After much anticipation, the redesigned Aeroplan program is finally here. I’ve now had the chance to do a few searches and form some preliminary opinions. At least for my own travel purposes, I’m not horrified by the changes and so at this point I’m giving it a tentative thumbs up while I continue to get a handle on it.
If these were normal times, I would be less hesitant to draw firm conclusions about the new Aeroplan. Sadly, these are not normal times. A cloud of uncertainty hangs over the future of travel as COVID-19 case numbers increase in Canada and elsewhere. The progress in vaccine development is encouraging but the end is not yet in sight and the full impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the travel industry remains to be seen. For many of us, redeeming points for trips is a largely wistful exercise at the moment. In the meantime, it’s a good idea to get up to speed with the myriad of changes Aeroplan has introduced so you’ll be familiar with the program when the time comes to plan our travels.
New Dynamic Pricing Model for Air Canada Reward Flights
One of the most noteworthy changes to the program is the transition from fixed and market rewards to a single dynamic system for flight redemptions on Air Canada. In the past, a long-haul one-way within Canada or the U.S. would be 12,500 Aeroplan miles under the fixed reward chart or a variable (usually much higher) number of miles as a market reward.
Now, all Air Canada flight rewards are subject to distance based variable pricing. Point charts for four geographic zones provide a ballpark point range according to specified mileage bands. Rewards can also fall below or above that range. The price of airfare if paying cash is presumably a significant determining factor along with the number of seats available at the time of booking and expected demand for the flight.
If you redeem points to fly a partner airline, rewards remain fixed as shown in the chart for each zone. If your booking includes both Air Canada segments and partner segments, the points required will be a calculated proportionately.
Air Miles Comparison
It might help to look at how Air Miles does dynamic pricing. Air Miles reward flights have a low season and high season base redemption amount for each zone. There are also occasional percentage discount promotions either for all members or for status holders only.
Like Aeroplan, Air Miles originally had fixed rewards only and when those were unavailable, you were out of luck. Now, flight rewards are variable so as long as you have enough Air Miles for the booking, it’s up to you to decide if it’s close enough to the base level to warrant redeeming them or if you wish to book a less than ideal itinerary to save some miles.
You may find yourself checking frequently to see if the number of miles required has gone down, perhaps corresponding to a drop in the cash fare, and you make a judgment call as to when to book. And sometimes there are no reasonable rewards available. I see Aeroplan members in a similar situation with the redesigned program.
Sample Search: Halifax – Toronto
If you were to book a round trip non-stop Halifax to Toronto (Pearson) in economy for Easter weekend (April 2-5, 2021), you’d have several non-stop options for the outbound and inbound flights. The distance is 799 miles so it fits into the 10,000-15,000 point range in the North America chart.
(departure time, points required)
YHZ – YYZ
Taxes and fees = $40
YYZ – YHZ
Taxes and fees = $37
The lowest possible reward would have you departing Halifax at 7 pm and returning either very early in the morning or very late in the evening for 22,000 Aeroplan points + $77 total, which is lower than the fixed 25,000 miles it would have been for a round trip in the old program. Although it might be annoying to see those higher amounts for preferred departure times, in the old Aeroplan those early or late slots might have been your only options if you wanted to redeem miles.
Searching the corresponding cash fares, the Halifax to Toronto one-way is lowest at 7 pm for $185 so that checks out on the dynamic pricing front. However, at the time I searched this route the cheapest cash fare back to Halifax was actually the 3:10 pm at $207 versus $277 at 6:15 am. So there may be a time lag between between a rise in the airfare and the increase in points. (Of course, when a cash fare is low you might want to save your Aeroplan points for a higher value use in the future.)
This was just one search but the inconsistency between reward options versus paid fares on the return flight at least reveals potential for an unexpected high value redemption.
Searching Cities With Multiple Airports
A most appreciated feature of the new website is the ability to search all of the airports in a given city. Previously, all airports (such as JFK, EWR, LGA in New York City for example) had to be searched separately.
You need to be very careful though. For example, when you search for flights to Toronto, if you don’t specify either YYZ (Pearson) or YTZ (Toronto City Airport) the results will be combined under Toronto, All Airports (YTO). Don’t accidently book a flight to one airport if you had intended to fly to the other.
Fare Class Options
The variation doesn’t stop at selecting the flight. An interesting feature is the ability to make a further selection where you can redeem additional points to upgrade the fare class to receive additional benefits such as seat selection or a free checked bag.
Here’s an example from the search above of Halifax – Toronto:
Are Atlantic Canadians Short-Changed?
When details of the new Aeroplan were released, it was evident that people flying from east or west coast Canadian cities would be disadvantaged under this new mileage band structure.
The old Aeroplan offered terrific value for long-haul flights within Canada and the continental United States. It was the same number of miles to fly from the Maritimes to Vancouver as it was to Toronto: 12,500 miles one-way.
