We as Canadians are very fortunate to live in this country. If you have not yet visited our nation’s capital, I suggest you consider putting it on your list of places to visit someday after leisure travel eventually resumes. To help make it happen on a budget, I’ve compiled a few tips that might be useful for anyone planning a trip and interested in using points and miles.
This is a follow-up to a recent post: Starting From Scratch: Earning Points For A Low Cost Trip. The intent is provide a bit of advice for folks who might not be keen points collectors but are open to the idea. Perhaps people who are already loyalty program pros will find something of value as well.
The information included below reflects current promotions and deals, but the general strategy will remain the same even after those have expired.
1. Accommodation Options
I’m starting with the accommodation because whether you fly or drive, you’ll need a place to sleep.
Earn and Redeem Hotel Points (Marriott Bonvoy)
There is a fairly wide variety of chain hotels in Ottawa and if you’re starting with no points there is a convenient way to gather up enough for a free multi-night stay. That’s because there are two Category 2 Marriott hotels in the area: the Courtyard Ottawa East and the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel & Conference Centre Gatineau – Ottawa. Signing up for a Marriott credit card will get you enough points for 5 free nights at either of those properties, depending on your chosen dates. (A Category 2 Marriott ranges from 10,000 – 15,000 points per night with the 5th night free).
When you apply for the Marriott Bonvoy Amex you receive 50,000 points when you spend $1500 in the first three months after approval. As well, after the anniversary date of holding the card you’ll receive a 35,000 point free night certificate. This annual bonus more than makes up for the card’s $120 annual fee since those points can get you a free night at a Category 5 hotel or below. There is currently a rebate of $100 for the Marriott Bonvoy Amex if you apply through Great Canadian Rebates making the card effectively only $20 for the first year.
If you want to earn more Marriott Bonvoy points, you can also get the Amex Cobalt. Its Membership Rewards can be converted to Marriott Bonvoy and the card earns 5x the points on groceries and dining. Right now it has a higher than normal $120 rebate on Great Canadian Rebates along with a very good sign-up bonus.
Unfortunately, the only other hotel credit card in Canada is the no-fee Best Western MasterCard and its sign-up bonus is a meagre 20,000 points – enough for only a single free night in Ottawa.
Earn and Redeem Fixed Value Points for Accommodation
Another approach is to book a paid stay and redeem fixed value points like Scotia Rewards for a statement credit (up to 12 months after the stay is charged to the card). In addition or in the alternative, you could indirectly redeem Air Miles Cash miles or PC Optimum points by using them for everyday expenses and setting aside the savings to pay for lodging.
Both of these methods allow you to earn points with the hotel’s loyalty program and take advantage of any promotions or discounts that require you to book direct and not through a third party.
A couple of examples:
Long Term Stay Rate – The Sheraton Ottawa and Marriott Ottawa are both offering a special rate of $109 per night for stays of at least 5 nights. (It shows as available until early September at the Sheraton and till the end of the year at the Marriott.)
Ottawa Tourism Promo – Until May 31, 2021 you’ll receive a $100 rebate when you book two consecutive nights at participating Ottawa hotels using a special promo code. (Oddly, this rate is available at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites: Downtown Ottawa East well beyond the promo validity period.)
The current sign-up offer for the Scotiabank Gold Amex is 25,000 points when you spend $1000 in the three months after approval. The annual fee is $120 (or $79 if you’re a senior). With a boosted rebate of $100 on Great Canadian Rebates until March 31, 2021, it’s effectively $20 for $250 worth of points that can be redeemed against any travel purchases charged to the card. With elevated earning rates for categories like groceries and gas, included travel medical insurance and no foreign exchange fees, it can be a good card to keep long term. [UPDATE: the sign-up offer has been increased to 30,000 points when you spend $1000 in the first three months plus an additional 10,000 points when you spend $7500 in the first year. This offer is available until August 31, 2021 but the GCR rebate of $100 only goes to March 31, 2021 after which it will presumably drop to a lower amount.]
Other banks offer their own travel points but the drawback with many such programs is that you must use their booking site to get the highest value for the points.
If you’re not keen on credit cards with annual fees, maybe go for a BMO Air Miles MasterCard or PC Financial MasterCard. Members typically receive email offers with limited time sign-up offers. The best current offer that I’m aware of for the BMO Air Miles MasterCard is 1500 bonus miles upon spending $1000 in the three months after approval. The promo that comes along pretty frequently for the PC Financial MasterCard awards 100,000 points after your first purchase at a store where President’s Choice products are sold.
Note that there are other BMO and Amex Air Miles credit cards that have an annual fee and those might suit you better depending on your spending habits and the appeal of the additional benefits they offer.
2. Flight Options
If you decide to fly, airfare to Ottawa from Halifax tends to be quite reasonable in my experience. You might run into steeper fares if you have no flexibility with your dates but if you’ve got some leeway you should be able to get something in the $300s or less. I did some random searching for both reward flights and cash bookings and the results were a little better than I expected.
