Why Should Canadians Care About Points And Miles?

Filed Under: Travel

Why do points and miles matter in Canada? Simple geography. The second-largest country in the world has only five cities with a population of over 1 million: Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, and (just barely) Edmonton.

As a result, with the exception of southern Ontario, everything in Canada is so far apart that flying is the only practical form of inter-city transportation.

Canada is really big

For context, consider this: I live in Calgary, which is north of Montana. Both my brothers live in London (real London, not London, Ontario). Even with the whole Atlantic Ocean in the way, they live considerably closer to my parents, in Newfoundland, than I do.

Canada’s extremely low population density is the other critical factor. There are only 37 million of us up here in the Great White North, and nearly 1 in 5 of us live in Toronto, so the customer base is small and disparate.

The result – a tiny population that has a real need for air travel across a gigantic landscape – is a seller’s market.


Because it’s a long bloody way from here…


…to here

Traditionally, Canadian airlines have had noticeably higher revenue per available seat mile than their American counterparts, but that gap has been closing in recent years thanks to the US airlines recent focus on increasing average fares (and decreasing average seat size).

Welcome to the higher-airfare club, American friends, at least we can commiserate together.

Air travel is expensive in Canada

If it makes you feel better, though, actual costs for Canadian air travel do continue to outstrip similar travel in the US, both by base price and again with taxes and fees.

As an example, let’s compare the cost of a one-way standard economy-class ticket from Vancouver to Saint John, New Brunswick, with a similar ticket from Los Angeles to Bangor, Maine on a random Wednesday.

No checked bags, obviously.

RouteBase Price USD (CAD)Taxes & Fees USD (CAD)Total USD (CAD)
Vancouver (YVR) to Saint John (YSJ)$326.61 ($427)$56.59 ($73.98)$383.20 ($500.98)
Los Angeles (LAX) to Bangor (BGR)$253.95 ($332)$46.25 ($60.47)$300.20 ($392.47)

Now it’s of course not true for every flight, every day, but as a general rule, air travel in Canada is noticeably more expensive than the US. And those costs add up especially quickly if you’re traveling with a family.

Fortunately, even without the lucrative credit card offers of our southern neighbors, there are still plenty of opportunities for Canadians to participate in the miles and points game, which I look forward to exploring in future posts.

Bottom line

It’s a big, beautiful, hugely-varied country up here, with ten provinces and three territories to explore, so Canadians have lots of incentive to try and bring down the cost of domestic travel through loyalty programs, whether it’s to take the kids to visit Grandma or to go skiing in the Rockies!

Personally, I’ve hit every province except New Brunswick, although I’m also short Nunavut and the Northwest Territories in Canadian travel bingo. Visiting my high school best friend in Goose Bay, Labrador is high on my to-do list, but the cost of travel to less-populated areas like that is astronomical (and challenging even with points), so I keep putting it off.

How many provinces and territories have you checked off? Any Canadian destinations you’re dying to check out?

Comments
  1. “The second-largest country in the world has only five cities with a population of over 1 million: Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, and (just barely) Edmonton.”

    It makes a lot more sense to refer to metropolitan populations than city populations as city jurisdictions can be arbitrary or defined for historical reasons and not well reflective of the population catchment of an urban area. Usually an urban area’s core city only accounts for anywhere from 25-70% of the actual metro’s population.

    For example, if you want to restrict population numbers to just individual city jurisdictions than Canada actually only has 3 “cities” with populations greater than 1 million: Toronto, Montreal and Calgary. The “City” of Vancouver only has a population of around 600,000, whereas the Vancouver metro area has a population of greater than 2.4 million because That’s why its important to understand the difference between a city and a metro population and why referring to metro population usually makes more sense in most cases.

    So, Canada actually has six metro areas with populations of greater than 1 million: Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa.

  2. The main issue is being held hostage by Air Canada/WestJet pricing. No wonder so many hop across the border and fly from there. My experience, unlike Ben’s, with Air Canada has been so consistently bad that I go out of my way to avoid them. The points game is mostly pointless beyond collection RBC points and converting them to Avios or AA miles.

  3. Title is misleading to me.

    I still cannot see how miles and points have anything to do with this post at all (at least not yet).

    This post informs geography cities and how bloody expensive cash price is compared to US of A.

    Looking forward to more details on miles stuff.
    To give some pointers
    Where to credit, where to redeem from, where to NOT redeem or credit.

  4. I only get 107 miles to Calgary on Air Canada standard fare. I have already done 60 segments this year with only 9k in miles. I’m hoping they move to revenue base in the future. Hotel points are on 1 USD per X points, our exchange sucks.

    I have done 7 provinces.

  5. Hey Kate, great post! For an incoming university student in Canada, which credit card would you recommend for points/miles?

