First off, my apologies for not posting in the past week or so. I have been crazy busy with getting PointsU off the ground and now that the conference is over, I will hopefully have more time to dedicate to what you all come to this site for.
A musician friend of mine, Jared Clark, owner of Fireside Music recently booked a new gig that will see him traveling between Calgary and Vancouver quite often, usually 4x a month. As Jared is starting from square one in the miles and points game, he asked for some pointers on how to make the journey as cheaply as possible.
Knowing that there must be other Canadians that are in the same situation or at least curious, I thought I would take the time to break down the options. Please note that while this post is specific to the YYC-YVR route, you can certainly use the information in this post to understand your options between any city pair.
The first thing we do when we start looking at routes is understanding the airlines that fly the route. The tool of choice for me is FlightConnections. With FlightConnections, you are able to plug in any city pair and find out who services the route, what dates that route is flown and the times. This is important because it narrows the search for the loyalty programs that we might want to consider joining. If you aren’t familiar with FlightConnections, you should read my post on how to use it.
I highly recommend this step because you may discover an airline that you hadn’t before. In this example, I was surprised that Air Transat flew between Calgary and Vancouver and while we probably won’t use the airline, it’s nice to know that there are options.
Paying for Flights
As Jared is starting without any airline miles or points, we have to pay for flights at the beginning of his journey. While it isn’t the best option, paying for flight is sometimes a reality so let’s examine some of the tricks to finding the best-priced flights.
To be clear, we want to start Jared down the path of using miles and points to pay for flights but we need a stopgap/band-aid solution while we figure out that strategy in parallel.
The first thing we should do is figure out what a reasonable price for the flight is. For that, I turn to ITA Matrix, a very powerful search engine that can help us see patterns in the pricing. I haven’t gotten around to writing a guide on ITA Matrix but you can refer to Travel Codex’s guide as it is quite good.
Jared has told me that he will almost always be flying out of Calgary on Thursday and returning on Saturday. This makes it easy to use ITA Matrix’s Calendar of Lowest Fare feature.
Now we aren’t looking for exact details on the price of the flights but rather we want to set a baseline for what we might expect to pay and what patterns we might be able to derive from the information.
Here we can see that close-in flights are between $450-500 but if we book a couple of weeks in advance, the price drops to about $275 for the roundtrip flight. I won’t post screenshots of all the other months but I did look through multiple months and that was the pattern that I observed. Of course, flying during holidays will have a dramatic effect on price but we are more interested in the base price to use as a comparison. These prices, of course, do not reflect seat sales that can occur at any time.
Interestingly, when we jump into the pricing of these flights, we see that Air Canada is typically cheaper than WestJet.
Air Canada offers flight passes that allow you to fly using certificates, which takes the risk of price volatility out of the equation. In the examples above, we are taking a look at a point in time and those prices are always subject to change. Purchasing a flight pass is essentially purchasing a ticket in advance and then using the credits whenever you want to fly.
Remember here that one credit = a single one-way flight so you need two credit for a round-trip.
Here’s the pricing for the flight pass that would help Jared commute between Calgary (YYC) and Vancouver (YVR). If we take a look at the 10 Flight Credit Option, the final price including GST would be $2,698.50 or approximately $2,700.
This represents 5 round-trip flights because each flight credit purchased (10 in this example), represents a one-way flight.
If we do the math on this, it means we are paying $540 per round trip ($2700/10 x 2 = $540), which is much higher than if we just planned ahead and purchased the flights at least 2 weeks in advance.
Hidden City Ticketing
Hidden City Ticketing is when the pricing for a flight between cities is cheaper if you add an additional leg to your flight and then skip flying the last leg. So for example, the price between Calgary and Vancouver on a one-way flight might cost $150 but a flight between Calgary and Edmonton with a connection in Vancouver might only run $100.
I wrote a post about Hidden City Ticketing here so if you aren’t familiar, I would encourage you to check it out because it can be a very valuable tool in your tool belt when you are forced to pay retail for your flights.
When taking a look for a Hidden City route that would allow Jared to fly between Calgary and Vancouver, I found a route that went between Calgary (YYC) and Penticton (YYF) that had a connection in Vancouver (YVR). In order to take advantage of this, you would book the YYC-YVR-YYF flight and simply not take the YVR-YYF flight.
As you can see, the one-way segment would only cost $110.
On December 2, we can fly from Vancouver (YVR) to Nanaimo (YCD) via Calgary (YYC).
If we add the two segments together, we come up with a total round-trip price of $218. If we compare that to the cheapest price from our earlier experiment with ITA Matrix, we can see that we would save $54 for the round-trip. Not bad but not great either.
With the two primary airlines of WestJet and Air Canada, we need to take a look at their loyalty programs to see which one makes the most sense.
