Update: Aeroplan changed its rules in 2020 so this post is no longer relevant. See this post for more info.
If you ask the average Canadian what they think about Aeroplan, you won’t get nice answers. There will be complaints about the lack of award availability, the crazy fuel surcharges, and how worthless “Aeropesos” are. But with a little bit of effort, you can learn how Aeroplan works and unlock huge value from your miles. While this guide won’t make you an expert, by reading this you will know more about Aeroplan than 99% of its users. Instead of using all your miles to save a couple of hundred dollars, you will gain the ability to get thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars worth of almost-free travel.
Table of Contents:
Part 1: The Reward Chart
Part 2: Cents per Miles
Part 3: Fuel Surcharges
Part 4: Stopovers
Part 5: The Mini Round-the-World
Part 6: Routing Rules (advanced reading)
Part 7: How to Search for Availability and Book your Award
Part 1: The Reward Chart
First of all, before you look into booking an Aeroplan flight, you need to know how many points it will cost! You can find the Aeroplan reward chart here.
Like most other frequent flyer programs, Aeroplan has a “zone-based” reward chart. For example, North America to Europe 1 (most of Western Europe) is 60,000 points in Economy, whether you fly from Montreal to London (3249 miles) or Los Angeles to Rome (6354 miles). Also, awards are capacity-controlled, so not every flight is available as a “fixed-mileage” reward every day. If you can’t find flights that work for you, be flexible with your dates!
Part 2: Cents per Mile
Do determine whether or not a reward flight is a good value, you need to figure out how much you’re saving by calculating the “cents per mile” or “CPM” of your reward.
CPM = 100 x (Cost of buying a ticket – Aeroplan taxes & fees)/(cost of Aeroplan ticket in miles)
In general, you should aim for a CPM of at least 1.5. When people say that Aeroplan is a scam, they mean that they redeemed their miles at a very low CPM. If you can redeem your miles at a value of 2 CPM, this means that you got $500 worth of value out of 25,000 points. So signing up for one credit card will be $500 of free money! In essence, this is how I have been able to get well over $20,000 of free travel – I earn hundreds of thousands of miles through credit card signup bonuses, and I get good value out of my miles.
Example 1: Let’s say I’m searching for a roundtrip Montreal-Paris in early April (and my dates are a little flexible). The cheapest nonstop on Air Canada is $703.
I can get the same flights through Aeroplan, but the taxes and fees total $592 (thanks to “carrier surcharges”), in addition to 60,000 miles.
So the CPM is
100*(703-592)/60,000 = 0.185 CPM
Horrible! Remember, we’re aiming for at least 1.5cpm. There are two things you should learn from this example. First, paying $592 in surcharges is crazy, and you should never do this (learn how in part 3 below). Second, when the price of the award is relatively expensive (60k miles) but the flights themselves are relatively cheap ($703 for a transatlantic fare is pretty good), it’s not worth using your miles – save them for a better redemption instead.
Example 2: As a less exotic example, let’s say I want to fly from Montreal to Vancouver. Since intra-Canada flights are expensive, this flight would normally cost $745. Since the mileage cost for a flight within North America is relatively low (25,000 miles) and fuel surcharges are reasonable for domestic flights ($162 for this award, much lower than for flights to Europe), using miles is a good option. Our CPM is
100*(745-162)/25,000 = 2.33 CPM
A great use of points!
Example 3: Instead, assume I want to go snorkelling with stingless jellyfish in far-away Palau (I do!). Also, since this involves over 30 hours of travelling, I want to fly in business class. I look up flights to Koror, Palau (using Google Flights, the easiest way to search for flights), but the cheapest business class flights are $6684!
Instead, I search for a business class award on Aeroplan, and I find a reward flight. The cost of the award is 155,000 miles (since Palau is in the “Asia 2” zone). Taxes and surcharges are $264, so the CPM is
100*(6684-264)/155,000 = 4.14 CPM
Amazing! The first lesson here is that when you plan on flying to a small, remote location where prices are very high, and if you can find a reward flight with reasonable surcharges, you can get great value out of your miles. Second, business class fares often cost triple or quadruple an economy fare, making them unaffordable to almost everyone. But when you’re using miles, flying business class usually costs less than twice as much as flying economy. Therefore, flying business class is usually a great use of miles.
One caveat – in reality, I would never actually spend $6684 on a flight, so saying that I saved $6684-264=$6420 is not the same of the miles being worth $6420. Let’s say an economy ticket is $2500, and I would be willing to spend $1500 extra to fly in business for the 60-hour roundtrip (but not the $4000 extra it would actually cost). Then, the “true” value of my miles is
100*(4000-264)/155,000 = 2.41 CPM
So even if you wouldn’t normally fly business class, a business class reward can still give you great value.
