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Bailing on Aeroplan? Here’s how to find a rewarding replacement

Never marry your travel reward program.

There's no point in making that level of commitment. Travel reward programs change over the years and you may want a divorce. We've seen these changes most recently at Aeroplan, which will lose Air Canada as its star player in mid-2020.

Find a reward program that works for you, milk it by earning points and then burn those points off. When changes happen that you don't like, bail. If you're ready to do that with Aeroplan or its competitors, we're here to help. With input from Patrick Sojka of RewardsCanada.ca, we have created a detailed comparison of customer loyalty programs with travel-focused rewards.

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Figure out which program works best for you and start watching for special introductory offers to lure new clients. Competition between programs will heat up as we move closer to Air Canada's departure from Aeroplan.

You might also consider a personal finance columnist's perspective on the best program. After long using an Aeroplan-linked credit card, I switched a few years ago to generic cash-back travel rewards cards and couldn't be happier.

Some people put a priority on getting the best value in terms of converting their dollar spending into reward points. Cash-back travel rewards cards don't ace this category. They offer a reward rate of 1 to 2 per cent most cases ($1 or $2 in rewards for every $100 you spend), which is less than you can get if you have a card like RBC Avion Visa Infinite or TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite and everything goes your way in booking a flight.

My cash-back card more than offsets this with its no-hassle flexibility. Money spent on my card produces reward points that can be redeemed to partly or fully cover travel-related expenses, including tickets and taxes. To redeem points, all I have to do is log into the website for my card and decide how many points I'll apply against my travel-related costs.

I was a big fan of Aeroplan years ago – it covered tickets for us to places like New York, Vancouver, Orlando and Paris. Our more recent experiences trying to book travel prompted us to give up because of the unavailability of the flights we wanted, and redeem points for merchandise instead.

And then there's Air Miles, which I have participated in for 24 years. Never once was I able to redeem points for a flight I wanted. First, I had too few points. Then, I couldn't book anything without deal-breaking layovers. Finally, I used a whack of points last fall to buy a Weber charcoal barbecue.

That was back when Air Miles was still proceeding with a plan to have points older than five years start expiring at the end of 2016. Air Miles backed off, but indicated that its rewards will become less generous in the future.

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You can't rule out the possibility that a cash-back card will put an expiry date on its points, but this risk is much more manageable than it is for a program like Air Miles. Rather than waiting to build up enough points to finally get a reward you want, you can use them to offset even a small portion of a travel-related purchase.

For the most part, all the various travel reward options have some particular appeal. Mr. Sojka said Aeroplan provides good value for premium long-haul flights, if you can get the flight you want. He said that both Air Miles and Aeroplan can be good for expensive short-haul flights between destinations in Ontario like Sudbury to Toronto.

Cashback travel cards win on pure convenience and usefulness. If you have the points, you've got your travel covered.

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The most rewarding reward programs

Here's a pros and cons guide to help you find the travel-focused customer loyalty program that best meets your needs. This information was put together with the help of Patrick Sojka of RewardsCanada.ca.

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AEROPLAN / I want short-haul flights

Pros
-Can provide good value for some expensive short haul flights like Sudbury, Ont. to Toronto;
-Typically an easy award to reach for members who don't earn a lot of miles.

Cons
- Taxes and fees (expensive on Air Canada) aren't included in the base mileage requirement, but you can use miles on top to pay for them;
- Availability of seats can be hit and miss; routes with lots of flights like Toronto-Montreal, Vancouver-Calgary can be easy to redeem for while routes with less frequency can be more difficult;
- The value of your miles is lower if there is a seat sale;
- You need to decide whether it is better to pay cash for a cheap flight and save the miles for a more expensive flight.

AEROPLAN / I want long-haul flights (international)

Pros
- Can provide good value for some expensive flights like Australia (if you can find seats);

Cons
- Taxes and fees (expensive on Air Canada) aren't included in the base mileage requirement, but you can use miles on top to pay for them;
- Availability of seats can be hit and miss;
- The value of your miles is lower if there is a seat sale – you need to decide whether it is better to pay cash for a cheap flight and save the miles for a more expensive flight;
- Award levels could be difficult to reach especially if wanting to redeem for more than one person.