In the new Aeroplan, even if Air Canada had a Halifax to Vancouver non-stop (like the seasonal WestJet route) it’s still just over the 2751 mile threshold, putting it into the highest redemption level for North America: 17,500 to 25,000 points one-way. That’s quite a jump.
So how do the rewards price out in practice…
On a random date of Saturday, July 17, 2021, Halifax to Vancouver search results only go as low as 22,500 + $39 on the outbound and 23,600 + $41 returning a week later. Even at cash fares exceeding $1000, 46,100 is a lot of points compared to the old program at 25,000 which even threw in a free stopover on a round trip booking.
Moncton to Vancouver is slightly shorter so falls into the lower mileage band of 12,500-17,500 points. I searched the same dates and the lowest outbound was 20,400 + $36 with an inbound of 21,600 + $40 for a total of 42,000 + $76. Airfares from Moncton on these dates are roughly equivalent to those from Halifax so it appears the small difference in distance means saving a couple thousand points in each direction.
Then I compared a random mid-week date in February. The lowest one-way reward from Halifax to Vancouver was 17,500 points, whereas Moncton to Vancouver was 19,100. In that case, cash fares from Moncton were about $100 more than from Halifax. This would indicate that the higher cash fare apparently has more of an influence on the reward pricing than the distance category, at least in this example.
Next I checked Halifax and Moncton to Victoria which falls into the outermost mileage band for both. On a mid-week February date, a one-way reward flying from Halifax was 17,000 points and only slightly more from Moncton at 17,600. This corresponds with a slightly higher cash fare from Moncton.
I then went back and compared Aeroplan fares with cash fares from Moncton to Victoria on the July dates I used earlier. Interestingly, airfare to Victoria was cheaper than to Vancouver. That’s somewhat unexpected but not totally out of the ordinary.
Moncton – Victoria: $890 or 35,200 Aeroplan points (round trip)
Moncton – Vancouver: $1077 or 42,000 Aeroplan points (round trip)
I wonder if this means that in order to get a round trip reward flight in the range of the old Aeroplan (25,000 points), the cash fare would have to be in the $700s or lower.
Whatever the case, this is a major devaluation for coast to coast flights within Canada which were a sweet spot in the old program where outsized value was easy to attain.
To ease the pain somewhat, remember that under the new program fuel surcharges have been eliminated, you can pool your points with family members, and holding an Aeroplan credit card will provide a discount on the points required.
Points and Cash
An interesting new aspect of the program is the ability to pay cash at a reasonable rate and redeem fewer points.
Using the Moncton – Victoria search above, here are the options:
A nice feature of the old Aeroplan was the short-haul 7500 mile one-way option on Air Canada operated flights. Flying out of the Maritimes, that meant you could travel around the region on otherwise pricey flights or go to places like New York or Washington, DC for only 15,000 miles round trip with a free stopover in Montreal.
The lowest mileage band in the North America chart is 0-500 miles for a redemption range of 6000-10,000 points one-way. For flights 501-1500 miles, the points go up to 10,000-15,000. Montreal is situated right around the 500 mile mark when flying from Halifax. (Non-stops on ITA Software display say 499 miles but Great Circle Mapper says 501 miles.)
Again we see the intersection of dynamic pricing and distance when we compare flights from Halifax and Moncton to Montreal next summer (July 1-4, 2021) juxtaposed against the corresponding cash airfare.
A round trip Halifax to Montreal is 18,600 points plus $83.08 compared to a cash fare of $415.
A round trip Moncton to Montreal is 16,200 points plus $79.63 compared to a cash fare of $439.
In this instance, the distance category seems to be a factor in the reward price as Moncton falls into the lower point range. Or, there could be some other component of the algorithm that tips the scale in Moncton’s favour.
The Orlando Mystery
In my post back in August, I mentioned that the Points Predictor Tool would not produce a result when you searched Halifax to Orlando. I assumed that was because it was another city at the border of two mileage bands at slightly under 1500 miles. Now when I check, it accurately places it in the 10,000-15,000 point range.
Obviously March Break is not going to be the same in 2021, but for research purposes I’ll check March 13-20.
A non-stop round trip Halifax to Orlando is 44,600 + $74.46 compared to a cash fare of $715. That is quite high but it’s perhaps worth noting that this non-stop was seldom (or maybe never) available in the old program. If you don’t mind a connection, you can bring the points down to 25,500 compared to a cash fare of $547.
What about Tampa? It’s in the the 12,500-17,500 point range since the distance is over 1500 miles. A non-stop Halifax to Tampa round trip on those dates is 40,600 + $74.46 compared to $667 in cash. With a connection in both directions it drops to 23,700 or $499 in cash.
The differing mileage bands don’t appear to have much of an effect in this case.
