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How to Maximize Loyalty Reward Points

How many of you are a member of a loyalty points program?  I’m willing to bet that most of you are part of some program, likely it’s in one of the more popular programs like  Aeroplan, Air Miles, Esso, Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG), or even Shoppers Drug Mart.  Personally, I have accounts with all mentioned, but with a significant collection of SPG points.  Aeroplan and Air Miles come in a very distant second and third.

Although I have multiple accounts, I find it most effective to focus on your favorite program instead of spreading out the points too much.  Here are some ideas on how to maximize loyalty reward points.

Get the Credit Card

Getting an affiliated rewards credit card is perhaps the most powerful way to build a collection of points.  There’s a reason why the CIBC Aerogold is the most popular VISA in the Canadian market which is because they have a stranglehold on the popular Aeroplan program.  Air Miles can be collected through a BMO MasterCard or AMEX,  SPG through AMEX, Esso points via RBC Visa, and Shoppers Drug Mart and Sony via MBNA.

The strategy here is to funnel all spending through the card to accumulate as many points as possible.  I put every expense possible on a credit card for the points (paid off every month) so it doesn’t take long before a meaningful balance accumulates in the points account.  Before moving to my primary cash back credit card, I used the late MBNA SPG card which helped pay for many vacation hotel stays over the years.

Use InStore/Online Bonuses

If your favorite rewards program has as associated brick and mortar store, like Air Miles, then it’s likely that they have weekly specials that offer bonus points for purchasing certain items.  For example, Sobey’s sometimes has promotions where you get bonus points if you purchase a group of items.  Sure, you may end up with a pantry full of ketchup bottles, but if it’s something that you’re going to use anyways over time, it may be worth it.

In addition to in-store deals, there are ways to build points online.  For example, AirMilesShops offers Air Miles for simply using their site as a portal before shopping in one of their affiliated online stores.  AirMilesShops will receive an affiliate commission for the sale from which they will credit Air Miles to your account.  Everyone wins!

For Aeroplan, they occasionally offer extra points via Esso, Tropicana, and even Costco.  It’s simply a matter of watching for deals and collecting points for something that you’re doing to spend on anyways.

For Shoppers Drug Mart, they often offer double points for certain products, or even a multiple of points collected on particular days.

Claim Rewards that Give the Highest Return

One strategy that I often use is to claim the rewards that give the highest return on spending.  For example, with Aeroplan, claiming first class tickets can give up to 8% return, SPG “cash and points” can be around 6%+ return, claiming car washes with Esso points gives around 2% and two for one movie tickets with Air Miles works out to be around 2%.

How do you calculate the return?  Simply take the dollar cost equivalent of the reward dividend by the spending required to accumulate the reward.  For example, if a car wash retails for $10 or 500 points, and it takes $500 in spending at Esso to accumulate 500 points, then the return of $10/$500 = 2% return.

Which loyalty programs are your favorite?  How do you maximize your points?

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FT About the author: FT is the founder and editor of Million Dollar Journey (est. 2006). Through various financial strategies outlined on this site, he grew his net worth from $200,000 in 2006 to $1,000,000 by 2014. You can read more about him here.

{ 30 comments… add one }
  • Echo June 13, 2011, 10:50 am

    The main loyalty programs that I use are PC Points and Air Miles. I use the PC MasterCard for all of my daily spending, which usually translates into $25 or $30 back in free groceries each month.

    I have an Air Miles AMEX that I use for larger purchases, for work expenses, and for trips to Costco. I try and get bonus Air Miles at Safeway (100 Air Miles for spending $100, or buy 5 specific items and get 100 bonus Air Miles).

    I redeem the Air Miles for gas gift certificates at Shell (175 points = $20) and usually have enough for one every month.

  • James June 13, 2011, 12:26 pm

    I’m loyal to my Capital One Aspire MC – 2 points for every $1 spent, easily redeem points for any travel related purchases (including taxes and fees) or cash back. 15,000 points = $150 in travel redemption or 10,000 points = $75 cash back; anniversary bonus of 10,000.

