Making The Rules Work For You with Stop-Overs and Sweet Spots
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.
Aeroplan's rules for this are incredibly generous, and allow you to build some brilliant trips without spending any extra points. We'll mostly talk about Aeroplan in this section, though the same general ideas apply to many different mileage programs.
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, they don't care where the city is.
Point Of 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.
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 Aeroplan, United and Alaska, decide how many award miles you need for a flight, by splitting the world up into 'zones' or 'regions'.
So, for example, a return trip from Vancouver to Miami stays within the 25,000-point 'North America' zone, while a return trip from Miami to Havana counts as 'North America' to 'Caribbean/Central America', at 40,000 points. The good news is, the program only cares about the distance from origin to destination.
Other programs, like Cathay Asia Miles, or British Airways Avios, take the opposite approach, and count the total miles you flew on all your connections against a "Distance Chart".
For example, 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.
In short, the 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 has more "sweet spots" like the Miami-Cuba example above, where a trip costs much less than booking on a zone-based program.
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. 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 is unusual; on a round-trip award, they'll let you stop in any city along the way for as long as you like. So, for example:
Domestic One-Way - 7,500 points economy, 15,000 points business
1. Fly Calgary-Vancouver, stop overnight (<24 hrs).
2. Fly Vancouver-Victoria, to Destination.
Domestic Round-Trip - 25,000 points economy, 50,000 points business
1. Fly Vancouver - Chicago, Stop in Chicago for a week.
2. Fly Chicago - New York, Destination is New York for a week.
3. Fly New York - Vancouver to return home.
International Round-Trip - 55,000 points economy, 110,000 points business
1. Fly Montreal-Zurich-Paris. Destination is Paris for a week.
3. Fly Paris-Copenhagen, Stop in Copenhagen for a week.
4. Fly Copenhagen-New York, Layover in New York overnight (<24 hrs).
5. Fly New York-Montreal to return home.
Where this gets really fun is that Aeroplan will let you have the stops described above, plus as many short layovers as you like, as long as your trip fits inside the Maximum Permitted Mileage from your Origin to your Destination.
As you'll see in our examples, this allows us to book some truly unbelievable travel.
Part Four - Two Cities On One Award: Aeroplan's Amazing "μRTW"
Interest in this award has grown to the point that I've moved it to its own section of the site, which you'll find right here.