Earning Miles From Credit Cards
In this section, you'll learn about earning points through credit cards offered in partnership with airline mileage programs, and credit cards that earn their own in-house "travel points".
First, The Basics There are about a dozen different credit cards in Canada for which your spending will earn airline miles or credit-card loyalty points you can transfer to airline programs. Several more bank-issued cards (RBC Avion, CIBC Aventura, etc) Many cards offer a "signing bonus" of a lump sum of points, just for opening a new account, and careful planning around these bonuses is among the fastest-possible ways to build up your points portfolio. Airline-Branded Credit Cards In Canada, there are several different credit cards partnered with airline programs; most are tied to Aeroplan, and earn one Aeroplan mile for every dollar you spend. From time to time, different banks offer cards tied to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, British Airways' Avios, or Cathay Pacific's Asia Miles. I generally use one of these as my main credit card, so that my groceries, phone bill, morning coffee etc. are all contributing to my 'vacation fund'. This can be especially lucrative if you're a business owner, or an employee who's regularly reimbursed for company expenses. A friend of mine who owns a moving company earns a free first-class vacation every year, just from the points earned when his drivers buy fuel. Credit Cards With Perks At The Airport Many airline-branded credit cards now include a variety of perks or benefits at the airport, ranging from preferred parking spots (Visa Infinite Privilege) to priority lanes at security checkpoints (Visa Infinite Privilege, American Express Platinum) to priority boarding (CIBC Visa Infinite). Some high-end premium cards like the American Express Platinum Card also include membership in an airport-lounge program like Priority Pass, which gives access to a variety of privately-run airport lounges all over the world. Note that as with the airport benefits above, these are generally only included with credit cards that carry an annual fee of several hundred dollars, but if you spend a lot of time at the airport, it might be worthwhile. "Travel Rewards" Credit Cards Many banks offer in-house travel rewards points instead of airline miles, Some, like American Express' Membership Rewards, can be applied against purchases on your card, or transferred into any of several airline miles programs. Others, like RBC Avion, can be redeemed for airline miles, applied to your credit-card balance, or redeemed in lump-sum amounts for airline tickets, with the bank's travel office acting as your travel agent! I generally find the best value comes from transferring these points into a program like Aeroplan or Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, but it really depends how you earn your miles, and how you want to use them. We'll get into that in the Strategy section. Sign-Up Bonuses and "Credit Card Churning" Many credit cards offer a one-time gift of airline miles when you open a new credit card and reach a spending target. For airline-branded cards offered by banks like TD or RBC, this is generally in the 5,000-25,000-mile range; if you go for one of the premium American Express cards, the signing bonus might be worth up to 75,000 airline miles. There's a group of people known as "churners", who will apply for one of these credit cards, spend just enough to receive the signing bonus, then close the account and open a different card. This technique isn't for everybody; if used correctly, you can build a portfolio of hundreds of thousands of points in a year or two, but if used incorrectly, can cause headaches measured in real dollars and credit scores. Many travel bloggers promote this technique as a way you can get a ton of free travel. They're not wrong, but almost anytime you see a blogger promoting this technique, it's followed with an affiliate link which gives them a "finder's fee" for referring you to sign up for a new credit card. Personally, I don't recommend credit-card churning unless you have a very strong credit score, strong financial habits AND a love of spreadsheets and calendars. I'm not knocking the practice - or the bloggers who promote it - but it's something to keep in mind anytime you read the many sites offering "first-class flights for free!". What you SHOULD do is occasionally review whatever credit card(s) you're using, and consider whether it makes more sense to switch to a different product. I spend an hour on this every January, and sometimes it makes sense to switch from one card to another and pocket the sign-up bonus.
Generally, I keep one Aeroplan-branded Visa card for everyday use, and an American Express Membership Rewards card I use whenever I can, and swap out each one for a new product every year or two. Because I spend several months each year in the United States, I also maintain a US-based American Express card so I can make purchases in USD without getting burned on the exchange rate.