  • nobleea June 13, 2011, 12:31 pm

    Safeway has a deal on right now for father’s day where you can buy a $100 home depot gift card and get 60 bonus air miles (in addition to the base 5). Plus, using your MBNA smartcash card at a grocery store gets you 3% cash back. the 65 air miles are worth about 7$. So that’s 10% off total.

    I can’t say I have a favourite loyalty program. I use air miles when I can and it’s cost effective (generally the stores that give out air miles are not the cheapest). Aeroplan I use for flights when I can. I have a petropoints card but have lost it (I only buy air time credits at petro canada).
    Cash back is the best rewards program in my books!

  • TomC June 13, 2011, 12:53 pm

    Not quite loyalty point – but here’s a way to get (up to) 3.5% ‘cash back’ via gas purchase savings, with no annual fee..

    If you spend more than $200 a month on gas, and >=$2000 per month on your credit card, you can get more than the usual 1% benefit that most cards give you with the Canadian Tire Gas Advantage Mastercard. When you spend $2000 in a month, you get $0.10 off per litre on all gas purchases at Canadian Tire gas bars. Of course, you have to have a gas bar in your area to take advantage of this. The $0.10 per liter applies to the first $700 of gas purchases each month. If you spend the full $700 on gas, that translates into as much as 3.5% savings ($70 savings assuming $1.00/liter gas, divided by $2000 spent on your credit card). It does take some monitoring to maximize your savings – ie. only spend $2000 in a billing cycle and then switch to a difference card for anything beyond that.

    I used to have this card and it was fantastic, however 1) The spending required to get $0.10 off per liter used to be $1000 instead of $2000 so it was easier to hit, and 2) We moved to an area without a Canadian Tire gas bar.. So we switched to the Smart Rewards card from MBNA.

    Still – if the above (gas bar nearby, >=$2000 in monthly spend, >=$200 in gas per month) applies to you, you will get more than the typical 1% cash back other cards give you…

  • Germaine June 13, 2011, 1:27 pm

    Amex is now affiliated with aeroplan. This is the credit card I use on a regular basis to gain miles from every place I shop. The other benefit is that u can double dip at participating locations that allow you to use the aeroplan miles card as well!

  • DanP June 13, 2011, 2:22 pm

    Hey FT, i know you’ve written a few articles on the best rewards card. Is that article still valid or have your favorites changed since than?

  • FT FrugalTrader June 13, 2011, 2:35 pm

    Hey Dan, for free rewards cards, I like the capital one gold and Shoppers Drug Mart card. I also like the PCF card, which should be added to the list, but the insurances are limited.

    However, for a paid card (which works out to be pretty cheap after bonuses), I like the Capital One Aspire card mentioned by James above.

  • Elbyron June 13, 2011, 2:50 pm

    I find it a bit amusing that this article contains a link to a shopping portal site that competes with one of your sponsors, Great Canadian Rebates. They both basically do the same thing, except that instead of cash the AirMilesShops site gives you Air Miles. They don’t have the exact same retailers, but there is some overlap. For example, if you’re going to buy a laptop from Dell for $500, you could get 1.6% cash back ($8) from GCR, or 25 Air Miles from AirMilesShops, worth about $3 – $4 depending how you use them.
    Looking at a few other examples, the clear winner between these two is GCR, often being 2x – 10x more rewarding. But since each has many retailers that the other does not, your best bet is to always check them both out before buying something online (even Ebay!).

  • MartinC June 13, 2011, 5:10 pm

    I love collecting points with my CIBC credit card! ;-) Also accumulation speed for points is important to me e.g. CIBC Aerogold Visa Infinite collects 1.5 Aeroplan Miles for 1$ and CIBC Aero Classic Visa only 1 Mile for 1$. I usually check those rates and other stuff about cards here: http://insureye.com/insurance_toolkit

  • Gerard June 13, 2011, 6:12 pm

    Another useful idea is to find a website that that discusses your particular reward partner — for me, it’s Flyertalk’s aeroplan dicussion board. You learn about sales, special offers, and how to maximize points and game the system.

