EP003: Aeroplan – Avoid Surcharges, Hidden Availability and Multi-city on One Ticket

I have been an Aeroplan collector since the age of 17 and had my CIBC Aerogold VISA since 2002.  I’d taken countless number of trips with the points collected.  In short, I know quite a lot about the Aeroplan loyalty program and yes, in my opinion, its getting bad.  Really bad.  Recently, I decided to sign up for a Bank of Montreal World Elite MasterCard and they will not renew my TD or CIBC Aeroplan affiliated credit cards once it has expired.

There are few reasons why the value of the Aeroplan program is quickly deteriorating:

  • Excessive Fuel Surcharges or commonly referred to as “scam-charges”.
  • Lack of reward seat availability, they failed to keep up with number of collectors
  • Increasing the number of miles required for redemption or point devaluation, many have began referring to Aeroplan points as “Aeropesos”
  • Domestic reward seats are always served by Air Canada, within limited availability on smaller northern and regional airlines.

All the negative changes made me decide to write this step by step Aeroplan guide to help fellow collectors maximize the value of their points, find hidden reward seats and how to fly to up to three destinations on one ticket.

HOW TO AVOID EXCESSIVE AIR CANADA / CARRIER SURCHARGES:

Despite the fact that the price of oil has decreased significantly in the past year, the fuel surcharge has remained, except it is now called a Carrier Surcharge.  Here is an extreme example: I recently wanted to book a business class seat for Toronto to Sydney, there is no availability for the entire year.  However Aeroplan do offer a Market Fare option if you are willing to spend close to 700,000 points and $1,100 in fees.  Talk about a rip off…

Example of Air Canada surcharge.
Example of Air Canada surcharge.

Here is my strategy to avoid an excessive surcharge:  DO NOT FLY on Air Canada whenever possible.  Rather, I redeem my reward seats on the “non-surcharge airlines” within the Star Alliance.

Some of the Surcharge Free Boarding Pass
Some of the Surcharge Free Boarding Pass

The “non-surcharges” airlines do not have a fuel surcharge and have the lowest fees, e.g. air transportation and airport improvement fees, etc.  These include:

  • Aegean Airlines (A3)
  • Air China (CA)
  • Air India (AI)
  • Air New Zealand (NZ)
  • Avianca/TACA (AV)
  • Brussels (SN)
  • Copa (CM)
  • Croatia (OU)
  • EgyptAir (MS)
  • Ethiopian (ET)
  • Eva Air (BR)
  • SAS (SK)
  • Shenzhen (ZH)
  • Singapore (SQ)
  • South African Airways (SA)
  • Swiss (LX)
  • Turkish (TK)
  • United (UA)

For an easier comparison, we’ll use one-way as example:

Booking comparison between Air Canada and Turkish Airlines from Toronto to Istanbul
Booking comparison between Air Canada and Turkish Airlines from Toronto to Istanbul

Let’s say we want to book a flight from Toronto (YYZ) to Istanbul (IST). Both Air Canada and Turkish Airlines offer non-stop flights there.  Guess what happens if you fly with Air Canada?

Air Canada Surcharge for Toronto to Istanbul
Air Canada Surcharge for Toronto to Istanbul

The total taxes for one-way alone is $289.16!!!  Now, look what happens if you fly with a non-surcharge carrier like Turkish Airlines:

Turkish Airlines Surcharge from Toronto to Istanbul
Turkish Airlines Surcharge from Toronto to Istanbul

The cost for all the taxes and fees for Turkish Airlines on the same route are only $54.16, one-fifth of Air Canada.  The extra benefits of flying Turkish Airlines includes free onboard Wifi for the first hour of the flights and you get access to live TV channels, such as BBC News and CNN.  So, make sure to be nice to the check-in crew — they’ll most likely offer you free Priority Boarding and Priority Luggage handling if you ask for it.

Priority Boarding with Turkish Airlines
Priority Boarding with Turkish Airlines
Priority Luggage Handling
Priority Luggage Handling
Meals onboard Turkish Airlines
Meals on-board Turkish Airlines

Lastly, I find that the meals are actually a lot better on Turkish Airlines than Air Canada and you’ll get unlimited complimentary alcoholic drinks during your flight.  Bonus!

The second example is Toronto to Hong Kong (YYZ to HKG)

Air Canada Surcharge for Toronto to Hong Kong
Air Canada Surcharge for Toronto to Hong Kong

The advantage with Air Canada on this flight is it is direct, no stopover.  You’ll be paying $112.26.

EVA Air Surcharge for Toronto to Hong Kong
EVA Air Surcharge for Toronto to Hong Kong

However, if you are willing to take a stopover via Taipei with EVA Air, you’ll cut your fees by more than half, $54.16.  I believe traveling is about discovering new places.  In this case, I’ll ask for Aeroplan to give me extended stopover for few days and allow me to discover a new destination.