No More Fuel/Carrier Surcharges
This one is huge. Previously, a major deterrent to booking an Air Canada flight with Aeroplan was the high fuel surcharges. This meant avoiding the primary carrier of the program and instead choosing a flight on a partner airline that didn’t apply those charges in order to redeem miles for acceptable value.
Note, there will still be taxes and fees on reward tickets and these will vary by country and airport. A prime example of this is the UK where hefty fees are levied on originating flights.
London (LHR) – Halifax
$39 Partner Booking Fee
Because of the surcharges, Aeroplan effectively pushed members away from Air Canada and onto partner flights. Going forward, the opposite might happen as you have to pay a $39 fee to book a flight on a partner airline.
You’ll see from the reward charts that flights on partners are still priced at a fixed value. This provides a little certainty in the new world of Aeroplan dynamic pricing so the fee doesn’t strike me as too onerous.
The only Star Alliance airline flying out of the Maritimes is United with its Halifax to Newark route along with an occasional seasonal flight to Chicago.
Halifax to London Heathrow (Non-Stop)
In the past, Air Canada’s non-stop Halifax – London route only served to annoy me as a points enthusiast in Nova Scotia because the high fuel surcharge put it out of consideration for an Aeroplan redemption.
Consequently, flying partners to avoid those charges meant that, unless you were headed to the hub of the airline such as Zurich on Swiss, you had to connect twice to reach your destination – once in North America and once in Europe. But now, with access to London Heathrow, there are more destinations you can fly to with one connection and a shorter travel time. You can also fly onward from London on a separate cheap ticket – just be careful to build in an adequate cushion of time or stay a few days in England as part of your trip.
The 4000 Mile Question – Halifax to Europe
Still on the topic of flights to Europe from Halifax, another benefit of the non-stop to Heathrow is the chance to keep the distance to your destination under 4000 miles so it falls into the lower category on the Atlantic chart.
However, when I started searching flights I noticed that routes that included a Toronto connection did not require more points than those connecting in London. My understanding had been that the distance actually flown, not the geographic distance between two cities, would determine the range of points needed. But that might not be the case.
For example, you can fly Halifax to Warsaw one-way via London on Air Canada and LOT for 35,000 points because the distance is under 4000 miles. Flying Air Canada Halifax to Warsaw via Toronto is over 4000 miles which you’d expect would increase the points required…except that it doesn’t.
Halifax – Toronto – Warsaw (Air Canada)
Halifax – London – Warsaw (Air Canada + LOT)
Because Poland was in “Europe 2” under the old Aeroplan, it required 37,500 miles one-way. Therefore, this is an example where you have the potential to save in the new program.
Note that if you fly Halifax – Newark – Warsaw on United and LOT, it does in fact show up at the fixed partner level of 40,000 points as expected.
I initially thought the lower reward was simply a result of dynamic pricing in play. Yet it seems that Air Canada actually uses geographic distance as the benchmark instead of actual miles flown, which is excellent if it stays that way.
As someone who does not enjoy flying, I’d still probably cough up the extra cash to connect in London and avoid backtracking to Toronto. It’s not the end of the world to take off in the wrong direction but it’s nice to shorten the flying time if possible.
Aeroplan Credit Card and Status Discounts
The search results mentioned in this post are accessible to everybody. However, if you have an Aeroplan credit card and/or hold elite status in the program you’ll be able to take advantage of preferred pricing on flight rewards and I’ll delve more into that in a future post.
One big question is whether these search results will be similar after travel has resumed. And I wonder how volatile the pricing will be. It’s true that in the old Aeroplan availability would come and go, but I suspect rewards will fluctuate even more frequently in the new program.
I’ve also noticed a considerable amount of disappointment over rewards pricing well above the estimated point range for certain city pairs. Although the mileage band charts were billed as merely a guideline, if there is too much deviation from these goalposts then maybe Aeroplan will need to counter the negative fallout in some way. Perhaps they could offer limited time discounts on specific routes.
Currently, there is no calendar view to scan search results across multiple dates. I hope this will be introduced soon along with the ability to book stopovers online which I understand is expected early in 2021. For those looking for the lowest redemption options, having to search one date at a time is tedious.
The old Aeroplan had some serious faults and I can definitely see how these changes were designed to address them. The high fuel/carrier surcharges on Air Canada flights and the scarcity of reward seats were frequent complaints.
My initial searches appear to indicate that the cash price might be a stronger factor than the applicable mileage band within a zone when it comes to the number of points required. I guess that makes sense in light of the inherent weirdness of neighbouring cities within the same province or state being placed in different reward categories.
It will take a bit of time to really figure out all the quirks but it’s great to finally see the new Aeroplan in action. I knew it would be a mix of good and bad. I think it’s best not to lament the lost sweet spots for too long. Focus on how you can best make it work for you or consider expanding your loyalty endeavours to include other programs.
I’m just looking forward to a time when I can put my points to use.