For most Canadians, Aeroplan remains the most popular and potentially the most useful travel points program. But most people have a love-hate relationship with Aeroplan. It promises a lot, but is often incredibly frustrating to use. We’ve been using Aeroplan for many years, so we’ll try to demystify the process and outline some of the lessons and tricks we’ve learned to get the best value for your points.
What we like most about Aeroplan is that awards are based on travel from region to region. Our region is defined as North America. This is unlike some points programs where the number of points you need depends on the distance you fly, or others where it is tied to the cost of an airfare. With Aeroplan, everyone in North America pays the same number of points to go to Europe, for example. So if you live in a smaller market such as Saskatoon, like we do, you aren’t charged more points because you don’t live in a major gateway city. It costs us the same number of points to go to Europe or Africa as someone who lives in Toronto or New York, even though we have to travel farther. It works the same in the other direction. Someone in Halifax will pay the same number of points to go to Asia as someone in Vancouver.
That’s the good news. So now the bad news. The biggest complaint that many people have with Aeroplan, besides finding award space when you want it, is that the fees you have to pay in addition to the points can be insanely high. Fees can be divided into two types – those imposed by the airport or country (landing fees, departure fees, customs inspection fees, tourist taxes, and on and on), and those imposed by the airline. When you do a search for flights on the Aeroplan website and it gives you the price for “taxes, fees and surcharges”, click on it and you get a breakdown. There’s not much we can do about government-imposed taxes and fees, but we can often work around airline fees.
Beware the Dreaded “Carrier Surcharge”
The most important way to maximize value, especially for international flights, is to use airlines that don’t impose a “carrier surcharge”. This used to be called a fuel surcharge, but when fuel prices decreased a few years ago they kept the charge but changed the name. No matter what you call it, it’s simply a cash grab. The amount can vary widely depending on the airline, destination and route. Sometimes it might be fairly low, such as $15 or $30, but it’s not unusual to find surcharges of $500 or more on longer flights. It can be so high that in some cases you can simply by a ticket for not much more.
When you book a trip on Aeroplan, you can use any of the 27 airlines (or combination of airlines) that are part of Star Alliance, assuming of course that they fly the route you want and have award space available. Roughly a third of these impose the dreaded surcharge (although the amounts may differ) on Aeroplan tickets, such as Air Canada, Lufthansa, Thai Airways, Austrian Airlines. Asiana and ANA. Most Star Alliance members, however, do not have this charge, including United, Avianca, Copa, Swiss Air, South African Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines, Turkish Airlines, EVA Air, Egypt Air, and Singapore Airlines. It sounds simple enough – simply choose one of the airlines that don’t impose this fee. But Aeroplan doesn’t make it easy. When you search for international flights on Aeroplan’s website, the first options to come up are usually on Air Canada, understandable considering Aeroplan’s close relationship with Air Canada. The next choices that often come up (though not always) are other airlines that impose the surcharge. Some critics argue that this is more than coincidence. Often you have to click on several choices until you find one that uses an airline that you want.
On our recent trip to South Africa, we got a one-way ticket on Aeroplan to Johannesburg (for the return, we used points on Delta Skymiles, which had better availability at the time). Our routing was Saskatoon to Toronto on Air Canada, then Toronto to Johannesburg on Ethiopian Airlines, with a change of planes in Addis Ababa. Total taxes and fees were $67 each. Had we picked the first option that came up on the Aeroplan website, a combination of Air Canada and Lufthansa flights, the fees and taxes would have been $346 – and that’s just for one-way!
Which flights provide the most value?
If you like to travel a lot and have a limited supply of Aeroplan points, it’s best to use them where you get the biggest bang for the buck. Sometimes it makes more sense to simply buy a ticket on routes where fares are low. For 25,000 points (plus fees), you can travel anywhere in North America. In our case, spending 25,000 points to go to Las Vegas, for example, wouldn’t make a lot of sense when we can often buy airfares for $300-$400. On the other hand, if we wanted to go to Newfoundland, as an example, airfares would be a lot higher but still only cost 25,000 Aeroplan points. Long haul domestic travel within Canada can be quite expensive, so using Aeroplan for these flights can provide good value.
There’s the added advantage of being able to avoid paying for your first checked bag. Most airlines charge for checked luggage for travel in North America, but if you book an Aeroplan ticket on Air Canada, using certain Aeroplan-linked credit cards, you get your first checked bag free (more on this later, since there are “ifs” and “buts” to be aware of). Internationally, we’ve used Aeroplan to get to places that are a bit off the beaten track, such as Nicaragua and Bolivia, where there tends to be less competition among airlines and higher fares.
There are those who argue that you get the best value from Aeroplan, and other airline-based points programs, by flying business class or first class. There is some logic to this. A return flight to Africa using Aeroplan costs 100,000 points in economy and 150,000 in business class. If you were buying tickets instead, a business class fare would cost you considerably more than 50% over the economy fare. It all depends on how you value the points, Would you rather spend the extra to travel in greater comfort, or would you rather use those extra points for another trip?
Next time we’ll look at ways to book more complex itineraries, including stopovers, while minimizing fees.