Part 3: Fuel Surcharges
Probably the biggest complaint about Aeroplan is that they sometimes charge ridiculous Fuel Surcharges, now officially called “Carrier Surcharges,” and known in frequent-flyer circles as “YQ”. YQ is usually around $30 per direction for North American flights, but flights to Europe can cost over $300 per direction. To get good value out of your miles, you don’t want to pay a large amount of YQ, so you should only be willing to pay YQ on domestic flights (since it’s only $30).
Luckily, Aeroplan only charges YQ on certain airlines. This includes Air Canada. Since Air Canada has by far the most flights to/from/within Canada, you’ll often need to use them for flights within North America and pay the $30 YQ (if you are Air Canada Elite, YQ is waived for North American flights). But you should never fly Air Canada (or any other airline that charges YQ) across an ocean (unless you are Super Elite 100k, in which case YQ is waived on all Air Canada flights).
The airlines that do NOT charge YQ are:
Air China, Air India, Avianca, Air New Zealand, Brussels Airlines, Copa, EgyptAir, Ethiopian, EVA Air, Scandinavian, Singapore, South African, Swiss, Thai, Turkish, and United.
These airlines are your new best friends! When travelling overseas, you should look for United flights (or flights on another YQ-free airline) connecting in the US. Better yet, book a two or three day stopover in a United hub such as Chicago, NYC/Newark, or Washington D.C. before taking a YQ-free United long-haul flight to your final destination. From YUL you can also take advantage of direct flights on Turkish (great airline, and lots of award availability in both economy and business), Swiss (harder to find availability), and Air China. From YYZ you can take direct flights on Eva Air (to Taiwan), Ethopian, Egyptair, and Turkish. You can also fly LOT (to Warsaw), which charges low YQ.
In addition, certain countries (like Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Brazil) have “banned” YQ, meaning you can fly any airline (including Air Canada) from certain cities without crazy fees. Prince of Travel has a detailed post about these routes here.
Part 4: Stopovers
To maximize the value of your miles, you shouldn’t use them for a simple roundtrip. Instead, you should add stopovers to your trip, so that you can visit 3 cities for the price of one.
On flights within North America, you can book a multi-city trip to two different cities (A -> B -> C -> A) for the price of a roundtrip. On international trips, you can visit three different cities (A ->B -> C -> D -> A) for the price of a roundtrip. You can stop in each of the three cities for as long as you want. Note that itineraries with two stopovers (three different destinations) must be booked over the phone ($30 fee).
EDIT: As of September 1, 2019, itineraries will be allowed a maximum of one stopover. So if you want to use Aeroplan to fly to three different cities in one trip, book soon!
In addition to your stopovers, you’re allowed to make an unlimited number of layovers (connections), which is defined as a connection lasting less than 24 hours. So if you can’t find a direct flight between two of your destinations, consider spending a night in the connection city (such as spending 20 hours in Cairo to see the pyramids). Unlimited layovers will still be allowed after September 1.
Part 5: The Mini Round-the-World
The ultimate airline ticket is often thought to be a “round-the-world” or “RTW” trip. Star Alliance, the biggest alliance in the world, sells RTW tickets for $4000-$14000, depending on how far you travel. These tickets usually allow you to stop in around 10 different destinations on three or more continents (depending on your ticket). Aeroplan also sells a RTW ticket, which allows 5 stopovers, for 200,000 miles in economy. But what most people don’t realize is that for normal Aeroplan bookings, the ability to stop in three destinations, combined with Aeroplan’s liberal routing rules, allows you to book a “mini round-the-world” or “mini RTW” for the price of a roundtrip. For example, you can book a roundtrip to Asia for 75k miles. You can add two stopovers in addition to your destination in Asia, so you can make this a round-the-world trip with stops in Europe, Asia, and Hawaii for only 75k miles! Specifically, for 75k miles, you can fly North America-Europe-Asia-Hawaii-North America. For double the miles (150k), you can fly the whole thing in business class. If you want to be very adventurous, you can add in 23 hour stops at a few extra destinations. For example, for 90k miles (the price of a roundtrip in economy to Australia), you can fly North America-Paris (one week)-Tokyo (23 hours)-Sydney (one week)-Hawaii (one week)-North America. Since a round-the-world ticket is very expensive (if you pay for it the normal way), using miles for a Mini RTW is a much better value (as high as 10 CPM) than using the miles for a simple roundtrip flight.
Part 6: Routing Rules
Last but not least, let’s go over the routing rules for an Aeroplan ticket. If you plan on booking a very complex mini-RTW trip, it’s good to know what is and isn’t legal. This section is “advanced reading” – if you don’t plan on booking any very complicated awards, you should skip this section.
