I’ve never been much of an Air Miles collector, but lately, it’s been all the rage at the office.
What are Air Miles? Air Miles rewards program is a popular loyalty program in Canada. A number of mainstream retailers like Sobeys/Lawtons, Metro, Irving, Staples, Rona and Old Navy, offer air miles points when making purchases – typically 1 mile for every $10-$20 spent. In terms of rewards, the program offers travel, gifts and cash type rewards.
From my initial research, redeeming points for flights offers the best value, but requires a significant points collection. For example, travelling from St. John’s to Toronto requires 1,700 air miles in low season (and still need to pay taxes). The further the travel distance, the more points required. Collecting at a rate of 1 mile/$20 spent would require spending $34,000 ($20 x 1,700). In other words, serious spending at Air Miles retailers – in fact, more than we spend on our credit cards in a year!
As you can see, my experience with Air Miles was that it is challenging to collect enough miles to make it worth while. However, a friend of mine, we’ll call him Stuart, recently became serious about the program. He started in January 2015 with 1,500 air miles and now, in May 2015, he has almost 15,000 miles. In less than half a year, he has collected enough points for a family of four to travel to Orlando from Newfoundland. With the possibility of reduced-cost annual family vacations, I started to dig a little deeper into the program.
Stuart is the analytical Engineer type, when he commits to something, he goes all in. I’ve had a number of conversations with him about his Air Miles progress, and he is more than happy to share his tips and tricks on the program thus far. Here is how he has accumulated so many points in a few short months.
Accumulating Air Miles Tips
1. Change your Shopping Habits
Depending on where you shop now, you may or may not need to change your shopping habits. For example, for us, we shop primarily at Loblaws and Costco for groceries and Costco gas station or Esso for gasoline.
As groceries are our largest budget item, to make the Air Miles program work , we would need to switch our grocery shopping to Sobeys (or Metro if you are in Ontario). Air Miles grocery sponsors will offer point bonuses on different products on a weekly basis and typically requires you to purchase multiple items in order to obtain the extra points. With a bit of strategy prior to grocery store visits, it is not uncommon for Stuart to accumulate over 100 Air Miles during his weekly grocery store visit.
2. Avoid Overpaying
While some of you may picture Stuart’s pantry full of ketchup bottles and corn flakes purchased during Air Mile promotions, he has a number of rules that he follows. First, he will only purchase a product that has an Air Miles promotion if it is first, on sale, and second, something that he would buy anyway.
In addition, he suggests to purchase items that will result in 1 Mile/$1 spent. For example, Sobey’s will often offer extra air miles on a product if you purchase more than one. Following Stuart’s rule, if the bonus is 5 Miles for buying 2 bottles of his favorite pasta sauce, he will only buy if the total cost of the 2 bottles are less than $5.
3. Get an Air Miles Credit Card
In addition to focusing on Air Miles retailers, signing up for an Air Miles credit card will help boost your points balance. He has done a few calculations based on travel from NL, and has calculated that an Air Mile is worth between $0.13 to $0.20. Lets assume a value $0.15/mile to keep it simple.
Annual fee based credit cards offer 1 mile for every $10 spent (1.5% return) while the free ones will offer around 1 mile/$20 spent (0.75% return). In addition, some of the fee based cards offer a discount on the Air Miles required on a redemption. In my opinion, while these cards will boost your Air Miles balance, there are better returns to be found elsewhere. For example, the Scotia Momentum card that offers 4% return on groceries.
4. Watch Out for Promotions and Coupon Books
Perhaps one of the bigger contributors to Stuart’s points balance is keeping a close eye on promotions and, more importantly, taking advantage of them. Air Miles recently released their “mega bonus” where if you use 5 of their Air Miles coupons at 5 different retailers, they will gift you with 1,200 miles. This is enough for a flight to a neighboring province.
Another promotion that I have found is with the local drug store affiliated with Sobeys offered 95 miles when purchasing a $50 gift card. While I may not do much shopping at that particular drug store, Sobey’s will accept the gift card in their stores.
Finally, you can sometimes double dip on grocery promotions. Grocery sponsors will offer points on a specific item, but then extra points if you purchase items from a particular brand. For example, a few weeks ago, there was a promotion where you would receive 50 bonus points if you purchased $25 worth Nestle products. At the same time, they were offering 5 bonus points for every 3 boxes of Lean Cuisine microwave dinners (a Nestle product) purchased. To top it off, they were on sale for $2/box. Purchasing 13 boxes, or $26 worth, resulted in 70 Air Miles – over 2.5 miles for every $1 spent!
5. Credit Card Churning
This strategy is a little more aggressive, but it’s where you sign up for credit cards for the Air Miles bonus, cancel before the annual fee comes due, then repeat. This can result in thousands of extra Air Miles a year, but likely not a strategy that I would follow due to the impact on my credit score.
6. Go for Gold (and Onyx)
Once you get serious about collecting Air Miles, the more you collect, the better it gets. Once you hit 1,000 miles in a calendar year, Air Miles will put you in their Gold program. If you reach 6,000 miles in a calendar year, you will reach the Onyx level. These levels offer 20%-30% discounts on specific flights throughout the year (among other benefits).
While I have not completely jumped on the Air Miles wagon yet, these are the tips that I have accumulated thus far. For Air Miles collectors reading this, what are your tips?