The Air Miles rewards program is, in my opinion, one of the most overrated rewards programs in Canada.
But, due to its widespread use and popularity, it still deserves ample coverage on this site.
Even with its (many) pitfalls, I must admit that it does have the occasional silver lining and, because of that, I do participate in the program myself from time to time.
...It also must win the award for the rewards program with the most confusing name. I mean, seriously, who calls a retail rewards program 'Air Miles' anyway?
Silly name aside, it's indeed true that you can redeem your Air Miles for flights on one of several partner airlines, but this is far from the most common reward choice.
That's because the Air Miles program has one of the most comprehensive rewards catalogues of any program I've seen.
Want to cut to the chase and figure out how to get the best value for your miles? Download this PDF guide of the top 5 Dream Miles rewards.
Let's get started:
- Measuring value
- Redeeming rewards
- How to earn Air Miles fast
- Gold and Onyx members
Measuring the value of an Air Mile
Central to any discussion about Air Miles is often the question of how much they're worth.
This depends on many factors, so it's useful to get 2 tools for understanding their value under our belts – how to calculate both CPM and Rate of Return.
CPM stands for cents per mile. It's an easy way to compare the value of different rewards.
You can calculate CPM by dividing the cash value by the number of Air Miles required to purchase it. Then just times that number by 100 to get the cents per mile, not dollar per mile.
So if you redeem 6,800 miles for a Dyson Ball Animal 2 Vacuum, which retails for around $678, this is your CPM:
678 / 6,800 = 0.099 x 100 = 9.9 CPM
How to get your rate of return
Once you know the value of a single mile, you can calculate an even more important number: your rate of return when earning Air Miles.
This is calculated by determining how much you spend earning miles versus the overall value you get for those miles.
With this number, you can easily make comparisons between different promotions and earning opportunities.
Here's an example
While shopping at Safeway you see a product that costs $10 and has a 20 Air Miles bonus reward attached to it. You decide to buy 2. Assuming Safeway has the regular rate of 1 mile per $20 spent, here's what your calculations look like:
40 (bonus) + 1 (regular) miles earned x 14.2 average CPM = $5.82 / $20 spent = 0.29 = 29%
So participating in this bonus effectively gives you a pretty decent 29% discount, since that's what you're getting in rewards.
The regular rate of return
The typical way to earn Air Miles is by shopping at one of the various partner stores (online or offline) and showing your card or entering your number when making your purchase.
You can view a complete list of participating stores on the Air Miles website, just search alphabetically on the right.
The odd thing about the program is that there's no standard criteria for earning a single reward mile at the regular rate. The most common rate of reward is 1 mile per $20 spent, but it can vary from merchant to merchant depending on the agreement they have with Air Miles. It's also subject to change over time.
So, assuming a 1 mile to $20 spent accrual rate, and doing a typical redemption of 190 miles for a $20 gift card, the rate of return works out to be a paltry 0.53%.
This is better than nothing, considering you can stack it with your credit card rewards program, but I'd definitely choose a cheaper price over earning Air Miles at the regular rate any day.
Redeeming your miles
You have 2 main options for redeeming your miles:
You can earn a combination of the 2 categories, or choose to only earn miles in one. Whatever you choose, just remember that once a mile has been earned in one category, it can't be transferred to the other.
Cash Miles can be used for in-store discounts or redeemed online for cash vouchers.
They make determining the value of a mile look easy because they're always redeemed at a rate of 95 miles for $10 – with some places requiring a minimum $20 redemption. That gives each mile a value of 10.5 CPM.
Simply scan your card at the register and let the cashier know that you'd like to redeem your Cash Miles. You'll get an instant discount on your purchase.
Participating merchants include:
See a full list of merchants in your province here.
You can also redeem your miles online in exchange for e-vouchers.
Simply select the merchant you want to redeem with here and you'll get an email with a printable voucher to use in store.
About double the amount of merchants are available when choosing this method of redemption, so it's always worth a check.
Unlike Cash Miles, the value of Dream Miles changes depending on what you're redeeming them for – and you have a ton of options.
Though there's no 100% exact way to do it, reasonable approximations can be made. An average value across all categories is 14.2 CPM.
Getting the most value from your Dream Miles
The Dream program has an absolutely massive rewards catalogue, probably the largest of all Canadian rewards programs.
Getting right to the point, redeeming for travel (flights, car rentals, attractions, and hotels) will give you the best value 99% of the time, but events can have a super high CPM depending on what they are.
Here's all your options so you can have a better idea of your options:
- Events (21.6 CPM),
- Flights (17.2 CPM),
- Car rentals (16.2 CPM),
- Attractions (13.4 CPM),
- Hotels (12.3 CPM),
- Vacation packages (11 CPM), and
- Merchandise (7.7 CPM).