WestJet uses WestJet Dollars (WSD) as their currency of choice. You earn WSD for flights you take on WestJet and you can apply those dollars to future flights. 1 WSD = $1 off your next WestJet flight. For those that fly with WestJet a lot, the program can be appealing but I’m not a fan of dollar-based loyalty programs because you cannot extract additional value out of the program.
Air Canada uses a program called Aeroplan (at least until 2020) and short-haul flights between neighboring provinces cost just 15,000 Aeroplan for a round-trip. This is the points category that would apply to Jared’s current situation.
While WestJet has a good loyalty program, we will be focusing on Aeroplan for Jared’s particular issue due to the ubiquitous nature of the program and ease of obtaining the points through transferable credit card currencies.
In my experience, flights between Calgary and Vancouver tend to have pretty good availability especially if you are looking a bit in advance. We can run an experiment and look at direct flight availability between the two cities using the same Thursday (outbound) to Saturday (return) schedule.
My search engine of choice here is Award.Flights. If you need a refresher on how to use Award.Flights, I would recommend reading my post about it here.
As you can see, when we plan at least 3 weeks out, we see very good flight availability from YYC-YVR on Thursdays. The availability is especially good for Economy Class (Y), which is what I would recommend flying because the flight time between Calgary and Vancouver is only 1.5 hours so spending 2x the points to fly Business Class just wouldn’t make sense.
Looking at the Saturday return we also see excellent availability in both Economy (Y) and Business (J).
Knowing that there is excellent availability, we need to look at the taxes we would have to pay on award flight. For that, we turn to the Aeroplan website.
As you can see, while there is good availability, taxes and fees tend to be a bit high, which makes using Aeroplan a bit of a waste because we are essentially cashing in 15,000 Aeroplan miles to save $100-150, which isn’t a great use of miles. What we aim to get in value when redeeming Aeroplan is about 2 cents per mile. In this example we are only getting about 1 cent ($150 / 15,000 miles).
But does that mean we shouldn’t consider Aeroplan redemptions?
Why you ask? Well, in Jared’s situation, he has a contract for 1 year where he will be flying 4-5 times a month to Vancouver, meaning he will qualify for Air Canada Altitude Status and one of the benefits of status is being able to waive the Fuel Surcharge (YQ) on award flights.
Air Canada Altitude Status
Airline status is earned with Air Canada by completing two requirements, flights and dollars spent.
As Jared will be likely paying for his flights at the beginning, there’s a good chance that he can earn at least Prestige 25K status. At that level, Jared would earn the right to have the YQ waived on his award flights.
If Jared can earn Prestige 25K status, he would
eliminate $84 reduce his YQ from $84 to $30 (even with status, the YQ is not 100% waived) when redeeming Aeroplan, thus taking the cost of the flight down to 15,000 Aeroplan + $101.66, which is a lot more palatable.
Getting Aeroplan Miles Quickly
Earning Aeroplan miles through flights alone can be a slow process and it would take forever and a day to earn enough miles to qualify for a free roundtrip flight. In order to quickly earn these miles, I would strongly suggest that Jared focus his credit card applications and spend on American Express Membership Rewards as they transfer instantly at a 1:1 ratio and points are relatively easy to earn.
The cards to concentrate on are the following:
- American Express Gold Personal – 25,000 Membership Rewards after $1,500 spend – $150 Annual Fee
- American Express Gold Business – 40,000 Membership Rewards after $5,000 spend – No Annual Fee for the First Year
- American Express Platinum Personal – 60,000 Membership Rewards after $3,000 spend – $699 Annual Fee (get that to $299 – info in the review)
- American Express Platinum Business – 75,000 Membership Rewards after $5,000 spend – $399 Annual Fee
To quickly get earn miles, I would first focus on the Platinum Personal due to the great value of the card and then the Platinum Business due to the relatively low cost of the points. Regardless of the order in which Jared gets the cards, it makes the most sense to concentrate on American Express cards rather than something like the TD Aeroplan card as it currently only offers 15,000 Aeroplan Miles with a $120 annual fee.
Jared should be concentrating on finding affordably priced flights at least 2-3 weeks in advance to save on close-in pricing which tends to be quite high. He should be looking to book as many segments as possible to get to Vancouver in order to quickly get to his 25 segment requirement so he can earn Prestige 25K status.
In parallel to this, Jared should look to obtain some American Express credit cards so that when he earns his status, he can then book award flights between Calgary and Vancouver without having to pay for YQ.
While there is going to be some spending required in order to put all the puzzle piece in place, if Jared sets out on this strategy, he will earn both his status and enough points to pay for multiple roundtrip flights to Vancouver. An additional strategy might be to save these Aeroplan miles to go on a mini-RTW trip rather than use the miles for less valuable short-haul flights.