As is the case for virtually every would-be traveller this year, the pandemic has thrown a wrench into Vince Geisler’s plans.
The Victoria, B.C., resident and triathlete was planning to take some friends and family to the Netherlands this past summer to watch him compete in the Almere Multisport World Championships, but that was before COVID-19 brought the world to a standstill.
As a frequent traveller and holder of a credit card that confers reward points, Geisler had been planning to pay for his group’s trip — including flights and hotels — with his stash of Air Canada Aeroplan points. He had amassed nearly 900,000 in anticipation of the occasion.
The competition is tentatively rescheduled for next year, but recent events have led him to rethink his plan even if the event does go ahead.
With Air Canada offering vouchers instead of refunds on many purchased flights, together with an uncertain future for travel and massive financial losses putting airlines’ viability in question, Geisler is considering cashing in his points for something more material and immediate.
“They’ve shown themselves to be completely untrustworthy. I just couldn’t handle how Air Canada is currently treating its passengers,” he says. “Buying goods is probably my best option at this point.”
Cashing in on non-travel options is a good idea, according to some consumer advocates, who say most of the five million Aeroplan members in Canada can probably use immediate value now more than the promise of flights at some impossible-to-predict date.
“If you had the fantasy of taking a flight, that’s definitely out for a while, so it might make sense to use your points for purchasing necessities,” says John Lawford, executive director and general counsel of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.
“If you can turn it into cash, that’s the most ideal.”
Though Aeroplan points can be exchanged for flights and hotel bookings, they can also be used to acquire gift cards from a variety of merchants, as well as merchandise such as luggage.
At the low end, a $ 25 gift card from iTunes, Esso or Old Navy can be had for 3,500 points. At the high end, 135,000 points can be exchanged for a $ 1,000 Home Hardware gift card, while 106,500 points gets you a $ 750 prepaid Mastercard. Samsonite luggage ranges from 14,500 to 53,500 points.
(Travellers who have racked up points through corporate accounts or credit cards should check with their employers before cashing in, Lawford says, in case they have rules against it.)
For its part, Air Canada says Aeroplan members need not be concerned about booking travel with points. The airline purchased Aimia Canada, Aeroplan’s owner and operator, last year and is launching what it says is a new and improved program on Nov. 8.
The new terms will include the elimination of additional surcharges on flights purchased with points, the availability of all seats for bookings and the ability to pool miles with family members.
Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick says 45,000 new members have signed up for the rewards program since details of the new one were announced in August.
“Aeroplan customers who booked tickets with miles only to have their flight unfortunately cancelled due to COVID-19 automatically receive their miles back as well as any fees,” he said in an email.
“There is no refund issue with Aeroplan and you should not conflate this with cases of customers who purchased non-refundable, regular Air Canada tickets and received credits.”
Some travellers don’t believe that cashing out points for gift cards or merchandise is smart, especially for Aeroplan members with large balances.
Michael Morrow, a financial planner in Thunder Bay who has twice taken legal action against Air Canada over flight ticket issues, is planning to hold on to his 200,000 points because he expects airline travel to rebound despite the industry turmoil.
Short-haul flights within Canada cost about 15,000 points return, he says, whereas that same amount nets just a $ 100 gift card under Aeroplan’s current terms. In many cases, the math doesn’t work out in the member’s favour.
“The best way is to use it for flights or hotel,” he says. “Getting a gift card or a purchase with is the worst use of it.”
Other consumer advocates believe cashing out is the way to go despite the math because of the lack of regulations that prevent the devaluing of points with little notice.
“Cashing in might be a good idea in the grand scheme of things, but I would say it’s naive to believe those points will be worth much down the line,” says Gabor Lukacs, who runs the Air Passenger Rights website and Facebook group.
“This situation shows the imbalance between the (involved) parties.”