  • FT FrugalTrader June 13, 2011, 7:04 pm

    @Elbyron, thanks for the comparison.

    @Gerard, any tips to share with us?

  • AP June 13, 2011, 7:38 pm

    You mention that SPG is your first choice for loyalty. From my experience I’ve found them to have a lower value per dollar spent than other programs… and that’s based on inflated hotel rates. I’m planning on getting the SPG Amex, but only to transfer the points into Aeroplan. What is it about the SPG program that you like?

  • Greg June 13, 2011, 8:17 pm

    I use an MBNA SmartCash MasterCard that pays 3% CASH rebate on gas and grocery purchases (5% for the first 6 months) and 1% on everything else. Once you get to $50 rebate they send you a cheque, no waiting for the anniversary or year end.

    I use an MBNA Shoppers Optimum MasterCard ONLY at Shoppers to get extra Optimum points that work out to be better than 1% CASH.

    I use an AMEX Air Miles card at Costco as Costco doesn’t take any other cards and get Air Miles for my purchases.

    I also have a CIBC Dividend Rewards VISA card that pays (if I recall correctly) 1/4% on the first $1250 of annual purchases, 1/2% on the second $1250 of annual purchases and 1% after that. I use that card ONLY when the merchant doesn’t take MasterCard.

    I’ve answered lots of surveys where the question is “what would it take to get you to use our card” and the answer is CASH as CASH works EVERYWHERE but POINTS and MERCHANDISE limit me.

  • SavingMentor June 14, 2011, 10:29 am

    I tend to favour a different approach than you FrugalTrader in that I suggest subscribing to as many rewards programs as you can that can be potentially lucrative. By that I mean programs that have good bonuses, great affiliated credit cards, or places you just happen to shop on a regular basis.

    Then you simply monitor promotions, sales, and bonuses and use whatever rewards program gives you the best mathematical return. If you are dedicated collector you will accumulate enough points to redeem in ALL of the programs fairly quickly so no need to focus on one in particular.

    My favourite rewards program is Shoppers Drug Mart because the bonuses are so high that when combined with good sales you can very substantial rewards incredibly fast. My second favourite would be SPG, but I’ve recently canceled my Amex and have about 100,000 starpoints waiting to be used. Planning to use Nights & Flights to take a trip to Paris. I also collect Aeroplan quite heavily, but I hate them because their taxes and fees are so high and their points expiry rules suck.

    I have written a in depth guide to Rewards programs as well that goes into a lot of details about how to maximize rewards points especially for Shoppers Drug Mart, Aeroplan, and Air Miles.

  • ITS June 14, 2011, 2:51 pm

    I did aeroplan/Visa Aerogold Infinite while I was travelling a lot on business, and the points were coming in faster than I could use. I had nearly a million points on Aeroplan and have been putting them to good use.

    The moment I changed jobs I figured it wasn’t worth the 120 dollars fee anymore, and canceled it.

    The queston one must ask for a “fee CC” is if the yearly benefits will certainly surpass this fee, and whether your points are actually that important to you. Finding the right deal on points is almost mission impossible, and in most cases is much better buying your own ticket for cash!

    I have signed up for PC Financial Master card since then, which is no fee and has given us hundreds of dollars in free groceries. I love this card. We charge everything we can on it, and pay our balance on time, making out like bandits in groceries every month.

    They must hate customers like us!

    On a related note… Most reward points are nearly worthless. If you are paying yearly fees, and God forbid interest, you have wiped out all the benefits. Also buying crap just to get the points is one of the stupidest thing people can do…

  • SavingMentor June 14, 2011, 2:57 pm

    @ITS

    I agree, you should never change your spending habits based on rewards programs. But collecting points on purchases you would be making anyway and reaping the rewards is just smart.

