The pandemic derailed the travel plans of many Canadians in 2020 and will likely thwart most plans for 2021 as well. I suspect lots of us are daydreaming about where to go when leisure travel returns and perhaps others have been inspired to take a trip they have been putting off. With that in mind, I’ve compiled some preliminary guidance for making travel goals more attainable using points and miles. More posts will follow with tips and suggestions tailored to specific destinations which will hopefully be of use to folks interested in planning an affordable trip in the future.
Where to begin…
For those unfamiliar with the various intricacies of loyalty programs, it can be hard to know where to start. One impediment is the fact that the optimal path varies greatly with the individual. So, if you can figure out what will work best for you, it could provide the necessary motivation to get up to speed with points and miles.
Some people dive right in without a firm idea of how they’ll use their points. In my view, it’s much better to work back from your ultimate objective and design your strategy accordingly. However, before you set a specific travel goal, you should ask yourself a few questions.
Do you want a sightseeing trip or a luxury experience?
I think it’s necessary to figure out where your priorities truly lie. For many avid points and miles collectors, the real draw is the ability to access business or first class flights and upscale hotels or resorts – things they cannot otherwise afford. Although the destination is a key element, it’s not always the determining factor in where they choose to go. The accommodation and aircraft cabin are just as important.
For others, like myself, the motivation is simply to make a trip happen for minimal cost. I don’t actively seek out luxury and it doesn’t dictate my approach. I prefer to stretch my points to cover as much of one trip as possible or to provide the means to take multiple trips.
Please note that I give “sightseeing” a fairly broad meaning here including theme park vacations. It just means you want to be out and about doing stuff. I know that some travellers will give equal weight to both the activities and the comforts, but for the purpose of devising a points and miles strategy, I think it helps to know which one takes precedence.
Do you want to travel independently or with a guide?
Some travellers really enjoy a guided experience so they can leave the logistics research and decisions to someone else. This doesn’t have to mean a traditional coach tour but could be a small group tour (much better than a large bus for various reasons), a river cruise, a rail tour, a private tour or some combination of those.
In contrast, many are content to organize it all themselves and aside from the occasional walking tour or day trip, you go at your own pace with your own agenda. This style of travel is usually less expensive and easier to achieve with points and miles, but it’s still possible to save on the cost of a guided trip as well.
What type of accommodation do you generally prefer?
The rise of Airbnb has some people opting out of traditional lodging in favour of renting accommodation from private individuals. Other travellers like the consistency of chain hotels and access to a 24 hour front desk. And there are those who’d rather stay at smaller independent properties with no corporate affiliation. Your preferred type of accommodation will influence your points and miles decisions.
Hotel chains with loyalty programs are an obvious avenue for accumulating points, but you can also collect points of a more flexible nature to book a wider variety of lodging types. If you’re relatively disciplined, you can also redeem certain points for everyday essentials and designate those savings for accommodations costs giving you maximum freedom when choosing where to stay.
Where exactly do you want to go?
This question might more logically precede the previous ones but I think it’s worthwhile to consider the style of trip you want before you zero in on a destination.
I also think it’s crucial to start with a blank slate without undue influence from others or your own preconceived notions. Tips and suggestions from friends and family are helpful but I believe you should do your own research and make an informed decision about what destination suits you best.
Sometimes the choice will stem from a special interest such as history, art, food, music, sports etc. Or, if you’re really wide open with no distinct preferences, you can let the deal determine the destination which will definitely make it easier to put together a cheap trip.
Now on to acquiring the points…
After you’ve narrowed down your travel aspirations, it’s time to look at how to accumulate the points. You’ll want to go at a pace that you find most comfortable and try to make decisions that you won’t later regret.
Although you can collect various kinds of points without the help of a rewards credit card, they certainly speed up the process and if you’re a responsible credit user, there is no real reason not to take advantage of this method.
Where do you most frequently shop?
This is important because you need to know what loyalty programs you can take advantage of and what type of credit card is accepted at those stores. For example, if you’re a regular shopper at Sobeys, you can earn Air Miles on purchases directly and also via an Air Miles credit card. Or instead, you may choose to a collect a different credit card currency such as Amex Membership Rewards or Scotia Rewards.