Events (21.6 CPM)
One surprisingly high option for redeeming your miles is for events, which includes things like concerts, movies, and plays.
I price checked 3 concerts to get my average: Rod Stewart (10 CPM), Paul Brandt (24 CPM), and Natalie McMaster (30.7 CPM).
Just from this relatively small pool of results, you can see that the value of a mile, when redeemed this way, can really fluctuate.
But what gives this option even more value is the fact that the events sometimes have limited seating available or are even completely sold out.
For that reason, it's always a good idea to keep your eye on the available concerts – even if they're sold out.
Flights (17.2 CPM)
You mean you can actually redeem "Air Miles" to fly? Wow!
The value of this type of reward is hard to calculate because the cost of flights in both dollars and miles changes all the time.
Most airline rewards programs, like Aeroplan, have a fixed mile cost for flights within North America or to Europe, etc. But that's not the case with Air Miles!
What I found
Please note: You can only see options that your current Air Miles balance can cover, so my research was limited to flights that needed less than 2,750 miles.
I looked at flights booked for 7 months in advance that take off from 12 big Canadian cities, landing in Canada and the United States. These tests included 4 types of bookings:
- specific dates during low season,
- specific dates during high season,
- flexible dates during low season, and
- flexible dates during high season.
Being flexible with your dates increased your average value from 13.9 CPM to 17.2 CPM – a 25% increase.
It definitely pays to shop around with your miles when redeeming for flights.
Related: 12 Fly Ways To Find Cheap Flights
Your other options
That said, I'd still focus my efforts on other programs that are better suited to air travel, like:
- British Airways,
- Alaska Airlines (where points can be redeemed on 17 different airlines), or
- Marriott Rewards, which allows you to transfer starpoints to more than 40 airlines at a more-than-favourable rate.
With these rewards programs you also have the option of saving up and flying first class, which historically offers a ridiculously good rate of return – first class flights can cost 10x more but only require a couple times more Air Miles to redeem.
It’s up to you if you'd rather fly a few times in economy or have one spectacular flight in first class. To each their own!
When it comes to special discount offers, flights are probably the only ones that are really worth looking at.
If you combine the already decent return of flights with an additional promotional discount, then you're starting to achieve something that's really worthwhile.
Keep an eye on their Travel Specials page so you can be on top of these kind of promotions.
Best way to redeem for flights
One way to get a little more value out of your Air Miles is by owning a BMO Air Miles World Elite Mastercard. This will give you a 15% discount off the regular cost in miles for any flight.
This discount actually raises your CPM by 17.6% – making the 17.2 CPM average jump to 20.2.
Though this isn't stackable with any other promotion, if you're in a pinch and can’t wait for a better promotion to come around, always having that 15% available is definitely handy. It pays for the $99 annual fee – and more.
Car rentals (16.2 CPM)
Car rentals provide a surprising amount of value, considering rental cars can get expensive really quick.
I tested 1-day weekend prices at Canada's major airports for both compact cars and minivans, usually your cheapest and most expensive car options.
Compact cars averaged a 20.6 CPM value, while minivans came up a bit shorter at 14.1 CPM. The average of both is 16.2 CPM.
Comparisons aside, these numbers are actually pretty good. So if you have the miles and need a rental car, this is a great option.
Book rental cars here.
Attractions (13.4 CPM)
Redeeming for attractions has a decent average CPM of 13.4, but their individual values tend to fluctuate. My research turned up a low of 10.1 CPM (1 ticket for a 7-day Walt Disney World Resort) and a high of 19.2 (2 tickets to Calgary zoo).
So it's definitely worth it to check it out, but not always worth it to redeem. Just remember to calculate the CPM yourself and you'll have a pretty good idea if it's worth your miles.
Look at attractions here.
Hotels (12.3 CPM)
Hotels can still give you a pretty decent value for your miles, but definitely not as good as your other travel options.
My research surveyed 18 hotels in 9 major Canadian cities, including both downtown locations and those close to airports. I also used fully-cancellable rates since Air Miles is also cancellable, but keep in mind that non-cancellable rates tend to be cheaper.