    Don’t you find the 1% return you get from the PC MasterCard low compared to the comparable return you used to get from Aerogold? A little advance planning and traveling to desirable destinations can give you returns in excess of 5% – which is a really big difference.

    Also, I don’t know why they would hate customers like us. They are getting the transaction fees from the merchants every time we use our cards. As long as the rewards program costs less than that revenue then it is money in their pockets. Interest charges and account fees are just gravy for them.

    Have you ever considered the MBNA Smart Cash MasterCard – gives more rewards than PC Financial and you get real cash instead of points.

  • ITS June 14, 2011, 3:06 pm

    On a side note, Aeroplan points is one of the worst loyalty programs I have ever had to deal with. If you want to use 15 000 points to fly from Calgary to Vancouver, which you are supposed to be able to do, it’s impossible to get the right times and dates. To travel on 25 000 points within Canada and US means having to settle on dates and having bizarre layovers at un-preferred travel times.

    Whether I have managed to take advantage of this program over the years, It has been an unpleasant experience, and I am glad that I am almost out… (last 100 000 points to use :D)

    Another fantastic rewards point for those travelling a lot on business is Marriott. I have seen the light and will never stay at another hotel again… The points accumulate so fast once you move to the upper tiers, and you get treated like royalty everywhere you go. Not to mention the impeccable service/cleanliness that goes with the Marriott brand…

  • ITS June 14, 2011, 3:13 pm

    @SavingMentor

    I would take any day of the year 250 dollars in free groceries for spending 25k dollars. (In reality PC points add up a lot faster than that as they are always running bonuses)

    Compared to a “free flight” in the continental US/Canada where I have to pay about 150 dollars in tax and fuel charges, and settle for dates and times which never work, and have to connect through Regina, to go to Ottawa, and have to pay 120 dollars in yearly fees… well you get the point…

    The point is that every time I booked a ticket through Aeroplan I felt a little dirty… Free groceries on the other hand taste delicious…

    I guess it’s all based on personal experience, but trust me I have given this a lot of thought over the years…

  • James June 14, 2011, 3:24 pm

    lots of different programs and perspectives – so let me ask the group this – does anyone have any experience with using Points.com to move reward points between programs? Pros? Cons?

  • SavingMentor June 14, 2011, 4:09 pm

    @ITS

    Availability is definitely an issue with Aeroplan and their taxes and fees suck but I always plan things more than 6 months in advance and choose routes where I get at least $700 in value before taxes and fees for my 25,000 points. It has been relatively trouble free for me.

    I agree that the annual fees make things a lot harder to swallow but if you sign up for a new card almost every year then the bonuses more than cover the annual fee and sometimes the first year is free. Rinse and repeat.

    I had the PC MasterCard for years and in the Atlantic Provinces we almost never got anything worthwhile for bonuses. That may have changed in recent years but I’ve heard that in the western provinces the bonuses are much better.

  • Norman June 14, 2011, 5:06 pm

    No one has mentioned the MBNA Travel Rewards Elite card. This replaced the MBNA SPG card a while ago.
    The selection of flights is much better than Aeroplan. Also you can use points to pay for tax and fees which usually calculates to approx 3% rebate.

  • Elbyron June 14, 2011, 5:10 pm

    @SavingMentor
    I once did some research to see what the average value of an Aeroplan point was worth (not accounting for the hassle). You say you can get at least $700 in value for 25,000 points, but I checked out lowest cost for travel from Edmonton to 5 different U.S. cities and the cost before taxes was always under $500 for whatever random date I chose. I’m sure there’s high-demand periods that would cost more, but those aren’t going to have any seats available for 25,000 points!
    Flights might also cost more $ from small towns or isolated locations so some people could potentially get more than $500 value, but for me that seems to be impossible. It seems the value of the points, when redeemed for economy-class flights in North America, will average 1.6cents per mile, sometimes reaching as high as 2 cents.
    I also compared some international destinations, but again the average is still around 1.5 cents. However, since some Aeroplan cards can earn you 1.25 or even 1.5 points per dollar, you can probably get better than 2% return… but then you’re pretty limited on when you can fly, and your points can expire.
    James has the right idea with the Capital One Aspire card. Book any flight you want and get 2% return on ALL purchases, with an annual fee that works out to $20. I’m not biased because I wrote the review of this card… I wrote the review because I liked the card.

