Get The Most Value From Your Air Miles

getthemostvaluefromyourairmiles.jpgWith the Air Miles program in particular, how you redeem your points is of special importance.  The program has an absolutely massive rewards catalogue, probably the largest of all the Canadian rewards programs, as well as the possibility of redeeming for flights and travel.  Using the information found here you can be sure that you will only spend your miles on things that provide you with the best overall value.

Choosing The Right Reward

Getting right to the point, when it comes to redeeming your Air Miles for the best value 99% of the time this will involve redeeming either for flights, gift cards, or certificates of some kind.  The Air Miles merchandise selection, although extensive, usually provides very little value.  You are better off avoiding the merchandise altogether and just buying the item you want using the money you save through redeeming your miles for something else.  For that reason, I am going to leave merchandise rewards out of this discussion completely.

Gift Cards

There are gift cards available for many popular retailers, restaurants, and services available for redemption.  Here is a sampling of them (subject to change).

  • Restuarants & Café’s:
    • Boston Pizza, Cara Group (Swiss Chalet, Montana’s, Kelsey’s, Harvey’s, Milestones), CN Tower Restaurant, Second Cup, Starbucks, The Keg.
  • Grocery & Pharmacy:
    • Metro, Jean Coutu, Lawtons, Pharmasave, Rexall, Pharma Plus, Sobeys.
  • Retailers:
    • Banana Republic, Chapters/Indigo/Coles, Danier, Gap, HBC (Zellers, The Bay, Home Outfitters), Laura Secord, Pier 1, Rona, Roots, Sport Check, Staples, Sunglass Hut.
  • Entertainment & Gas:
    • iTunes, Cineplex, Empire Theatres, Kernels Popcorn, Shell, Toronto Blue Jays.

Oddly, the amount of miles required to purchase gift cards of the same denomination for different establishments is not identical.  Even within the same merchant category there can be differences with some stores offering much less value.  For example, in the Grocery & Pharmacy category Sobey’s $20 gift cards cost 140 miles whereas Metro $20 cards cost 160 miles.  Again, in the Retailers category, Staples $25 cards offer the worst value at 225 miles when most other cards in the same category cost either 185 or 200 miles.  Another point of interest is that in some cases when you buy a higher denominated card for the same exact store, the mile cost per dollar is slightly lower.  For instance, the iTunes $10 card is 90 miles whereas the $50 card is 400 miles.  If you were to buy five $10 cards instead of one $50 it would end up costing you 50 miles more.  Fortunately, this isn’t really the norm and in most cases the difference is only 5 miles instead of 50 so it’s not really a big deal.

In the above list I have highlighted in olive which store offers the best value within its category and I have bolded in red the one the provides the overall best value, which happens to be Roots.  Now merchandise from Roots is not something that most people would find terribly useful.  Therefore, I would suggest choosing one of the grocery or pharmacies instead because they provide the next best value.  Another trick you might try is ordering a gift card through Air Miles for them and then purchasing a gift card for another store at the gift card mall that most grocery and pharmacy stores offer these days.  This may not be permitted at all stores but I do know for a fact that it is permitted at some of them so you will need to ask a few cashiers or try doing it yourself to find out for sure if it is possible at your local store.

If you follow the advice above you will receive a return of 14.3 cents per mile redeemed or 16.0 cents per mile if you decide to choose Roots instead.

