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

As of Friday, Alberta has under 10,000 active COVID-19 cases. (Image courtesy CDC)
Alberta identifies 573 new COVID-19 cases, 13 deaths on Saturday

There are currently 9,727 active cases of the virus in the province

As of Friday, Alberta has under 10,000 active COVID-19 cases. (Image courtesy CDC)
Three new COVID-19 deaths in Central zone, Alberta under 10,000 active cases

The Central zone sits at 849 active cases, with 52 people in hospital and 10 in the ICU.

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced 16 additional deaths Thursday. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
No easing of Alberta’s COVID-19 measures Thursday, 678 new COVID-19 cases

The province also hit 1,500 COVID-19 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic

Kyler Corriveau, of the Eckville area, was found dead on Sunday southeast of Red Deer. Police are investigating his death as a homicide. (Contributed photo).
Young Red Deer homicide victim is remembered as a caring friend

Police are investigating Kyler Corriveau’s untimely death

Sylvan Lake Winter Village. File Photo
3 charged in connection to vandalism at Sylvan Lake Winter Village

Sylvan Lake RCMP were able to identify the suspects thanks to community assistance

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, updates media on the COVID-19 situation in Edmonton, Friday, March 20, 2020. Hinshaw says residents in long-term care and supportive living facilities will remain the priority as the province grapples with a looming slowdown in COVID-19 vaccine supply. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta long-term care residents remain priority in looming slowdown of COVID vaccine

There are 119 patients in intensive care and 1,463 people have died

FILE - In this Feb. 14, 2017, file photo, Oklahoma State Rep. Justin Humphrey prepares to speak at the State Capitol in Oklahoma City. A mythical, ape-like creature that has captured the imagination of adventurers for decades has now become the target of Rep. Justin Humphrey. Humphrey, a Republican House member has introduced a bill that would create a Bigfoot hunting season, He says issuing a state hunting license and tag could help boost tourism. (Steve Gooch/The Oklahoman via AP, File)
Oklahoma lawmaker proposes ‘Bigfoot’ hunting season

A Republican House member has introduced a bill that would create a Bigfoot hunting season

FILE - In this Nov. 20, 2017, file photo, Larry King attends the 45th International Emmy Awards at the New York Hilton, in New York. Former CNN talk show host King has been hospitalized with COVID-19 for more than a week, the news channel reported Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021. CNN reported the 87-year-old King contracted the coronavirus and was undergoing treatment at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP, File)
Larry King, broadcasting giant for half-century, dies at 87

King conducted an estimated 50,000 on-air interviews

Black Press File Photo
Maskwacis RCMP lay charges for attempted murder, kidnapping, and flight from police

Female victim remains in hospital in serious condition.

In this Dec. 18, 2020 photo, pipes to be used for the Keystone XL pipeline are stored in a field near Dorchester, Neb.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Chris Machian /Omaha World-Herald via AP
‘Gut punch’: Alberta Premier Jason Kenney blasts Biden on revoked Keystone XL permit

Kenney said he was upset the U.S. wouldn’t consult with Canada first before acting

Joe Biden, then the U.S. vice-president, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau take their seats at the start of the First Ministers and National Indigenous Leaders meeting in Ottawa, Friday, Dec. 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau, Biden to talk today as death of Keystone XL reverberates in Canada

President Joe Biden opposed the Keystone XL expansion as vice-president under Barack Obama

Prince Edward Island’s provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa, Friday July 3, 2020. A lozenge plant in Prince Edward Island has laid off 30 workers, citing an “almost non-existent” cold and cough season amid COVID-19 restrictions. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
‘Almost non-existent’ cold and cough season: P.E.I. lozenge plant lays off 30 workers

The apparent drop in winter colds across the country seems to have weakened demand for medicine and natural remedies

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette takes the royal salute from the Guard of Honour as she makes her way deliver the the throne speech, Wednesday, September 23, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
Gov. Gen. Julie Payette resigns, apologizes for ‘tensions’ at Rideau Hall

Payette, who is the Queen’s representative in Canada, has been the governor general since 2017

Grounded WestJet Boeing 737 Max aircraft are shown at the airline’s facilities in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, May 7, 2019. WestJet will operate the first commercial Boeing 737 Max flight in Canada today since the aircraft was grounded in 2019 following two deadly crashes. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Passengers unfazed as WestJet returns Boeing 737 Max to service on Calgary flight

After a lengthy review process, Transport Canada cleared the plane to return to Canadian airspace

Most Read