Ever since COVID landed, I've been encouraging anyone who can, to avoid paying cash for flights if they can spend miles or credits instead. Many airlines worldwide have delayed or refused refunds for cancelled flights, and many governments have backed up what would normally be a serious breach of consumer-protection regulations.
Today, I'm making one specific exemption, and reversing my advice completely, for a product Air Canada seems to have launched on a temporary basis: the "Gift Of Travel" Flight Pass. Full disclosure, I haven't been in contact with anyone at Air Canada about this, and I don't get a dime for saying any of this. I actually do think this one's a potential winner for many travellers, and a huge opportunity for anyone with Air Canada Elite Status..
So, What's a Flight Pass?
Air Canada has offered Flight Passes for years. Basically, you pre-pay for a block of "flight credits" on a specific set of routes; one Pass is aimed at people who commute regionally in BC, another for people commuting Toronto-LA, another for people flying business class to Hong Kong. Each credit costs a little more than the best deal you could get if you booked in advance, but much less than a last-minute fare. The main value is that they're incredibly flexible, you can use the credits to book a flight as little as an hour before departure.
I've had an "East-West Connector" Flight Pass for years, to commute between my home in Ottawa, and my parents' place in BC. The flexibility is great, plus I can combine the Flight Pass with the eUpgrade credits I get as an Aeroplan Elite 75K member. As long as I've got a few hours of flexiblity in my schedule, I use this combination to confirm my upgrade to Business Class 12 days before departure, confirmed immediately, which means I'm flying Business for less than half price.
If you hold Aeroplan Elite Status, and have eUpgrades left, one of these passes and a little schedule flexibility *should* let you do the same, even with a trip to Europe or Asia. Obviously upgrade space is never guaranteed, especially at high-demand travel times like the week before Christmas, but even flying overseas I've rarely had to look more than a day or two apart to find confirmable upgrade space.
If you don't hold Elite status, the main value here is flexibility. If you know you're planning a trip to (Asia / Europe / Chile / Cleveland) but you don't want to book now on a flight that might get cancelled, or a border that might not open in time - which will continue to be the way things work until at least mid-2021 - then a Flight Pass lets you lock in decent-but-not-amazing prices and lets you wait to book your flight until you can travel with more confidence.
...plus, there's just something indescribably cool about walking up to the airport and saying "put me on the next flight to Shanghai!"
Cool Story. Now, let's do the math!
It's worth noting that this ranges from "an okay deal" to "a solid win" in most cases, but you'll want to check cash fares before you put down the cash for a Flight Pass.
Starting with the Europe Flight Pass, we see that you'll pay $1100 for a round-trip to almost anywhere in Central Europe (1 credit out, 1 credit back) in Standard, or $1400 in Flex. They don't offer a Flight Pass in Basic Economy, which is fine by me since I believe Basic Economy was invented to punish people who don't think ahead or can't do math, or both.
If I compare these to cash fares for a summer trip to Europe, even this far in advance something like Vancouver to Rome comes out at $1390 round-trip in Standard Economy, in which case this kind of Flight Pass is already saving you hundreds of dollars per person.
If I compare a high-volume route like Toronto to London, a Standard Economy fare comes out at about $1055 return, so cost-wise it's basically a toss-up, but for the cash fare you've got to book well in advance, whereas the Flight Pass lets you wait until close to departure to lock in your dates, allowing you to avoid change fees you'd pay on a cash fare if, say, somebody broke their leg, or suddenly had to quarantine after an outbreak at work. I'm not making up a scary what-if, these things happen.
Point is, if you're going to spend pretty much the same money in advance anyway, you may as well do it in a way that gives you the most flexibility.
Worth noting that if you DO book the very cheapest airfare available, that Toronto-London trip can be had for $700 on Lufthansa, but if you read the fine print of their non-refundable "Light" fare, that's before you also pay $140 per person for a checked bag, assuming you don't want to spend two weeks in Europe with just the clothes on your back.
I'm not saying that can't possibly be a better deal, just that it's important to do the math AND read the fine print.
Sometimes it's not a great deal...
Looking at that Asia flight pass, you're paying $1400 for a round-trip Toronto to Hong Kong in Standard, where you'd pay $1120 in cash for the same flights. Not great.
Or, if you don't mind a couple connections on the way home, you can fly the exact same Air Canada flight on the outbound, then hop through Taipei and Vancouver on the way home, for $690 including checked bags on Expedia. That second option breaks my rule about never, ever booking through third-party websites, but when it's literally half the price, even I recognize that a deal sometimes has to win over smart travel practices.
...and other times it's honestly just a bad deal.
Looking at the "Sun" pass covering the places Canadians are most likely to go to escape the winter weather, there are some solid deals to be had if you're flying to an unusual destination like Aruba or Fort-de-France, and Elite Status fliers should remember that an eUpgrade to San José is on the Dreamliner with lie-flat beds.
...but if you're flying to the United States, you're probably better off paying cash. Toronto to Las Vegas or Phoenix regularly goes for $400-$450 in Standard, same with Calgary-Miami.
One more time... "read carefully, do the math!". Okay, enough broken-record from me.
One Last Disclaimer
I won't be buying one of these Passes for myself, as I have most of a 10-credit Canadian Flight Pass left from earlier in 2020, and I'll be flying overseas on points to take advantage of the (introductory?) pricing offered in the new Aeroplan program. None of that changes the value I've laid out above, but I feel it's important to be transparent when I recommend that you buy something I won't.