When Free Isn’t Exactly Free: The Shocking Truth About Aeroplan Rewards

As the competition for travel rewards heats up one recurring problem for the Aeroplan rewards program is that its members are on the hook to pay for any fees, taxes, and fuel surcharges when they redeem their points for travel.

Other travel rewards programs, such as RBC’s Avion, TD’s First Class, and CIBC’s Aventura, allow customers to redeem points for the full cost of airfare — including taxes and fees — but Aeroplan members are not able to use their miles to pay for the extra charges.

The Shocking Truth About Aeroplan Rewards

When you spend years collecting points to use toward a dream vacation it can be frustrating when you discover that you don’t actually get that trip for free.

A Shocking Aeroplan Rewards Story

That’s what happened to Bob Muir, a 53-year-old consulting manager from Keene, near Peterborough, who has collected Aeroplan miles for 14 years. He had accumulated close to 380,000 points and recently looked into booking two tickets for himself and his son to travel to Glasgow, Scotland. Muir’s points easily covered the 180,000 points needed for two round-trip business class seats, according to the Aeroplan flight rewards chart – view here.

But when he went to book the flight he was shocked to learn that getting to Glasgow would cost $2,200 in fees and taxes for a ‘free’ flight.

“This is how my loyalty is repaid for the hundreds of flights I’ve taken over the years? Why do I bother?” he said.

He sent an email to Air Canada and was offered a 10 percent discount on his next flight — valid for one year and up to two passengers. Several emails and phone calls to Aeroplan went nowhere.

Related: Which credit cards are best for earning rewards

A customer service representative told him that Aeroplan charges these fees on behalf of airport authorities, airlines, and government agencies. The fuel surcharges are imposed by airlines and Aeroplan “could not absorb these amounts without a significant increase of their Classic Flight rewards mileage levels.”

But Muir isn’t looking for an explanation of the taxes and fees — he’d just like Aeroplan to re-examine why someone with so many miles can’t get a break.

“Last year, I flew 79 flights, for a total of 86,000 miles. Since a few of those were Business Class to Europe, I probably spent $60,000 in travel,” he said.

Christa Poole, spokesperson for Aeroplan’s parent company Aimia, says the amount of fuel surcharges is determined by each airline and that members should look for flight rewards from an airline that doesn’t add a fuel surcharge.

“Only nine of the 27 Star Alliance members impose a fuel surcharge – for example, United Airlines does not have a fuel surcharge,” said Poole.

Another option for Aeroplan members is to compare the mileage levels needed with both the Classic and MarketFare flight rewards.

MarketFare Flight rewards mileage levels are usually higher than Classic Flight rewards, but they do include Air Canada’s fuel surcharge for travel within Canada or between Canada and the United States, which allows passengers to pay less.

Muir looked into the MarketFare Flight rewards levels and found that he could reduce the fees for his trip at a cost of double the points.

“Two economy tickets — connecting through Germany — would cost 360,000 points, plus $500,” he said.

While Muir wonders what to do with his Aeroplan points — he hasn’t booked the flight to Scotland — he says he’ll consider using a different points program in the future.

Related: Why SCENE rewards is one of Canada’s hidden gems

With the big banks and credit card issuers in a fierce battle to win customers, it should be relatively easy to find a new travel rewards program. The key is to find a program where you can redeem points just as painlessly as you can earn them. All the points in the world don’t matter much if it you can’t use them.

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  1. Dan @ Our Big Fat Wallet on July 9, 2015 at 9:52 pm

    This sound very similar to Air Miles, where the consumer has to pay all the extra charges when redeeming the Air Miles for a flight. This is the main reason I switched to cash back – it’s so much easier to calculate, there is no fine print and it’s more lucrative. If that’s how Aeroplan points work I can’t see the program lasting in the long run, there are too many better options out there

    • Echo on July 10, 2015 at 8:01 am

      Hi Dan, the problem is with the Air Canada partnership – which in many cases is a Canadian traveller’s only option. I agree that cash back, or a more flexible travel rewards program that allows you to book and redeem the full cost of travel, is a better option.

  2. Grant on July 10, 2015 at 5:26 am

    This is exactly why I switched to Capital One cash back. Along with the fact that when I tried to book a flight it was almost impossible to find a seat on a flight without a ridiculous routing or with reasonable connection times.

    • Echo on July 10, 2015 at 8:02 am

      Hi Grant, there are many pain points with the Aeroplan program and finding a seat on a reasonable flight is near the top of the list.

