Vancouver-based travel rewards website Prince of Travel. “The trick is finding the sweet spots.”

To make it easier to understand where these “sweet spots” are, The Globe and Mail asked travel experts to weigh in on some of the most popular loyalty programs so Canadians can choose the ones best-suited for their short- and long-term travel goals.

Airline and hotel loyalty programs


Aeroplan has approximately five million members. It went through massive change last year and is now fully owned by Air Canada, which means you can use your points to go almost anywhere in the world. Zhang recommends using Aeroplan points only for flights, ideally to fund once-in-a-lifetime trips. “Every seat is now available on Air Canada, including business-class flights, which is much better value than paying cash.” There are two other significant changes: There are no longer cash surcharges when booking flights, and Aeroplan now lets you book a stopover in your rewards itinerary, notes Eric Rosen, director of content for the U.S.-based website The Points Guy. “That means you can add another destination for an extra 5,000 points without having to book a whole other ticket,” he says.

Marriott Bonvoy

The loyalty program for Marriott International has more than 7,000 properties and 141 million members globally. Of all the hotel loyalty programs, Zhang says it is the most accessible. It is also the only major hotel program with a Canadian issued credit card, the Marriott Bonvoy American Express Card, that lets you earn rewards on daily spend. However, changes are coming to Marriott Bonvoy with the most significant being a shift from a rewards chart to dynamic pricing. All of which really means if prices are higher you pay more, if prices are lower, you pay less, says Toronto travel expert and occasional Globe contributor Barry Choi. “We don’t know what the new prices will be but you can book rooms [for travel up to a year out] until March, 2022, which is when the new prices come into play,” says Choi. “So there is some urgency to it.”

  • Pros: Members can get outsized value from their points (such as business- and first-class flights, luxury hotels) by understanding the program and redeeming wisely. The classic example is booking a honeymoon in business class to somewhere dreamy and expensive, like the Maldives.
  • Cons: It takes time and energy to understand these programs. They aren’t as simple as other options.

Major bank programs

Also known as “fixed value programs,” the programs most people collect with are TD Rewards, CIBC Rewards, Scotia Rewards and BMO Rewards. “These are ideal for someone who doesn’t want to spend the time and energy studying Aeroplan, someone who just wants to book a flight, and call it a day,” says Zhang. These plans are flexible and simple to use. Members can also use their points to offset the regular cash cost of their travel at a fixed rate. However, it’s worth noting that value is low because of the fixed rate and it’s limited. Of these programs, Zhang says Scotia Rewards is the strongest because you can book travel to your card and use points to offset the charge. The other programs require you to book via their own portals where the pricing may not be as favourable.

  • Pros: Easy to understand and redeem. You can get a predictable fixed return on travel purchases, you can book whatever travel you want and don’t have to be to be limited to a specific airline alliance or hotel chain. These programs are best used for car rentals, hotels and regular flights.
  • Cons: “You’re sitting in the back of the plane, essentially,” says Zhang. “There’s no ‘dream’ factor of being able to get outsized value and travel using points in a way you’d never imagine with cash.”
Transferable points programs

Examples in this category include American Express Membership Rewards, RBC Avion and HSBC Rewards. Of these, Amex Membership Rewards (MR) is the most attractive. For example, Amex rewards transfer 1 to1 to Aeroplan, and 1 to 1.2 to Marriott Bonvoy. “Earning MR points lets you get closer to both your flight or hotel goals – you can decide which one when it’s time to redeem,” says Choi. With MR, you can also redeem for travel or statement credit at the same value.

  • Pros: These points are considered the best of both worlds. Not only can you redeem them at a fixed value for any type of travel, you can also transfer them to frequent flyer programs and hotel loyalty programs to pursue outsized value.
  • Cons: American Express cards aren’t accepted everywhere.

Coalition loyalty programs

Air Miles is in about two-thirds of Canadian households and is unique in that it isn’t affiliated with a bank, airline or hotel. It’s more of a retail shopping program with partners such as BMO, Sobeys, Shell and Amex, as well as airline partners (Air Canada, WestJet). Last month, the program announced a revamped flight platform. Key changes include new flight partners such as Air Transat, Emirates and Icelandair; members can now book premium economy, business and first-class tickets (in the past it was only economy); and flights can now be booked using Air Miles from any departure location in the world, not just Canada.

  • Pros: The program is user-friendly with predictable pricing and members can book flights all over the world, not just to or from Canada. “It’s easier to earn more points, your points go further and you have more options,” says Choi.
  • Cons: Zhang notes that Air Miles has recently lost some retail partners including the LCBO in Ontario, Loews and Rona. “I would say the program is looking to regain market share with these recent changes.”

The bottom line with all travel loyalty programs

Don’t ever use your points for merchandise. You get far less value than for travel. Earn and burn is the rule. If you hoard your points for many years without redeeming, you run the risk of the program changing the rules or your points may expire. “However, don’t get too caught up in maximizing every single point because it will drive you crazy,” says Rosen. “Use your points for what you need in the moment. And don’t stress over it.”

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