Certificates

So by this time you are probably thinking that 14.3 cents per mile is a decent return for your miles, right?  But remember when I said that I use a rough value estimate of $0.20 per mile?  The main reason for that is the various certificates you can also redeem for in lieu of gift cards.  Certificates are available for everything ranging from movie rentals and cinema tickets to theme parks and sporting events.  Not all of these certificates offer great value, in fact the majority of them likely don’t, but there are two certificates in particular that offers outstanding value.  These certificates are the buy one get one free movie tickets offered by Empire Theatres and Cineplex for only 30 miles (recently increased from 25 miles).  These certificates can be used for any movie any time (Empire Theatres, not Cineplex), including pass restricted movies.  The only exceptions is that there is a small surcharge for 3D movies and IMAX is excluded.  If you value a movie at $10, which is quite conservative these days with weekend night prices easily reaching $12-$14 then you get a return of 33.3 cents per mile.  Before the recent increase, the value was 40 cents per mile, which was essentially unmatched by any other redemption option.  If movies aren’t for you, then another great option is the 2 car wash package from Shell for 75 miles.  The certificate allows you to get the most expensive car wash that they offer which, depending on location, is easily $10 or more.  This works out to a return of 26.6 cents per mile, a close second to the BOGO movie passes.

As far as attraction and event certificates go, I have not taken the time to look up the cost of every one and compare it to its cost in miles.  You can take some time yourself and go through the list of shows and attractions to see if there is anything of interest to you that offers good value but beating the cinema return above is extremely difficult.  To give you an idea of what is possible I did notice that you can get a “best available” 2010 regular season ticket for the Toronto BlueJays for only 50 miles.  If you manage to secure a seat in one of the lower levels then I would imagine that this could represent extremely good value.  For instance, if you managed to secure a $44.00 mid-level seat then this would equate to an outstanding 88 cents per mile so happy hunting with that!  Another example is a pass to Playdium, in Ontario, which gives you $15 worth of tokens for 75 miles equating to 20 cents per mile.

Flights

You mean you can actually redeem “Air Miles” to fly?  Surprise!  You can!  The value of this type of reward is very hard to calculate because the cost of flights changes all the time and the cost in miles is also variable and changes from time to time even for the same routes and is highly variable when comparing different routes.  Most actual airline rewards programs, like Aeroplan, have a fixed mile cost for flights within North America or to Europe, etc.  Not so with Air Miles!  Even different flights within Canada vary widely in their cost in miles making things much more confusing.

Alright, this calls for an example!  If you didn’t know already, I live in Atlantic Canada and flights here are notoriously expensive.  If you live in Toronto or another major city, consider yourself lucky!  My sister lives in Vancouver so flying from here to there is a route that I know very well.  Flights, before taxes and fees, can cost up to $1000 or more but most of the time a flight can somehow be had for around $700 return trip so that is the value I use when calculating my rate of return for reward flights.  Using the Air Miles Flight Calculator I can determine that this would cost me 5250 miles during high season and 3900 miles during low season.  Here’s the calculation:

 

$700.00 / 3900 miles = 17.9 cents per mile
$700.00 / 5250 miles = 13.3 cents per mile

17.9 cents per mile is a respectable return as far as Air Miles go and with a little work finding the best routes you could further increase the return.  Also, be sure to check out the Mile Discount Promotions and Credit Card Discounts sections below for other ways to reduce the mile cost for flights and increase your rate of return.  That said, I would still focus my efforts on other programs that are better suited to air travel like Air Canada, Aeroplan, British Airways, American Airlines AAdvantage, or my personal favourite, Starwood Preferred Guest which allows you to transfer starpoints to practically any airline on the globe at a more than favourable rate.  With these other programs you also have the option of saving up and flying first class, which historically offers a ridiculously good rate of return.  The reason being that first class flights on certain routes can easily cost $10,000 or more, but the reward cost is usually only a couple times more expensive than the cost for an economy seat.  It’s up to you if you would rather fly a few times in economy or have one spectacular flight in first class.  To each their own!

Mile Discount Promotions

Available on AirMiles.ca, there are usually multiple concurrent redemption specials running on the Deals & More page that offer you either a percentage discount off the regular cost of a particular reward or they simply display the discounted amount of miles required to purchase the reward.  There are usually specials available for both merchandise and travel as well as the occasional certificate or attraction, but I have yet to see specials offered on gift cards.

