Making Award Rules Work For You
Updated: Sep 15
In this section, you'll learn how to use some of the most powerful parts of airline mileage programs, the rules for building multiple destinations into one award and choosing more than just the flights you're offered by the website.
Let's get started!
Every frequent-flyer program writes its own set of rules for how awards can be set up. Some will simply sell you a ticket from Point A to Point B, and charge you the same amount times two for a return trip.
Within these rules, many programs allow you to stop over at their home city for a few hours or for several days. For example, Emirates will often allow a stop in Dubai, Ethiopian will often allow a stop in Addis Ababa, and Cathay will often allow a stop in Hong Kong.
We'll mostly talk about Aeroplan here, though the same general ideas apply to many different mileage programs.
Part One - Learning The Lingo Part Two - Understanding Zones, Distance and 'Sweet Spots'
Part Three - Stops & Layovers
Part One - Learning The Lingo
Here's a few terms we'll be using throughout this section. In every case, routing rules are based on the straight-line distance from one airport to the next, rather than the city centres.
Origin: the city your trip starts from.
Destination: the city furthest from your point of origin.
Stop-over: any city you stay at for more than 24 hours.
Layover: any city you stay at for 24 hours or less.
Segment: each time your plane takes off and lands, that's a segment.
Bound: A trip from Origin to Destination, no matter how many Stop-overs or Layovers.
Maximum Permitted Mileage / MPM: the maximum distance you can fly from your Point Of Origin to your Destination. In other words, the math they use to let you fly Vancouver-Frankfurt via Toronto, but not Vancouver-Toronto via Frankfurt.
Part Two - Understanding Zones, Distance and 'Sweet Spots'
Most mileage programs, including United and Alaska, decide how many award miles you need for a flight, by splitting the world up into 'zones' or 'regions'. Other programs, like British Airways, only care about the distance flown through all your connecting airports.
In November 2020, Aeroplan moves from a 'zone' system to a hybrid system of zones AND miles, but that's a topic with enough detail that it has its own page.
In a Zone system like the old Aeroplan system, a one-way trip from New York to LA is a fixed number of miles, no matter whether you fly non-stop direct, or with connections in Chicago, Houston and San Francisco.
In a Distance system like Cathay Pacific's, a one-way trip from New York to LA is 2,475 miles, which would cost 10,000 Cathay points, while the same trip with a connection in Houston comes in at 2,796 flown miles, tipping just into the next tier on the distance chart at a cost of 22,000 Cathay points.
Each model has advantages and drawbacks, and each model ends up with its own "sweet spots", a slang term for certain trips where the rules make award tickets especially valuable, and "sour spots", which, unsurprisingly, refer to awards that are unusually poor value.
A zone-based program is easier to plan for, but is generally more costly for short-distance travel. The distance-based program requires more careful planning, but tends to have more "sweet spots", in which a short trip costs much less than booking on a zone-based program.
For example, in the old zone-based Aeroplan program, while Lisbon and Casablanca are only 385 miles apart - a short 1-hour flight - that counted as a flight from the Europe zone to the North Africa zone, which cost 22,500 miles one-way in Economy, just 10% less than a round-trip ticket from Halifax to Vancouver and back, requiring 15 hours of flying time.
Under the new Aeroplan rules, this same flight from Lisbon to Casablanca is charged as a flight within the Atlantic zone, of 1,000 miles or less, for 7,500 miles one-way in economy, one-third of the previous cost.
Part Three - Stops & Layovers
Many mileage programs allow you to turn a connection into a long enough layover to go into the city for lunch and a bit of a walk around, as in the first example below. Others, notably British Airways and Cathay, allow you a stop of several days when you're connecting through their home city (so, if you're flying Toronto-London-Dubai on BA, you can stop in London for free for a few days).
Aeroplan's new hybrid approach is unusual; on any trip outside North America, they'll let you add a stop-over in any city along the way, for as long as you like, for an additional 5,000 miles. So, for example:
North America One-Way - 10,000 miles economy, 20,000 miles business
1. Fly Chicago-Boston, layover from noon until 11 AM (<24 hrs).
2. Fly Boston-DC, to Destination.
International Round-Trip - 75,000 miles economy, 125,000 miles business
1. Fly Montreal-Zurich-Munich. Destination is Munich for a week.
2. Fly Munich-London, Stop-over in London for a week.
3. Fly London-Montreal to return home.
In the North America example above, it's simply considered a one-way from Chicago to DC, and the program doesn't care that you connected in Boston, as long as you were only on the ground there for 24 hours or less.
In the International example, it's considered a return trip from Montreal to Munich, with a stop-over in London on the way home. So, you're charged 35,000 miles each way in Economy, plus an add-on of 5,000 miles for the stop-over. Make sense?
Where this gets really fun is that beginning in November 2020, the new Aeroplan rules will let you chain together multiple one-way trips into a larger circle, plus one long layover between each destination, for 5,000 miles per stop-over -plus as many short layovers as you like, for free - as long as your trip wraps up within 365 days of departure.;
This allows us to book some truly unbelievable travel.