Third example is a round trip from Toronto to London (YYZ to LHR)

Air Canada Surcharge for Toronto to London
Air Canada Surcharge for Toronto to London

Wow, $668.66 with Air Canada, but again this is a direct flight.  Now, let’s compare that with United via New York.

United Surcharge for Toronto to London
United Surcharge for Toronto to London

The cost savings is over half when flying with United, but again, there is a quick two-hour stopover in New York.  But like the previous example, you always have the option to request a extended stopover for a day or two if you would like to tour the Big Apple.

Here is the catch with using non-direct route and flying with other airlines.

  • Most likely you’ll have a stopover and plane change in a hub that is served by non-surcharge carrier within the Star Alliance network.  For example, Toronto to Johannesburg (YYZ to JNB) will have stopover in Washington Dulles (IAD), etc.
  • Given the growth in Aeroplan members and the number of seats available, you’ll need to book your flights at least two month in advance or be extremely flexible with your schedule.
Be flexible with your flight schedule or book minimum two month in advance
Be flexible with your flight schedule or book minimum two month in advance

In this example, we searched for a flight from Toronto to Auckland (YYZ to AKL) for June 15.  Although there is no availability on that day, you can fly on the 16th, 17th, 19th and 20th of the month.  However, there is a way to find hidden availability which we will cover next.

DOMESTIC FLIGHTS:

Canadian North, a regionally airline that primary serves Northern Canada
Canadian North, a regional airline that primarily serves Northern Canada

Unfortunately, if you want a domestic reward seat, such as Montreal to Vancouver, you are pretty much out of luck and have no choice but to go with Air Canada and pay the extra surcharges.  However, if you wanted to fly within Canada, you can also redeem your Aeroplan points on some of the smaller airlines such as Air Creebec, Bearskin Airlines, Calm Air, Canadian North and First Air.

HOW TO FIND HIDDEN REWARD SEATS AVAILABILITY:

As previously mentioned, the availability of reward seats hasn’t kept pace with the explosive growth in Aeroplan members, especially with introduction of TD Aeroplan VISA, CIBC Aerogold and American Express.  In this case, we wanted to go to Johannesburg in South Africa.  We wanted to book a flight from Toronto to Johannesburg (YYZ to JNB) — the problem?  No availability!

Toronto to Johannesburg via Washington Dulles
Toronto to Johannesburg via Washington Dulles

Solution: fly through a hub city with a non-surcharge carrier, such New York, Washington Dulles, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, or Istanbul.  The concept is pretty simple, you want to get from City A to City B, but there is no availability, you fly from City A to C and THEN to B.  In this example, Toronto (City A) to Johannesburg (City B).

  • Fly from Toronto to Washington Dulles
  • Fly from Washington Dulles to Johannesburg

In this example, there were no economy seats left on any of the United flights operating from Toronto to Washington Dulles.  But occasionally, Aeroplan will offer me a seat in business class at no extra charge or points, so be nice to the reservations agents — Heck, for that matter — be nice to everyone!  But that should go without saying.

United Express Toronto to Washington Dulles Boarding Pass
United Express Toronto to Washington Dulles Boarding Pass

Let’s do a step by step example for Toronto to Cairo:

Step 1

Find out whether there is a route through one of the hub cities, most commonly, Washington Dulles, New York (JFK, Newark, Laguardia), Chicago, Istanbul, London, etc.  I normally use New York or Chicago or Washington Dulles, since we know they are well connected — plenty of flights to many destinations worldwide and flights into my home city, of course.  Therefore, I searched all three New York airports and found a route for New York Newark to Cairo with a stopover in Geneva.  No problem!

New York to Cairo Flights via United and Egypt Air
New York to Cairo Flights via United and Egypt Air

Step 2:

Find a flight connecting your home city to a connecting hub airport.  In this case, Toronto to New York Newark.

United Express Flights from Toronto to New York
United Express Flights from Toronto to New York

Step 3:

Do the same for the returning flight… we are lucky to find a direct flight from Cairo to Toronto.  But this can be rare.

Egypt Air, Cairo to Toronto
Egypt Air, Cairo to Toronto

However, if you don’t find a direct flight, you can always fly back to one of the U.S. cities or in my case of returning from Cape Town to Toronto, I had a stopover in Istanbul.  Also one of the major hub cities in Europe.

Cape Town to Istanbul Boarding Pass
Cape Town to Istanbul Boarding Pass

 

HOW TO DO A MULTIPLE CITY FLIGHT OR MINI-ROUND THE WORLD FOR ONLY 75,000 POINTS

Despite the being most devalued loyalty program in North America, Aeroplan is still the better one among the two major programs in Canada.  The other being Air Miles, which is even worse.  However, we’ll leave that for another posting.  Let’s now talk about some of the benefits of Aeroplan:

  • You have redeemed your reward seats on one of the Star Alliance partner airlines, currently 27 members.
  • You can have 1 primary destination and 2 secondary destinations as stopover within maximum miles permitted
  • You can have 1 primary destination and 1 secondary destination as a stopover and a open jaw

Now, here is how you get back at the Aeropeso sytem — and they hate it!  Use their points to visit multiple cities or even better, fly around the world on multiple non-surcharge partner airlines.  You’ll make the most of out of your travel by visiting more destinations and it ends up being lot more expensive for Aeroplan, since they are not only unable to collect the scam charges, but have to pay other airlines for your seats.