|City||Hotel Name||Miles Required||Taxes and fees||Actual Hotel Price||CPM|
|Vancouver||Best Western Plus Chateau Granville Hotel & Suites||3,560||80.13||$491.20||11.5|
|Sheraton Vancouver Airport Hotel||4,150||90.96||$532.00||10.6|
|Calgary||Best Western Plus Suites Downtown||2,080||32.38||$281.22||12.0|
|Best Western Plus Port O'Call||2,260||34.18||$305.18||12.0|
|Edmonton||Best Western Cedar Park Inn||2,350||52.39||$330.46||11.8|
|Hampton Inn & Suites Edmonton Airport||1,665||27.94||$217.80||11.4|
|Winnipeg||Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites Wiinipeg-Downtown||1,915||50.85||$323.51||14.2|
|Best Western Plus Winnipeg Airport||1,165||58.95||$281.44||19.1|
|Toronto||Sheraton Centre Toronto||3,510||80.16||$466.00||11.0|
|Best Western Premire Toronto Airport Carlingview||2,380||56.58||$397.78||14.3|
|Ottawa||Ottawa Marriott Hotel||2,805||61.89||$344.34||10.1|
|Holiday Inn Express & Suites Ottawa AIrport||1,235||57.16||$371.97||25.5|
|Montreal||Best Western Ville-Marie Montreal Hotel & Suites||2,420||62.77||$356.96||12.2|
|Sheraton Montreal Airport||3,200||79.4||$404.00||10.1|
|Quebec City||Delta Hotels Quebec||2,625||67.8||$359.39||11.1|
|Best Western Premier Hotel Aristocrate||2,145||56.98||$301.07||11.4|
|Halifax||Four Points by Sheraton Halifax||1,865||47.54||$351.90||16.3|
|Holiday Inn Express & Suite Halifax Airport||2,230||55.02||$309.77||11.4|
The values fluctuate a lot, coming in as low as 10.1 CPM and climbing all the way up to 25.5.
So hotel redemption is definitely an area where you should do your research beforehand. You could get a really great deal, or you could be better off redeeming for almost anything else.
Book hotels here.
Vacation packages (11 CPM)
Coming in at the bottom of the travel category are vacation packages.
You need to redeem 909 miles to get a $100 travel certificate that you can use at redtag.ca
This gives you a value of 11 CPM, almost the same as redeeming for Cash Miles.
Though it's the worst travel option, it's not terrible overall. It can be one to consider.
Book vacation packages here.
Merchandise (7.7 CPM)
Finally, the one category that I'd suggest avoiding – merchandise.
I tested prices for 11 products and their value ranged from 6.1 to 10 CPM.
But, if you're not planning on going on a trip anytime soon, and your miles have already been earned in Dream Miles, then it's still a decent option for you. Just not in relation to the rest of the Dream rewards.
The thing with merchandise is that they mostly have high-end products on offer, all of which are likely to go on sale at some point soon. It might be worth your while just to wait for those discounts instead of using your miles.
Check out their merchandise here.
There are almost always discounts on AirMiles.ca for merchandise, usually in the form of weekly specials, which can be found on their Deals of the Week page.
But even their clearance merchandise values aren't great...
For example, say a JBL Flip 4 Speaker was available for the clearance price of 1,538 miles.
A quick internet price search shows prices ranging from $119 to $140. Using the cheapest price (since you should always price check), here's the calculation:
$119 x 1.13 (tax) = 134.47 / 1538 = 0.087 = 8.7 CPM
With a little more research, it's likely you could beat down the price even more, further reducing your value.
In short, don’t waste your time trying to redeem your Air Miles for merchandise. It's probably not worth it.
How to earn Air Miles fast
Although the Air Miles program doesn't have as many ways to earn a truckload of points as the Shoppers Optimum program does, there are still plenty of ways to quickly increase your balance.
Overall, you can earn miles 3 ways:
- shopping at Air Miles sponsors,
- adding the Air Miles plan to your BMO debit card, and
- using an Air Miles credit card.
Shopping at Air Miles sponsors
A great way to start earning miles is by using your collector card while shopping at Air Miles sponsors.
This can be both in store, at places like Good Year and Holiday Inn, or online using their webstore.
Here's a full list of their merchants. Use the "Region" menu on the right to filter for your province.
The typical return at these partners are 1 mile per $20 spent, but this can change depending on the issuer and the running promotions.
Like the Shoppers Optimum program, the Air Miles program has multiplier days as well.
The basic premise is that a particular Air Miles partner will run a promotion where, instead of earning the typical amount of Air Miles on your purchase, you earn several times more.
This can range anywhere from 2x to 20x the usual number of miles.
The only problem is that these multiplier days aren't nearly as regular, consistent, or lucrative as they are with the Optimum program. It's hard to know what stores will offer these mile multiplier days and, even more importantly, when they'll be offering them.
It's very common when perusing the flyers of Air Miles partners to see big blue blobs next to certain products. The numbers inside these blobs represent how many bonus miles you'll get when purchasing that product.
The number of miles awarded can be quite small, which makes them pretty useless considering you can probably get the same product cheaper elsewhere.
Other stores often put deep discounts on the same products at the same time. This is the kind of product bonus you should look for.
There's often a minimum quantity you need to purchase before you receive the bonus for the product.
Retailers like to ensure that you'll buy a larger quantity than usual to increase their revenues. In these cases, the product is worded as:
Buy quantity x of product y to get z bonus miles.
