Monday, April 19, 2010

Aeroplan: What Was The Point Again?


I travel a lot. And that means I fly and drive a lot. And like most people, I belong to a lot of programs that offer me reward points for doing those things as well as staying in certain hotels, buying a specific brand of gasoline or shopping at partnered stores.

One of the leading purveyors of reward points in Canada is Aeroplan and over the years I’ve collected a phenomenal number.

The promise that comes with those points is that someday you can cash them in for free trips, free car rentals, free gift certificates and free merchandise. And since most of us are adult enough to know that few things touted as free are actually “free” free, we know there will likely be some trade offs in order to benefit from the points we’ve acquired.

Those could be “black out” days, which mean no reward point flights are available. Or there are only a limited number of seats on a given flight and when they’re gone you’re out of luck.

Some banks provide a way around that if you purchase a credit card that comes with an annual fee. In other words, pay a couple of hundred bucks for the opportunity to access credit charges in the 19% range and you’re good to go.

Somehow that has never struck me as being an economically sound strategy. But I also have despondent accountants with lurid tales of what passes for rock solid financial planning in my world.

Last weekend, however, I got a lesson in using Aeroplan points that made me wonder – just what’s the point of collecting their points again?

My car threw a proverbial shoe, needing a new part that for reasons too complex for anybody but a mechanic with dollar signs dancing in his eyes to understand has to come from Europe.

Only because of that volcano projectile vomiting in Iceland, the few planes making trans-Atlantic crossings were loaded with more important things than car parts.

Faced with a busy weekend, I figured I’d just do a three day rental from the national chain a couple of blocks away. I’ve done it before. Their cars were great and the weekend rates even better. Usually, I got a three day rental for $100 – plus points that translated into future free rental days.

But the place nearby had just closed. And in going online to find somewhere else, I found a friendly update from Aeroplan, along with a reminder that I could use their points to rent a car from Avis.


Now, for some of the reasons mentioned above, I’ve never used my Aeroplan points. The life of a self-employed freelancer is notoriously hard to plan well in advance.

I once did try to buy gas cards for a long road trip. But the nice lady who answered their phone told me they would take 4-6 weeks to arrive. I thought that was odd because when I’ve done the same thing with Airmiles, the plastic turns up within a couple of days. So, once again, I had passed.

Thursday night, I looked at my well into six figures point total and figured I’d see how many it would cost to rent a car from Avis. I was astonished. I could get a great car for the whole weekend, available immediately, for 14,000 points; a mere drop in my bucket of points booty.

There was a small snag when I pressed the checkout button. A new window popped up, asking if I wanted to spend an additional 75 points to offset the greenhouse gasses I’d be burning with my rental car.

Considering just how much ecological damage a sub-compact’s CO2 emissions might do compared with a sub-Arctic mountain blasting debris 11 kilometres into the stratosphere and already blanketing much of Europe with carbon residue, I passed on saving the planet.

My reservation was quickly confirmed and just as quickly 14,000 points disappeared from my grand total.

Next morning I went down to Avis to pick up my car.

Now normally when I rent a car, I don’t bother with insurance. That’s because the transaction’s on my Visa card (for which I also earn Visa points) and it provides insurance coverage. But when you’re paying with points --- you’re not insured. So I needed to buy insurance.

How much did that cost? $85.00

So instead of renting all-inclusive somewhere else at $100, I had just used 14,000 Aeroplan miles to save myself a grand total of $15.

Thanks good people of the orange card. Lesson learned.

And you got me wondering if the whole reward points industry is less about actually rewarding people for being brand loyal than it’s a way for banks to sell more credit instruments and the corporations involved to appear more customer friendly than they actually are.

Not that I’m implying Aeroplan is in any way deceptive in how they run their program. But given that my bank always seems to add a couple of new service fees right after they announce Gajillion dollar quarterly profits and revelations that Goldman-Sachs is alleged to have helped defraud Billions, I’m just not sure anybody connected with any financial operation really has anything other than self-interest in their hearts.

That suspicion may make me seem incredibly naive. For further evidence, I would again refer you to the accountants above.

But whatever the answers to my questions are, I’m left with somewhat of a dilemma.

Having unsuccessfully tried more times than I can count to make my flight schedule align with an open Aeroplan seat. Having little interest in waiting several weeks to gas up. And not really being in need of most of their seasonal deals on patio furniture --- what am I going to do with all these friggin’ points?

I know I could contribute them to one of Aeroplan’s many charities, but why does it have to be their charity?

So help me out.

Let me know how to best or most wisely dispense with more than 100,000 Aeroplan points.

If you want me to cede them to you, just give me a good reason or a worthwhile swap.

I’m serious.

Because after this weekend, I’m really not sure why anybody bothers collecting them. And I certainly won’t be going out of my way to acquire any more.


The White Wolf said...


RE: credit card interest rate.

Was reading an interview with 40's Pulp writer Talmage Powell the other day where he stated that the interest rate on credit (at the time) was limited to 6% by the government.

That law should be reinstated IMO.

/congrats on the Niemi pick ;)

Anonymous said...

Hi there:

Have you considered donating your points to charity? There are many places which could use the extra funds.

Worst case scenario, my husband and I are trying to get to Dieppe and Juno Beach to visit a WW2 war memorial for my husband's grandfather. He lost his job for 8 months, and I recently had emergency surgery which has forced me on medical leave for 1 year. We would love to visit while our grandfather is still alive, but at 86 years old, we're unsure how long we may have this opportunity.

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