First, some definitions. Your departure city is the city you start from. Your destinations are the three (or one or two, if you don’t take advantage of extra stopovers) cities you stop in for over 24 hours. A layover is a city you connect in for less than 24 hours. Your turnaround point is the furthest of your three destinations from your departure city. So if you fly from Montreal to Paris, stay in Paris for 3 weeks, then fly to Tokyo and stay two weeks, then fly to Hong Kong and stay two days before flying back to Montreal (with a 20-hour connection in Singapore), your turnaround point is Hong Kong since it’s the furthest from Montreal out of the three destinations (though it’s not as far as Singapore). It does not matter whether Hong Kong is your first, second, or third destination, nor does it matter how long you stay (as long as it’s over 24 hours – otherwise it’s a layover, not a destination).
Before we start going over the rules, it’s a good idea to know how to use gcmap.com so that you can visualize your route and find distances between cities. Skim through this article by Travel Codex, especially the “Commands and Tricks” section.
The first routing rule is the “Maximum Permitted Mileage” between your departure city and your turnaround point. While this sounds complicated, it’s mostly common sense. Essentially, you can’t take a crazy route between your departure city and turnaround point. For example, you can’t stop in Los Angeles on the way from Montreal to Europe. On the other hand, you can usually stop in Chicago since it’s not “that much” out of the way.
Generally, the further apart your departure city and destination city are, the more leeway you have with your route. If you’re flying Montreal to Toronto, you can’t connect in Vancouver. But if you’re flying 11,000 miles to Perth, Australia (pretty much the furthest you can go), you can make some crazy routings – going a thousand miles out of the way barely makes a difference!
Lastly, you’re not allowed to stop in the same city twice in each direction (to and from your turnaround point). For example, say you’re planning to fly from Montreal (YUL) to Munich, Germany (MUC) and Istanbul (IST). Flying YUL-FRA-MUC-FRA-IST-YUL would be convenient if you can’t availability on a direct flight from MUC to IST. However, this is not allowed since you would be stopping at FRA twice on the way to and from your turnaround point (Istanbul). On the other hand, say you want to visit Munich and London (LHR). You can fly YUL-FRA-MUC-FRA-LHR-YUL, again stopping twice in FRA. However, in this situation your turnaround point is MUC (since it’s further than LHR from YUL). Since you’re stopping at FRA once in each direction (to and from MUC), this routing is legal.
If this section confused you, don’t worry! Unless you love making complicated itineraries, there’s a 99% chance you won’t need to know any of this.
Part 7: How to Search for Availability and Book your Award
Once you understand how Aeroplan works in theory, you need to go book your award. First, you must decide on your routing. If you’re going to be travelling to three destinations, decide whether you want to fly A-B-C-D-A or A-C-D-B-A. Remember, your route must make sense – you can’t be backtracking all over the globe. Look at the award chart to determine how many points you’ll have to pay, and check whether or not you have enough points (if not, transfer points from your Amex account to your Aeroplan account). The cost of your trip will be the most expensive of a roundtrip between A-B, A-C, or A-D.
When booking an award on Aeroplan’s website, they give you the option to book a roundtrip, oneway, or “multi-city” award. Do not search for a multi-city award, even though that is what you want. First of all, it only allows you to put in one stopover, not the two that you’re entitled to. Second, the website is very bad at searching for multi-city awards, and it won’t find you the best route.
Instead, if you’re flying A-B-C-D-A, search for one-way flights, one at a time. Ignore the cost of the trip in points – you’ll be paying the roundtrip price, not the sum of all the one-way prices. Don’t ignore the taxes and surcharges the website quotes you – you will end up paying approximately the sum of all the one-way taxes and surcharges.
First, search for flights from A-B on the day you want to begin your trip. You may need to be flexible with your dates if the flights you want aren’t available. Also, remember not to choose long-haul flights on airlines that charge YQ (see part 3). If all you see are Air Canada flights, choose another date until you find something that works. If you still can’t find anything, you may have to rethink your stopover, and either choose a completely different stopover or fly to a nearby airport.
Say you’ve found flights from A-B on March 1, and you want your stopover in B to last 4 days. The next step would be to search for flights from B-C on March 5. If you can’t find any good flights on March 5, search for March 4 or 6 instead, adding or removing a day from your stopover. Or go back to step one and see if you can find a different date to fly A-B. Once you’ve found this flight, search for C-D and finally D-A on suitable dates.
By now, you should have found all the flights you want. Hopefully, none of the long-haul flights are on airlines that charge YQ. Redo your searches to make sure all your flights are still available, but this time, write down all the dates and flight numbers of the flights you want. Then call Aeroplan to book your award (warning – hold times can be very long). Tell the agent that you want to book a complicated itinerary, and tell him/her that you have all the flight numbers of the flights you want. Then when prompted, tell the agent all the flight numbers and dates you wrote down, and they’ll book the flight for you. They’ll let you know if your route is legal, and how much you have to pay in taxes. You’ll also be charged $35 per person for using the call centre (there’s no way to avoid this).