Just be careful that the quantity you need to buy doesn't destroy the overall value of the reward.
Another thing to watch out for is any restrictions on the number of times you can take advantage of a product bonus.
You might think that if you get a great bonus for buying 1 particular product, then you can buy 10 of the same product at once and get 10x the amount of miles.
This often works, but pay attention to the fine print to make sure it's possible.
In some cases, it might be restricted to 1 offer per person or even 1 offer per transaction. You may need to go through the checkout multiple times if you want to take advantage of the bonus several times.
Here's an everyday example of a product bonus so you can get an idea of the kind of miles you can earn with this.
I saw a product bonus of 50 miles when you purchase 2 packages of toilet paper (containing 30 rolls each). The price for each package was a very reasonable $6.99, bringing your total cost to $13.98.
Referring to our rate of return formula, you're getting 49% return on this purchase. Not bad, right?
That's just one reasonably good example, if you look hard enough you can do much better than that. And if you don't look hard enough, you can do much worse.
Another great way to quickly increase your Air Miles balance is to use bonus coupons.
These coupons come in many forms, can be obtained from several places, and are all quite different. So this is another thing you'll just have to keep an eye out for as you shop and check deal sites.
Most of the coupons you'll come across aren't great, so make sure you aren't changing your shopping patterns for a coupon that's less than exceptional.
Remember, the goal is to save money, not to limit your options just because you're earning a few miles.
Air Miles bonus coupons usually originate from one of the following sources:
- The Air Miles.ca website, usually in the Earn Miles > Offers & Promotions section.
- The Air Miles email newsletter, which you can opt into via your Air Miles.ca account settings.
- Inside quarterly statements.
- Coupon booklets found in stores.
- Partner websites.
- Partner email newsletters.
- Partner flyers.
- Credit card statements
From time to time, Air Miles will run a global promotion that includes most or all of their retail partners.
The typical format for these promotions involves you shopping at several of their partners within a specific period of time. Then they reward you with a lump sum of miles after the promotional period ends.
For example Shop the Block happens once or twice a year and can net you up to 2,000 bonus miles, just for shopping at their partners.
Banking at BMO
The concept of offering rewards to customers for using everyday banking services is no stranger among Canadian banks.
But there was a time in the not-so-distant past when this was a fairly new thing. BMO was among the early adopters of this strategy when they started offering Air Miles for debit purchases on top of their Air Miles affiliated credit cards.
For a monthly fee of $15.95, you'll earn 1 mile for every $30 you spend anywhere.
Typically, I don't recommend ever using your debit card as a method of payment, since it doesn't make sense from either a rate-of-return or a security perspective when compared to credit cards.
But there are certain types of payments that can't be made using a credit card, like insurance, property taxes, tuition, small family businesses, power, etc.
You might as well be earning something on these recurring expenses. Something is better than nothing.
Related: Stop Using Your Credit Card Canada!
I would definitely consider taking full advantage of the Air Miles offered by BMO if you're already a customer.
But before switching to BMO for all your banking needs, be sure to weigh the costs of doing so and compare them with the other banks available. Their fees can sometimes be quite high in comparison.
Air Miles credit cards
Credit cards are typically the quickest and best way to earn rewards of any kind, and it's no different here.
The best Air Miles card
If you're planning on redeeming for flights, your best option is the BMO Air Miles World Elite Mastercard.
As mentioned in the flight section, you'll get a 15% discount when redeeming your miles for flights.
But that's not all.
If you sign up right now and make a purchase, you'll get 3,000 bonus miles.
Plus, as part of the welcome bonus, you get a one-time-use companion flight rebate, allowing you to book a flight for 2 people, then getting the miles for 1 ticket refunded to your account.
The discussion of these credit cards deserves its own dedicated space, so if you want to know more, head over to the Air Miles Credit Cards page.
Air Miles reward programs – Gold and Onyx members
Air Miles offers different programs for dedicated collectors who earn a certain amount of miles within a single calendar year (January 1st to December 31st).
If you earn 1,000 to 5,999 miles, you'll be upgraded to Gold, and at 6,000 miles or more, you become an Onyx member.
Gold and Onyx perks compared
Here's a table comparing the 2 higher level programs available:
|Flights discount||Up to 30%||Up to 40%|
|Merchandise discount||Up to 10%||Up to 20%|
|Personal shopper service||No||Yes|
Achieving gold and onyx status in the Air Miles program shouldn't really be your priority since the perks are pretty mediocre.
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's not something you can count on.
Overall, the program just offers a few oddball perks for those who happen to meet the criteria of the program through their regular Air Miles earning activity.
What about you?
Do you participate in the Air Miles rewards program? How do you like it?
Do you change your spending habits in order to earn more? Or do you find you earn enough with your everyday spending?
Let us know in the comments below. We love hearing from you.