  3. Tawcan on July 10, 2015 at 6:43 am

    That’s exactly why I’m using Capital One for travel rewards. Having to pay for these surcharges when using Aeroplan/Air Miles just makes no sense to me.

    • Echo on July 10, 2015 at 8:08 am

      Hi Tawcan, I’m also using the Capital One card for travel rewards. The issue with that program is the tiered structure for redeeming points. I have to remember to ask the travel provider to split my charges so that one of the amounts equals $150, $350, or $600 in order to get full value from my travel miles.

  4. mark on July 10, 2015 at 7:26 am

    I recently managed to redeem my Aeroplan points for a one way flight from Kelowna to Nelson, New Zealand with Air New Zealand (an Air Canada partner) and it cost me only an extra $80 or so in fees and charges. However, if I’d used those same points to book the exact same route (Kelowna-Vancouver-Auckland-Nelson) with Air Canada, it would have cost me many many hundreds of dollars in those sames “fees and charges”.

    So what was the difference? Air New Zealand doesn’t have a “fuel surcharge” but instead incorporates that into its basic airfare. Air Canada, as we all know, still adds it on as an extra one of the “fees and charges”.

    Draw your own conclusions as to where the problem lies: is it Aeroplan’s fault? Or Air Canada’s fault for persisting with this “fuel surcharge” so that Aeroplan customer’s have to pay extra when using points?

    • Echo on July 10, 2015 at 8:16 am

      Hi Mark, thanks for highlighting an effective way to use your Aeroplan points, which is to use them on one of the Star Alliance member airlines that does not add a fuel surcharge. The other issue is airport taxes. The double whammy in Bob Muir’s example is that he was flying business class to the U.K,, which has among the highest airport taxes in the world. Airports in the U.K. have a fee scale where the taxes go up depending on the class of service; for economy it is lower, while business is more and first class is even higher.

      I think the biggest beef for Aeroplan members is getting some consistency from the program. There are too many “hacks” to remember, some of which aren’t feasible for Canadian travellers (i.e. flying out of a U.S. airport to save on airport fees, avoiding Air Canada, picking a route with multiple layovers). It just becomes too much of a pain.

      • mark on July 25, 2015 at 1:43 pm

        A portion of that $80 we paid for the NZ fares was airport taxes which aren’t too high for the airports that were involved. Unlike Heathrow of course.

        Interestingly, we’ve discovered that it can be cheaper to book regular air fares from Canada to Paris and then travel from Paris to Exeter or Bristol in the UK on a cheap flight than it is to fly from Canada to Heathrow and then travel by train down to Devon. The reason? The airport taxes in Heathrow are far higher than Paris. (We never actually did this as connections didn’t work but we’ve certainly considered it!)

  5. Ann on July 10, 2015 at 3:32 pm

    after booking a trip to Japan (our second with points) with our points…and cancelling our Aeroplan Visa card, we had about 30,000 miles left…and spent them on gas gift cards…we got hundreds and hundreds of dollars in Esso gas cards…so we were happy about that….because they were in fact free… finally. Now i collect only airmiles on all my credit cards to use at Sobeys for groceries….which we have to buy anyway

  6. Cool Koshur on July 11, 2015 at 2:05 am

    When it comes to rewards program. Cash back is KING. There are credit cards out there like new BMO Cashback World Elite Mastercard which gives 1.75% cash back on all purchases. There is no annual fee for first year. Importantly it doubles standard product warranty on purchases to two years and comes with 2 million travel insurance for out of country and province

  7. Sean Cooper, Financial Journalist on July 11, 2015 at 8:30 pm

    That’s why I’ll stick with cash-back credit cards, thank you very much. When I earn enough points I get a cheque in the mail. It isn’t any easier than that!

  8. Michael O'Byrne on July 12, 2015 at 9:29 am

    For the amount Aeorplan wanted to charge him in “fees” he could have got two return flights and a free hotel room. The other MAJOR problem with Aeroplan that no one has mentioned is that if you don’t fly with them regularly they cancel your air miles.

    We make a point of NOT flying Air Canada if at all possible. Talk with your feet is the best way.

    We had a similar experience with Air Miles (who at least don’t cancel your points). We flew to Europe for less than their extra charges, landed in a better airport there as well. Heathrow is insane.

    Cash Back – as several have said – is the way to go. That and Canadian Tire if you can use their points in your normal buying pattern.

  9. Joanne on July 14, 2015 at 12:32 pm

    We now use our Aeroplan points for hotel rooms instead. No hidden fees or extras. Though I like the gas card idea!!

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