Don’t get me wrong, I actually like Air Canada. As a North American commercial airline company and operation, I greatly prefer them to their US counterparts. However, I really do need to wonder about their Aeroplan rewards program. Having been an Elite or Super Elite member for several years running, and accumulating that status and points with international business-class flights, I gained the benefit of both quickly accumulating status and miles. I used these miles to fund ski vacations for the family (of course, despite often sending people on different flights to the same destination), which has worked out pretty well over the years. Owing to some unfortunate route cancellations for international flights to south Asia for their Star Alliance partners, I lost my status only to now aggressively regain it with a lot of short-haul flights.
My primary complaint is that booking rewards at stated levels is impossible. Rewards charts are bunk for most routes. The only time I ever paid the posted reward miles cost for reward flights was at the Super Elite level (i.e., requiring 100K miles or 100 segments in a year to achieve). This allowed me to get four tickets on any flight with a connection on United – like, totally awesome. When I clicked the little button that said “show me your Super Elite priority rewards”, the world opened up to me like sunshine breaking through the clouds on an otherwise stormy day. Recently, I had been trying to book a single economy class ticket to Japan, one year in advance with complete flexibility, with an Elite 35K status, and the lowest mile route options we almost double the posted reward economy rate. Really? No, really? This is a common complaint. The bottom line is, unless you are at the very highest privilege levels, your travel reward value seems extremely low. The trick is that you need to travel off-season: if I want to go to Japan in February, no problem at all. Oh, wait. Did you want to get on that direct flight? Yeah, no, that’s not available. It is common to have odd routing for reward miles, which I have experienced on American Airlines. But, is it unreasonable to have a few seats available one year in advance even during peak season?
Now, I also suppose this is the reality of our modern oil-based economy, but having to pay the taxes and fuel charges has become an extremely expensive proposition. That trip to Japan I just mentioned: $660 in taxes and fuel surcharges. Wait a minute, I can book that same flight and pay $1162. Even with flights that are shorter, I have often found that the actual cost of a ticket, with points, is about 25-45% of the actual ticket cost. You know, with my Marriott points I literally pay “zero” to redeem them. I have a colleague who has accumulated hundreds of thousands of miles with Elite status, and upon booking a getaway in business class to Italy for him and his wife, he literally gasped out-loud (I was in the office at the time) when he discovered the fuel surcharges and taxes on that ticket were over $1500 per ticket.
Again, these just seem to be the norm for airline rewards programs. I can accept that planning ahead, being flexible and travelling off-season are the best tips for avoiding some of this frustration, but it just seems that the reward-to-loyalty benefit is pretty darn low. Or, is it? What’s the typical loyalty reward benefit for any service? 1%? With this in mind, you might argue it’s not actually that bad. Consider that 25 short-haul return flights costs $13,750 at $550 per flight, allowing you to accumulate 1000 points per round-trip: the 1% benefit of this is only $137.50 even though I accumulated 25,000 points. If I can get a $600 flight for 25,000 points (a flight within the Continental US and Canada), even if I pay $200 in fuel surcharge and taxes, I have a $400 benefit on my cost which is a 3% loyalty bonus. Huh.
The expectation management around this is bad either way, consider this… you have this frustration although you diligently and loyally book the same airline, trip after trip after trip, you go out-of-your way to do that, you push all your AMEX Membership Rewards points over to your airline awards, accumulate 50 segments in 7 months, sit-in-airports, deal with all kinds of travel crap, and spend tens-of-thousands of dollars of flights. This is in addition to the fact that, effectively, I am being somewhat manipulated as a consumer, and my personal travel data in now in their hands, etc. Should I need to have a detailed plan of attack or just restrict myself to highest value uses? I know that navigating rewards is like a science. This is a total can of worms topic, but in the end I think I either need an attitude adjustment with some expectation management, or Aeroplan needs to do something better.
Looking forward to paying for fuel surcharges. Awesome.
The bottom-line: You will be frustrated with your Aeroplan rewards experience, guaranteed, unless you live in the air with this airline; we clearly have a gap in expectations here somewhere.