Merchandise & Certificates

I haven’t spent much time discussing merchandise rewards because they offer such a terrible rate of return.  However, there are many discounts on AirMiles.ca related to merchandise, probably for that very reason.  They offer both weekly specials, which can be found on their Deals of the Week page, as well as a Clearance section.  To clearly show what terrible value even their clearance merchandise specials offer, here is a quick example.  At the time of this writing there is a Sony DCRSR47 60GB 60x Zoom Hard Drive Camcorder available for the clearance price of 4300 miles.  A quick internet price search shows prices ranging from $339.96 to $446.83.  Here are the calculations.

 

$339.96 x 1.13 (tax) = 384.15 / 4300 = 8.9 cents per mile
$446.83 x 1.13 (tax) = 504.92 / 4300 = 11.7 cents per mile

Now I didn’t spend very much time trying to find the absolute rock bottom price for this camcorder but I’m assuming if you are a savvy consumer (you must be if you frequent this site) then you too can find a decent price on a particular piece of merchandise.  Why would you ever pay the highest price?  This is true for almost any item you might want to purchase, especially electronics!  Therefore, the 11.7 cents per mile becomes irrelevant and you are left with a return 8.9 cents per mile at the most.  If I had spent a little more time searching, it is likely that I could have beaten the price down even further.  In short, don’t waste your time trying to redeem your Air Miles for merchandise!  99.9% of the time it won’t be worthwhile.

Flights & Travel

When it comes to special discount offers, flights are probably the only ones that are really worth looking at.  As you saw in the Choosing The Right Reward section above, flight rewards can offer a return of 17.9 cents per mile or more.  If you combine that already decent return with an additional promotional discount, then you are starting to achieve something worthwhile.  At the time of this writing, it just so happens that Air Miles is running a limited time promotion offering a 35% discount on the miles required to fly from coast to coast in Canada.  Continuing my example from above, here are the new calculations for a flight to Vancouver taking this promotion into account.

 

$700.00 / 2535 miles = 27.6 cents per mile
$700.00 / 3413 miles = 20.5 cents per mile

This further illustrates the point that the rate of returns for for flights fluctuates widely as well as that if you are very flexible and patient you can end up with pretty decent returns when flying using Air Miles.  To see what other kind of discount are available, you can check the Travel Specials page on AirMiles.ca.

Credit Card Discounts

One way to get a little more value out of your Air Miles is by owning a BMO AIR MILES World Elite MasterCard which gives you a 25% discount off the regular cost in miles of any flight.  Unfortunately this is not stackable with any other promotion so if an offer is running, like the one mentioned above, that gives you a 35% mile discount then the 25% credit card discount would not apply.  However, if you are in a pinch and can’t wait for a better promotion to come up it could make sense to apply and use the card for a year to reap the discount on a flight you know you will be booking.  This discount is most certainly worth more than the $99 annual fee, just be sure to cancel the card before the next year’s fee is levied.  More information about Air Miles affiliated credit cards can be found on our Air Miles Credit Cards page and a lot more information about credit cards can be found in our Credit Cards section.

Gold Program

Air Miles offers a gold program for dedicated collectors who manage to shop at a minimum of 5 sponsors and earn at least 1000 miles within a single calendar year (January 1st to December 31st).  If you achieve this, then you must wait for your gold status to become effective which doesn’t happen until April 1st of the next year even if you qualified in January of the previous year!  Your gold status will remain effective for one year from that date meaning it ends on March 31st of the year after that.  With this system you could theoretically wait for over a year for your gold status to become effective!  The perks offered by the program are pretty mediocre and are as follows:

  • Limited time bonus offers that are exclusive to members who have achieved gold status. 
  • A miles discount of up to 25% off of selected merchandise items from the rewards catalogue.
  • A miles discount of up to 40% off of selected flights on selected routes.

Achieving gold status in the Air Miles program is not one of my top priorities and neither should it be for you.  It could provide some nice benefits, especially if a 40% flight discount happened to line up with where you were planning to travel anyway but that is not something you can count on.  Overall, the program just offers a few odd ball perks for those who happen to meet the criteria of the program through their regular Air Miles earning activity.

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