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Travel Unravelled: Air Travel Points 101

Q: I don’t know whether to sign up for Air Miles or Aeroplan. What’s the difference?
— Terrence Wilson, Kingston, ON

Eray, Fotolia.com

A: It doesn’t hurt to sign up for Air Miles, Aeroplan, and WestJet’s Frequent Guest Program; all three programs are free, and reward different consumer behavior.

We’ve put together a rundown of each, excluding their credit card programs (a subject for another edition of Travel Unravelled).

Aeroplan

At its inception, Aeroplan was Air Canada’s frequent flier program, awarding “miles” that could be used for future flights on Air Canada. The program hasn’t been under Air Canada’s direct control since 2008, but its mandate has stayed the same. You earn miles with Aeroplan by flying on Air Canada or spending money with partners such as Home Hardware, Esso, Sobeys and Delta Hotels & Resorts. You can then redeem your points by buying tickets on Air Canada and other members of Star Alliance, or select merchandise that can be found on the Aeroplan website.

One thing to remember is that only a small percentage of seats on each flight can be bought with Aeroplan miles, so you need to book well in advance. There are also blackout dates when no Aeroplan tickets are available, you have no control over your connections, and there are fees for just about everything—including transferring miles upon the death of a spouse. And, most importantly, miles expire seven years after they are earned, and you need to have activity on your Aeroplan account at least once a year.

Air Miles

Unlike Aeroplan, Air Miles was not created by an airline, and only awards “reward miles” for retail purchases. There are more than 100 partners, or business where you can earn miles, including Shell, IGA, Safeway, eBay, Amazon, LCBO, Rexall/Pharma Plus, Sears, Toys “R” Us, apple.ca, and chapters.indigo.ca. You can then redeem your miles through partner airlines, including Air Canada, American Airlines, Lufthansa, Alitalia, Central Mountain Air, Canadian North, Mexicana and United Airlines. Or, you can go on to the Air Miles website and use your miles to purchase everything from spa products and garden furniture to ipods and cruises.

One thing to remember is that for many people, a large percentage of account activity comes from small purchases, so it can take a while to build up enough points to book a flight or get an ipod. But, your miles never expire.

WestJet Frequent Guest Program

Like its name suggests, the WestJet Frequent Guest Program is WestJet’s new frequent flier program. You earn “dollars” by flying on WestJet, and can use them for WestJet flights or a trip with WestJet Vacations. There are no blackout periods, and you can even use your WestJet dollars on seat sales. But, keep in mind that dollars expire 5 years after they are earned.

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