Any recurring expenses like TV, internet or cell phone bills that can be paid by credit card should be factored into your points-earning plans as well.
Do you have any big purchases on the horizon?
This question is relevant because a large expense like new furniture or appliances can help you reach a high spending threshold to trigger a credit card sign-up bonus that might otherwise be tough to manage. With a big purchase coming up, it’s a good time to consider all your options for a new credit card.
Canadian rewards credit cards
Indeed, one of the best ways to accumulate points is via the responsible use of rewards credit cards. In fact, there are individuals who devote all of their points-earning energy into snagging one sign-up bonus after another without keeping any card for more than a year. (Just be aware that if you go down the road into full-blown churning – applying for the same card repeatedly to get the sign-up bonus again in frequent succession – you’re in territory that may be deemed abuse by the issuer and your accounts could be closed, or at the very least you could be denied a repeat bonus per the terms of certain cards.)
However, if you prefer a more moderate approach to credit card rewards, you should carefully consider both the sign-up bonus and the ongoing earning rate. There are a variety of credit cards that provide a good return on spending and are worth keeping long-term, especially if they include other useful benefits like travel medical insurance.
If your answer to the question about luxury was in the affirmative, you’ll generally need to focus on credit cards that earn hotel points, frequent flyer miles or rewards that can be converted into those currencies.
The alternative to co-branded and convertible rewards cards are those that offer fixed value points which allow for greater flexibility but minimal opportunity for achieving outsized value. Depending on your travel goal, these bank loyalty programs (Scotia Rewards, TD Rewards, BMO Rewards etc.) might work better for you.
Air Miles and PC Optimum
Air Miles and PC Optimum are surely two of the most familiar loyalty programs to Canadians. Both allow you to collect points on everyday purchases and offer credit cards to expedite your earning.
Nova Scotia is home to many Air Miles partners including Sobeys, Foodland, Lawtons Drugs, Pharmasave, Shell, Irving, Kent, Timber Mart, and Staples. PC Optimum points can be earned at Atlantic Superstore, Shoppers Drug Mart and Esso. If you shop at any of those places, it behooves you to participate since you’re effectively paying for the points anyway.
While these programs may seem unexciting, they can deliver real value to points enthusiasts and are relatively easy to accumulate.
Bonus Points Promotions
Capitalizing on loyalty program promotions is a critical part of any points and miles strategy and is what separates a passive collector from an active one. Once you have a decent handle on a program, you’ll probably know when a promo is worthwhile. Watch for when new ones are released and be sure to understand exactly what they entail. You must also be reasonably organized and attentive to ensure you’re getting the points to which you’re entitled.
I also suggest that you keep an eye out for interesting promotions in a wide range of programs. Occasionally there will be a terrific opportunity that you shouldn’t pass up just because it would involve branching out. Especially in the hotel loyalty sphere, there have been a considerable number of good points-earning promos over the years in programs like IHG Rewards, Hilton Honors, Radisson Rewards and Choice Privileges.
Sweet Spot Redemptions
In light of the time and effort required to actively earn rewards, you should know how to get good value for them. Unless you’re absolutely drowning in points, if you redeem indiscriminately you’ll likely be getting poor value.
If you want to stretch your points, it really pays to do your research. For instance, seek out the nicer low category hotels or those where you can redeem points for larger rooms or suites. Where possible, maybe add to your flight reward a stopover of a few days to include an extra destination in your trip. At times it will even make sense to buy points for a particular redemption opportunity. Look for seasonal variation in airfares or hotel rates if you’re using fixed value points, gift cards or funds set aside from Air Miles cash or PC Optimum redemptions,
For anyone already quite familiar with the world of points and miles, I’m sure this was all well-worn territory.
My intention going forward is to apply the guidance outlined above to specific trip ideas and share more of the nuts and bolts. I know it can seem like a chore to digest the details of various loyalty programs, but once you have a defined objective, I think it becomes a little easier. And once you’ve gotten established and earned some points, the learning curve will seem less steep and your travel goal more attainable.