  • ITS June 14, 2011, 10:14 pm

    @James

    I have used points.com to exchange some continental airlines points (7500) into 43 dollars gift certificate on Amazon .com. Most of their deals are pretty lame but this one was worth it since continental merged with united. It took one week for GC code but when it came through it was awesome as I got a cool GPS toy I have been wanting with points that were going to expire.

    From my experience (picture Clooney on up in the air) points are best used on the program you earned them with. When traded you are always gonna lose some to the middleman.

  • SavingMentor June 14, 2011, 11:43 pm

    @Elbyron

    I agree with you – if you live in a major city and are only flying to a random US city then you probably won’t see much higher than $500 in North America. Flights are way more expensive in Atlantic Canada and $700 is about average for a cross country flight before taxes and fees. I have family in Vancouver so I’ve checked flight prices on a regular basis.

    I’ve gone into great detail on how I value Aeroplan miles and in particular on the Redeem Aeroplan Miles For More page I talk about how to get a much higher return for your miles – up to 10%. There are a few hoops to jump through but for a good number of people it would be worth, albeit not everyone.

    There are 4 pages to the Aeroplan guide in total.

  • Greg June 15, 2011, 4:51 am

    @James – Points.com works well (pro) but they take their cut (con). I’ve used them when I had too few points in a program to do anything else.

    @Everyone about Aeroplan – I, too, hated trying to get a flight, and actually never did. I had about 200,000 points that would have expired early in 2012 and was “worried” as to how I was going to use them. Then I found I could trade them in for Costco dollars and used, if I recall, 13,500 points to get a $100 card. I did that about 6 times. Then I recently had a balance that was not a multiple of 13,500 points and discovered I could use Points.com to turn Aeroplan points into US$ through Paypal. I swapped as much of the balance as I could fro US$236 and now have something like 70 Aeroplan points left, that will likely expire and I won’t have to deal with them anymore. That swap through Points.com was not as advantageous as Costco Dollar cards but not having a multiple of 13,500 meant I was going to lose the points anyway so this was the best I could do.

  • mike June 15, 2011, 5:31 am

    re. Aeroplan: after collecting for many years, and spending a lot of time on flyertalk.com, i’ve come to the conclusion that the best use of aeroplan points is on long-haul, business or first-class flights.

    further, you should whenever possible use the points on star alliance airlines OTHER than air canada – they’ve generally got much lower taxes/fees/surcharges for reward flights than air canada.

    domestic economy flights tend to be poorer value, and it’s pretty much agreed that the worst value is to buy merchandise – things like gift cards or toasters or whatever. that said, the ‘best’ is always going to be relative. if you hate flying, and happen to need a toaster, there you go.

  • SavingMentor June 15, 2011, 9:22 am

    I agree with you 100% mike! Although personally I prefer to look for expensive economy class flights because even though they aren’t as good of a value as first class flights – I would still rather get more flights overall than increased value.

    For business travelers who earn a ton of flights and fly all the time – I can definitely see the attraction of high value business class and first class flights.

  • EJSe Leduc County AB June 18, 2011, 1:35 am

    Know what’s weird? Sobeys in St. John’s takes Air Miles; in Alberta Sobeys is hooked up with Aeroplan.

  • EJSe Leduc County AB June 18, 2011, 1:51 am

    Know what’d be a cool business? Letting the public consolidate points from multiple loyalty programmes (for cash or a point fraction). Work it so that the total points outstanding is decreased; this would work as an incentive to the issuers because the tendency is to improve their income statement or balance sheet (depending on how each transaction is paid for).

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