A model airplane is seen in front of the newly-revealed Air Canada Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner aircraft at a hangar at the Toronto Pearson International Airport in Mississauga, Ont., Thursday, February 9, 2017. Air Canada’s three Aeroplan credit card partners are updating the features of the airline’s main customer loyalty program for travellers.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch

A model airplane is seen in front of the newly-revealed Air Canada Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner aircraft at a hangar at the Toronto Pearson International Airport in Mississauga, Ont., Thursday, February 9, 2017. Air Canada’s three Aeroplan credit card partners are updating the features of the airline’s main customer loyalty program for travellers.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch

Air Miles or cash back? How to manage your travel rewards during a pandemic

The good news is that even travel-focused loyalty programs have become more flexible in recent years

Angela Farquhar is a self-described “sucker for a loyalty program.”

The 32-year-old teacher from Waubaushene, Ont., collects PC Optimum Points and Petro Points, but Air Miles are her favourite. She pays close attention to bonus events in order to rack them up faster.

But with her husband off work for two months due to the pandemic and travel looking unlikely for the foreseeable future, Farquhar — like many Canadians —has had to change the way she uses her rewards. This year, instead of buying airline tickets, she used her Air Miles to buy a backyard slide her daughters, Mackenzie, 3, and Alexandra, 1.

“Mackenzie absolutely loves it and I just started sliding Alexandra down too,” Farquhar says. “She actually thinks it’s more fun taking turns with her sister.”

Charlene Suchy, however, is taking the opposite approach.

The 37-year-old divemaster from Pefferlaw, Ont., is a devoted Air Miles collector, but has decided to save up rather than spend on non-travel items.

“I’m currently looking at either round trip flights or an all-inclusive package using my miles,” she says. I’m not sure of a destination yet, but have a few in mind for when we can travel again. My trip will only be nicer the more miles I can save.”

So which is the right approach when it comes to rewards cards? Save up in the hope a vaccine will make travel possible relatively soon? Or use the points right now?

According to Patrick Sojka, the founder of Rewards Canada and an expert on travel rewards, Canadians are increasingly looking to do the latter, despite the fact that travel typically offers better value.

“The loyalty programs have told us that more people are using their rewards for merchandise, more people are redeeming for gift cards. It’s definitely happening.”

Whether that’s the right strategy depends on your financial situation, says Sojka.

“If you’re an average income earner and you don’t have a way to rack up miles quickly, short-term benefits are probably a healthy way to look at it. A lot of programs tend to devalue over time, and there’s uncertainty over the lack of travel and the global economy generally.”

For those in higher income brackets, continuing to accumulate miles may be the better option. “It might not matter to you that a business class flight will cost 20,000 more miles in a year and a half,” says Sojka.

The good news is that even travel-focused loyalty programs have become more flexible in recent years, including Air Canada’s recently relaunched Aeroplan program.

“Whether it’s merchandise, gift cards, tickets, Amazon purchases, cashback options: there’s a whole gamut of options, depending on the program, says Sojka. “Most of them have added more, you just have to find the program that suits your needs.

The other option is to ditch your rewards card and switch to a cash-back credit card, though Sojka says this strategy has some drawbacks. For starters, cash-back cards tend to offer lower-percentage returns on purchases than travel rewards. And most cash-back cards only pay out once a year, making them less useful for those in search of short-term financial relief, though some, such as TD’s Cash Back Visa, allow you to redeem much sooner.

Whatever rewards strategy you choose, Sojka’s final piece of advice is to check to see when your points expire. Most programs have 12 to 24-month inactivity rules if you’re not earning or redeeming. Many pushed that forward due to the pandemic, but the deadlines will return.

“Either earn a mile or spend some on a reward,” he says. “That keeps them active.”

ALSO READ: Latest COVID-19 travel advice another blow to B.C. tourism

Alex McClintock, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Air TravelCoronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

An aerial shot of Cedar Valley Lodge this past August, LNG Canada’s newest accommodation for workers. This is where one employee is still currently isolating after a COVID-19 outbreak was first declared on Nov. 19. (Photo courtesy of LNG Canada)
54 positive COVID-19 cases associated with LNG Canada site outbreak

There’s been a two-person increase in positive cases since Tuesday (Dec. 1)

K-J Millar/The Northern View
8 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the Northern Health Authority

Since Nov. 27, there have been 191 new cases reported in NHA

A coal-fired power plant seen through dense smog from the window of an electric bullet train south of Beijing, December 2016. China has continued to increase thermal coal production and power generation, adding to greenhouse gas emissions that are already the world’s largest. (Tom Fletcher/Black Press)
LNG featured at B.C. energy industry, climate change conference

Hydrogen, nuclear, carbon capture needed for Canada’s net-zero goal

Victoria’s Royal Jubilee Hospital took in two COVID-19 patients from Northern Health as part of a provincial agreement. (Black Press Media file photo)
Victoria hospital takes in two COVID-19 patients from Northern Health

Royal Jubilee Hospital takes patients as part of provincial transport network

An aerial shot of Cedar Valley Lodge this past August, LNG Canada’s newest accommodation for workers. This is where several employees are isolating after a COVID-19 outbreak was declared on Nov. 19. (Photo courtesy of LNG Canada)
52 positive COVID-19 cases now associated with LNG Canada site outbreak

Eight cases still active, 44 considered recovered

Pickleball game in Vancouver on Sunday, November 8, 2020. B.C.’s public health restrictions for COVID-19 have been extended to adult team sports, indoors and outside. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
711 more COVID-19 cases detected in B.C. Friday

‘Virus is not letting up and neither can we’

British Columbia Health Minister Adrian Dix wears a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19, during an announcement about a new regional cancer centre, in Surrey, B.C., on Thursday, August 6, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
PHSA bought faulty respirators; spent money on catering, renovations: Dix

Such spending included ‘unnecessary, unbudgeted renovations’ to the authority’s headquarters in Vancouver

B.C. NDP leader John Horgan releases his election platform, Vancouver, Oct. 6, 2020, featuring COVID-19 relief payments promised for most households. (B.C. NDP photo)
Next $1.5 billion in B.C. COVID-19 cash ‘prudent,’ Horgan says

New round of payments for household incomes up to $175,000

KIJHL games have been postponed through Dec. 31. (File photo)
KIJHL postpones all games through end of 2020

Due to provincial health orders, games up to Dec. 31 have been pushed back

Robert Riley Saunders. (File)
Former Kelowna social worker arrested for allegedly stealing from foster kids

Robert Riley Saunders was arrested in Alberta and will be brought back to B.C. to face charges

Melissa David, of Parachutes for Pets and her dogs Hudson and Charlie are trying to raise money for a homeless shelter that will allow pets and are seen in Calgary, Alta., Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
‘My only wish:’ Children asking pet charity to help their furry friends at Christmas

Parachutes for Pets says it has received 14 letters from children in the last week

Melissa Velden and her chef-husband Chris Velden, stand in their dining room at the Flying Apron Inn and Cookery in Summerville, N.S. on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. The couple is hosting holiday parties with appropriate distancing and other COVID-19 health protocols in place at their restaurant. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Celebrities, Santa and Zoom part of office holiday parties being held amid COVID-19

Many will send tokens of appreciation to workers or offer time off or cash

A demonstrator wears representations of sea lice outside the Fisheries and Oceans Canada offices in downtown Vancouver Sept. 24, demanding more action on the Cohen Commission recommendations to protect wild Fraser River sockeye. (Quinn Bender photo)
First Nations renew call to revoke salmon farm licences

Leadership council implores use of precautionary principle in Discovery Islands

Most Read