AEROPLAN / I want premium long-haul flights (business class)

Pros
- Provides the best value for premium class flights, if you can find a seat. The return on spending for credit cards can easily reach 10 per cent;

Cons
- Taxes and fees (expensive on Air Canada) aren't included in the base mileage requirement, but you can use miles on top to pay for them;
- Availability of seats can be hit and miss. Routes with lots of flights like Toronto-Montreal, Vancouver-Calgary can be easy to redeem for, while routes with less frequency can be more difficult;
- The value of your miles is lower if there is a seat sale – you need to decide whether it is better to pay cash for a cheap flight and save the miles for a more expensive flight;
- Award levels could be difficult to reach, especially if you want to redeem for more than one person.

++++++++

AIR MILES / I want short haul flights

Pros
- Can provide good value for some expensive short haul flights;
- Typically an easy award to reach for members who don't earn a lot of miles;

Cons
- You can't use Air Miles toward taxes and fees;
- The value of your miles is lower if there is a seat sale – you need to decide if it is better to pay cash for a cheap flight and save the miles for a more expensive flight.

AIR MILES / I want long-haul flights (international)

Pros
- Possible to redeem for international flights, but difficult because of the points total required;

Cons
- You can't use Air Miles toward taxes and fees;
- The value of your miles is lower if there is a seat sale – you need to decide whether it is better to pay cash for a cheap flight and save the miles for a more expensive flight;
- Difficult to earn enough miles to redeem for longer haul flights, especially if you are looking to redeem for multiple people.

AIR MILES / I want premium long-haul flights (business class)

Pros
-None

Cons
- You can't redeem for premium class flights with Air Miles unless you are an Amex Air Miles Reserve Cardholder.

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WESTJET REWARDS / I want short-haul flights

Pros
- You can do partial redemptions, like $25 towards a $300 ticket;

Cons
- You can't use WestJet Dollars towards taxes and fees;
- In some instances you'll get a lower value for your dollar spending compared to other cards.

WESTJET REWARDS / I want long-haul flights (international)

Pros
- You can do partial redemptions, like $25 toward a $300 ticket;
- You can now redeem WestJet dollars at a fixed amount for long haul flights on Delta Airlines.

Cons
- You can't use WestJet Dollars towards taxes and fees;
- In some instances you'll get a lower value for your dollar spending compared to other cards.

WESTJET REWARDS / I want premium long-haul flights (business class)

Pros
- You can do partial redemptions, even for WestJet Plus Seats.

Cons

- WestJet does not have a true business class yet, so you are getting at best a premium economy seat;
- You can't redeem for premium class flights on Delta and other partners yet.

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RBC VISA INFINITE AVION / I want short-haul flights

Pros
- Points can be used on any airline and any flight;
- Offers good value if the cost of your flight is at or near the maximum covered by this plan;
- You can earn frequent flyer miles on a reward flight.

Cons
- Value is lost if your ticket price is below maximum for the category;
- Taxes and fees not included – you can redeem points for them, but only at a 1 per cent return rate;
- Must book 14 days in advance to get the optimum reward.

RBC VISA INFINITE AVION / I want long-haul flights (international)

Pros
- Points can be used on any airline and any flight;
- Offers good value if the cost of your flight is at or near the maximum covered by this plan;
- You can earn frequent flyer miles on a reward flight.

Cons
- Value is lost if your ticket price is below maximum for the category;
- Taxes and fees are not included – you can redeem points for them but only at a 1 per cent return rate;
- Must book 14 days in advance to get the optimum reward.

RBC VISA INFINITE AVION / I want long-haul flights (business class)

Pros
- Points can be used on any airline and any flight.

Cons
- Redeeming for business class flights gets you $1 in value for every 100 points or essentially a 1 per cent return. Other cards offer bigger returns
- Must book 14 days in advance to get the optimum reward.

+++++++++

CASH-BACK TRAVEL CARDS / For all types of flights

Pros
- Most programs allow partial redemptions;
- You can earn frequent flyer points on a reward flight;
- Most of these programs let you redeem anywhere from three to 12 months after a purchase, meaning you can keep earning points and then redeem in the future;
- You can pick how you book and when you travel. There are no restrictions since most of them require that you just redeem points against the actual charge when it shows up on your statement.

Cons
-  Your value is capped at what the reward program offers – 1 or 2 per cent, for example; in some instances you'll get a lower value for your dollar spending compared to other cards.

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About the Author
Personal Finance Columnist

Rob Carrick has been writing about personal finance, business and economics for close to 20 years. He joined The Globe and Mail in late 1996 as an investment reporter and has been personal finance columnist since November 1998. Rob's personal finance columns appear in The Globe on Tuesday and Thursday, and his Portfolio Strategy column for investors appears on Saturday. More

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