How can you travel more without paying more? Easy – points programs! Just by having a credit card that accumulates points and by participating in a couple of different reward programs, I am able to get several nights of hotel stays, a couple of domestic flights, or a car rental every year.
Entirely on points I have booked a round trip flight and car rental for Prince Edward Island, a three night hotel stay in Gananoque, and three nights of hotel stays for a Quebec road trip – just in the last couple of years!
It might sound intimidating or complicated, but I promise that it is not. Although, some people do take ‘point-hacking’ very seriously and you definitely can delve into the nitty gritty! To get you started, I have outlined a few steps and tips to get you started with the basics of using points for travel.
Canada Credit Cards and Points for Travel
1. Set Travel Goals
Joining a points program for the first time? Take a moment to ask yourself what your goals are for your points. This will help you decide which program to join and how often to redeem your points.
Depending on the points program, you might get better value for your points at the top end – so, if you saved up your points for an international trip, you get better value than if you used points as you go. Other programs convert points to dollar amounts so that the value is fairly consistent regardless of how many points you save up. If you want to get a small deal on travel every year (like I do) this can be a good way to go.
2. Join Points Programs
There are a lot of points programs out there. I recommend taking advantage of more than one. There are several ways that you can join points programs, beyond just getting a travel credit card.
- A credit card that allows you to earn points for travel.
- Frequent flyer and hotel loyalty programs.
- Travel agency points programs (e.g. Expedia)
- Points programs like Aeroplan that offer multiple ways to earn points. I’ll explain more!
When it comes to racking up points, consistency is really the name of the game. Points are meant to encourage loyalty to one agency, hotel, or brand. If you’re joining points programs like hotels make sure it is a hotel that you enjoy staying at and that you would normally book with so that you can really take advantage.
3. Choosing a Credit Card
Credit cards allow you to earn points on your day-to-day purchases. This is great because unlike agencies, hotels, or loyalty programs that you only earn points on when you are already travelling, credit cards points will accumulate every time your monthly streaming subscriptions get charged and every time you buy groceries. Here are a few things to think about when signing up for a card.
This is not financial advice. Sign up for credit cards responsibly and at your own discretion.
Sign up bonuses
Most points credit cards offer a sign up bonuses to incentive you because there is a lot of competition between credit card companies. This a large amount of extra points if you hit a minimum spending requirement in the first 1-3 months. These bonuses could be anywhere from 10,000-50,000 points or even higher depending on the tier of the card.
Tip: If the minimum requirement is larger than your normal monthly spending try to time your sign up with a large purchase or high-spend season (new appliance, Christmas shopping) to take advantage of the bonus.
Credit cards usually have some categories that earn you more points (like 1.5x or 3x the points for eligible purchases). This usually includes gas, groceries, and drug stores, but could also include more specific categories like certain restaurants or movie theatres. Pay attention to this when choosing a card in case there is a category where you could earn a lot.
Tips for using categories: coordinate with your household to put qualifying purchases on one credit card. For example, in my household most grocery bills go on to my credit card because I earn a higher points rate that can be used towards travel.
Check that your gas station really is a gas station. Often, gas stations are merged with corner stores. If this is the case you will not earn the extra points, so if it’s not out of your way then you might want to use a different gas station as your ‘go-to’ location.
Booking travel to earn points
When you’re paying cash for travel, see if you can book through the same rewards portal where you would normally redeem points. Most likely you can, and you would earn bonus points on this booking.
Good travel credit cards often include other benefits that will help you travel more or save money when you do travel (so long as you use that credit card for the purchase). My favourite benefit on my card is travel insurance. If I book a car rental using my credit card, for example, insurance is taken care of.
- Travel insurance
- Lounge passes
- Package deals
Here are some excellent cards that you can start looking into. Since rates, annual fees, and sign up bonuses are subject to change (and do change, often) I have included links rather providing that information here.
- CIBC Aventura Visa Infinite. This is the card that I have. It is easy to get started with because you earn points on all purchases (and earn extra for gas, groceries, and drug stores) and using the points is very flexible. Points can also redeemed towards purchases on your card. I have been really happy with this card so far because I find the points easy to redeem and I like having travel insurance whenever I book using this card.
- TD Aeroplan VISA Infinite. If you plan to get really good use out of Aeroplan points (Air Canada flights), this card may be for you. Full disclosure: I had this card and cancelled because I did not find Aeroplan points flexible enough for my travel needs, but many people love this card and it comes highly recommended.
- American Express Cobalt. Based on reviews, this card racks up points fast and offers a lot of flexibility. I may consider this card in the future myself.
- Scotiabank Passport Visa Infinite. This card is considered one of the best overall travel credit cards in Canada. It offers some big bonuses (at last update: 10,000 bonus points if you spend $40,000 annually) if you use your credit card a lot. It also waives foreign transaction fees, which is great for international travel.
These cards all have additional perks like lounge passes, no foreign transaction fees, insurance, etc. Read the fine print on each card and use the websites for the most up to date information to determine which card most aligns with your spending, goals, and which offers perks you will actually use.
Aeroplan is a Canadian program (linked with Air Canada) that allows you to earn points even if you do not have a credit card that earns Aeroplan points. Here are some ways to earn Aeroplan points without a credit card (although you can get one – TD offers Aeroplan credit cards).
- Shopping online at retail stores through the Aeroplan portal. There are a ton of retail stores available in the portal and there are frequently special offers to earn extra points.
- Participating in AskCanadians surveys. I do these while watching Netflix sometimes.
- Linking your Starbucks plan to your Aeroplan account to earn points on your card reloads.
5. Tracking and Using Points
Now you have points! How do you keep track and how do you use them? I have an app for every points program that I participate in and I keep them in one folder on my phone. Since most Canadian programs either do not allow or charge hefty fees for points transfers, I have not merged any of my points programs together.
When you’re booking travel, set up your bookings a couple of ways to see what gets you better value for your points. Depending on the trip, you could get better value for booking a hotel, a car, or a flight. This depends on where you’re going and also if there are any sales or great deals available. When I visited Prince Edward Island a couple years ago there was a great deal to book flights through Porter Airlines that was much better value than usual.