 

Multiple Destinations:

Toronto to Cancun Route via Washington Dulles
Toronto to Cancun Route via Washington Dulles on United Airlines

The rules for multiple destinations is pretty simple, designate your furthest city as the primary destination.  Aeroplan will try to connect the furthest city with a stopover en route and a stopover on the way back.  You need to search and tell the Aeroplan agent every single one of the flights for your route like what we have done with avoiding fuel surcharges.  Connecting flights less than 24 hours do not count as a stopover, rather they are considered “connections”.  For example:  I picked Santiago, Cancun and Buenos Aires.  Since Santiago (SCL) is the furthest city, it is considered my primary destination.  Therefore, Aeroplan will connect me there via Cancun (CUN), if there is a direct flight.  Since there is no direct flight, there will be a connecting flight in Washington Dulles.  Because it is less than 24 hours, it does not count as one of the stopovers.

Cancun to Santiago and Buenos Aires
Cancun to Santiago and Buenos Aires

My South America journey continues to Santiago with a connection in Panama City (PTY) given there is no direct flight from Cancun to Santiago.  Once I reach Santiago, the furthest and primary destination, all future flight on this itinerary is now consider part of the returning flight home to Toronto.  As you can see, Aeroplan now will connect me back to Toronto with a stopover in Buenos Aires (EZE).

Itineraries for Toronto, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Istanbul
Itineraries for Toronto, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Istanbul

Here is another example, I really wanted to experience the true African safari in person and needed to get to Johannesburg.  I also wanted to visit Cape Town and Istanbul.  Since Cape Town is the furthest city, it is considered my primary destination and I’ll get there with stopover in Johannesburg (JNB) via Washington Dulles (IAD).  The return flight with a stopover in Istanbul.

Note:

  • It might not work in all routes given there is no direct flight between the cities you selected.  Unless you are fine with taking connecting flights in between.  For example, there is no direct flight for my last flight between Buenos Aires to Toronto, I had to take a connecting flight via Panama City.  (EZE to PTY to YYZ)
  • Check the direct distances between your home airport and primary destination.  Your multiple destination route must exceed the Maximum Permitted Mileage or MPM by up to 10% or up to 15% on transatlantic and transpacific flights.  You can use the Great Circle Mapper to compare your routes and the direct route.
  • It could take significant time and effort locating flights between your cities one by one, same as we have done to avoid surcharges.

 

Mini-Round the World:

This is a fun thing to do if you plan to have an adventure with lots of time to kill… around the world for only 75,000 points and $220 in fees in an economy class seat.  Aeroplan do offer traditional Round the World Rewards for 200,000, the only difference is a maximum of five stopovers, while ours offers only three.  However, any connections under 24 hours is not considered a stopover, so in theory, you can fly into tons of cities and stay there for 23 hours with stamp on you passport to show off!!!

As you can see, I love examples!  Here is another one from Toronto, with stopover in Athens, Beijing and Hong Hong:

Round the World Itineraries (Part 1)
Mini Round the World Itineraries (Part 1)

To get to Athens, I had to go through Philadelphia and Rome.  In theory, I can easily stay there for a longer period of time by asking to be placed on my available flights on the same day on any one of the Star Alliance carriers.  Which is what I did in the part 2 of this itinerary.

Mini Around the World Itineraries (Part 2)
Mini Around the World Itineraries (Part 2)

Even though I was en route to Beijing from Athens via Frankfurt, there were earlier flights from Frankfurt to Beijing.  I decided to take the next available flight which gives me a total of 9:15 hours — plenty of time to take a train to downtown Frankfurt to sample authentic German sausages and a photo op in front of the mighty European Central Bank.

Charles Huang during stopover in Frankfurt.  Photo taken in front of the European Central Bank.
Charles Huang during stopover in Frankfurt. Photo taken in front of the European Central Bank.

Similarly, I chose to fly back via San Francisco to have dinner with one of my best friend Jason Zhu.  Instead of catching the available flight to Toronto, I waited until the next morning to take a connecting flight back home via Denver.

Conclusion:

To put it bluntly, Aeroplan is getting worse.  But with a little creativity and some patience, you can totally make the most of it.  I am writing this article and did a video on this Aeroplan hack to encourage everyone to use up their points before further devaluation.  For now, the mini round-the-world trip can be done for only 75,000.  Perhaps in the future you can only redeem this amount of points for a few peanuts… and maybe a teddy bear.

Please like, share, subscribe and comment on our DIY Travel Guide videos and articles… thanks for reading!

  • Co-Host/Producer: Charles Huang
  • Co-Host/Editor: Kai Mathias
  • Camera: Stan Trac
  • Music: Capo Music “Serenity”, “Destiny”

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