Earn and Redeem Aeroplan, Air Miles or WestJet Rewards
The base reward with Air Miles from the Maritimes to Ottawa is 1700 miles in low season and 2200 in high season plus taxes and fees that typically exceed $100. There is a chance that a status-based or general discount will be offered when you’re ready to book but you can’t count on it. You also can’t count on the base reward being available. (If you hold the World Elite version of the BMO Air Miles MasterCard you’ll get a 15% discount on the miles required for flights within North America.)
Halifax – Ottawa (round trip, non-stop)
Aug. 5-10, 2021
2200 Air Miles + $131.98
Under Aeroplan’s new dynamic reward system, Halifax to Ottawa falls into the 10,000 – 15,000 point range each way on Air Canada with the caveat that it can price out above or below that depending on the cash airfare for the specific flights. (Before last year’s Aeroplan revamp it was 25,000).
Halifax-Ottawa (round trip, non-stop)
Aug. 5-10, 2021
19,000 Aeroplan points + $88.28
Holding an Aeroplan credit card lets you access “preferred pricing” which brings it down to 18,000 points (based on a single search).
CIBC, TD and Amex all offer Aeroplan credit cards. There are also certain Amex cards that earn Membership Rewards points that can be converted to Aeroplan. Aside from credit cards, you can convert several different hotel loyalty currencies to Aeroplan points but I suggest this be done selectively as those points are generally better used in their original form.
WestJet’s loyalty program has no reward charts or point ranges. One WestJet Dollar is worth one actual dollar (outside of Member Exclusive fares). There is currently a good sign-up bonus for the RBC WestJet World World Elite MasterCard but I cannot check fares from Halifax to Ottawa because the route has been dropped from the schedule and there’s no telling when it will return.
Earn and Redeem Fixed Value Points for Flights
Even with Porter out of the picture for now and WestJet suspending its Ottawa route, there are still excellent round trip airfares bookable from Halifax. The lowest economy fare on Air Canada is actually only $190 on some dates. Budget carrier Flair has a very low fare of $99. (Just remember to check all the extra fees).
Sometimes when you see the cash price of a flight you realize you’d be much better off paying for it and saving those miles or points for a higher value redemption later. And, if you have some fixed value points, you can still get your ticket for free.
Similar to the strategy for accommodation, you can use fixed value points from any of the banks that offer a travel points program. The ability to book direct is much less of an issue for flights compared to hotels.
And as mentioned, if you have PC Optimum or Cash Air Miles, you can redeem those for groceries, gas etc. and allocate the savings toward your flight. An upside to this approach is that you need not reach a certain number of points or miles in order to use them. To expedite your earning, make sure to load targeted offers, watch the flyers for specials and try to participate in the major promotions when they roll around.
3. Sightseeing Savings
My first tip has limited applicability as it involves planning your trip around a specific weekend. The annual Doors Open event happens in early June and is a fantastic opportunity to not only visit museums for free but also enjoy tours of various buildings not usually open to the public. According to the website, this year’s event will be virtual due to Covid but I assume they’ll bring back the in-person version in the future. If you ever get the chance to go, I highly recommend it.
Another angle is to buy a pass that includes admission to multiple attractions, museums etc. Obviously this is only a good idea if you know you’ll get your money’s worth from the pass. I see that sale of the museum passport is suspended at the moment but perhaps it will return later in the year.
Always check to see if a museum offers free admission on certain days. For example, the Canadian History Museum and Canadian War Museum are free from 5-7 pm on Thursdays. The National Gallery is free on Thursdays 5-8 pm. Being all on the same evening is not so convenient but if you’re looking for a cheap activity and one of those is not already on your agenda, it’s a nice incentive to stop in for a while.
Although Centre Block is not accessible to tourists while it undergoes renovation, there are still free guided tours of Canada’s Parliament. These are currently suspended as well due to Covid but will surely resume eventually.
4. Dining Deals
I don’t have many specific leads on cheap eats in Ottawa but here are a few general tips:
Air Miles eVouchers for Ultimate Dining cards – If you’ve got some Cash Air Miles and like the restaurants available on the Ultimate Dining Card, you can redeem for $10, $30 or $50. Uber Eats and Door Dash are eVoucher possibilities as well but Starbucks and Pizza Pizza are “currently unavailable”.
Email sign-up discounts and freebies – With a little research you may discover a local chain or two not found in your area that offer a gift when you join their loyalty program. (Just don’t sign up too far in advance because there might be a time limitation on it.) If you happen to be visiting on your birthday, there are lots of resources online to find restaurants that offer birthday specials.
Groupon – Remember to see what dining establishments are offering a deal on Groupon and check the reviews. Also check your email for a percentage discount on your next Groupon purchase.
Happy hours and early bird specials – Look around online to see what places offer good specials at certain times of the day or the week.
Supermarket ready-to-eat meals – Check out what’s available in any nearby grocery store if you want something to bring back to the hotel.
The city of Ottawa is a great choice of destination for any Canadian who hasn’t yet visited. The museums are world class, the transportation logistics are easy, and there are good prospects for point redemptions. If you’re contemplating a trip within the country when travel becomes a thing again, maybe put the nation’s capital on your the list of possibilities.