  6. @Eskimo…Umm, Canada’s vast geography and expensive airfare are reasons why Canadians should care about points and miles….which is exactly the title of the post.

    There is a good amount of click bait on OMAAT these days, but I don’t think this is one of those. I guess different people can read things different ways.

    I’m looking forward to the new perspective Kate will bring to the blog.

  7. After living in the States for 8 years, I finally moved to Canada last year. A few things that I observed since my move:
    1. Points card game in Canada is surprisingly weak: Amex & RBC is pretty much the only way to go and even them sucks compare to US. I am still using my Citi Prestige for Air Fare & Restaurant.

    2. Almost no card waives FTF and foreign exchange rate at banks sucks (the buy/sell spread is insane). As a result, whenever you travel, be prepared to lose 3-6% right away. Sure, you can have a US fund account, but you are still paying for the insane Foreign exchange up front (unless part of your income is denominated in USD)

    3. Air Fare is outrageously expensive, period. You are almost always better off booking say YUL-YVR-SEA than YUL-YVR, or YVR-YUL-BOS than YVR-YUL. It is pretty sad when domestic flights are consistently more expensive than trans-border flights. Unless you go south of the border, you are very much limited to AC & West Jet.

  8. In my opinion, unless you’re a frequent flyer the best thing you can do is get a cash back card here in Canada. Even if you are a frequent flyer, a cash back card is preferable if you travel to the states for work (my Rogers MasterCard gives ~3% back on foreign purchases, negating the ftf).

    Especially with AC buying back Aeroplan, they’re almost certainly going to devalue the hell out of it…

  9. This post reads as if it’s written for the USA audience. I don’t see the point. As a Canadian points junkie, my interest is exactly the same as those of American points Junkies. And in all likelihood my destinations are mostly the same, too. I want to leave Canada on an airplane, not visit New Brunswick.

    If we’re going to have CanCon in this blog, let it help Canadians do what they actually want to do, which is very similar to what the Americans are doing. Explaining to Americans what Canada is is a pointless (see what I did there?) exercise.

  10. Just want to say that despite my pet peeve over differentiating between city and metro populations, I think its great to have a Canadian viewpoint on the blog. Welcome Kate!

  11. Points game in Canada can be fine for those with actual spend. With the current exchange rate, we’re earning 2.65 points per USD on other spend and 6.6 points per USD on Marriott spend with the Amex Bonvoy Business. With the Canadian Amex Plat, we earn 4 Aeroplan/Avios per USD on dining in Canada and 2.65 for each USD on travel.

  12. I’ve lived all my life in Toronto Canada and sadly admit I’ve only been to 3 provinces (Ont., Quebec, BC). But I’ve been to 31 US States. Weird.

  13. I moved to the US from Canada ten years ago and I have to say the points and miles situation in Canada is absolutely terrible awful no good. When my Canadian friends and family see the kinds of mile accumulations and redemptions I’m achieving and ask how they can do the same, I simply respond, “You can’t”.

  14. @Jason there are several Canadian cards that have no FX fees. There’s also the Stack card which charges zero fees for using ATMS abroad.

    Sounds like you’ve got more reading to do. 😉 I’d suggest Prince of Travel.

  15. Welcome, Kate! Awesome to finally have a Canadian on board.

    Something I hope you’ll keep in mind however is that most serious Canadian points enthusiasts have little interest in flying domestically. And when we do, we’re already aware of our very limited options.

    As another commenter said, it’s as if this post was written for Americans.

  16. I’ve driven and slept in all 10 provinces, lived in three, and have flown in/out of all but PEI. (In my book, if you don’t leave the airport, you haven’t been in a place.) The 3 Territories are still on my list.

    Incidentally, the City of Ottawa has a population of 1 million.

    Looking forward to your perspective, Kate.

  17. With the distances involved it mkight be more affordable to fly from Newfoundland to Europe than to British Columbia. You also have the interesting northern carriers like Porter Airlines, Canadian North and one of Lucly’s fabvourites, Air North, to explore in addition to Westjet and Air Canada.

  18. I lived the first 40 years of my life in Canada—18 just west of YUL, in Pointe Claire, which is how I developed my deep love for aviation, watching all the departures from RWY 28 flying over my house; the rest in Toronto. I’ve been to AB, MB, ON, QC, NB, NS, PE and Yellowknife in the NWT. Haven’t made it to BC, the Rock, SK, Yukon, or None-of-it (aka AlmostBob). I live in NJ now.

    My only memory of points from back then was saving for YEARS as I visited my girlfriend in NYC (now my wife) every other week from YYZ. Half the time I flew on Canadian Airlines, half on AA. I still have the AA pesos, but when A/C took over Canadian, my 65,000 points expired en masse one day. I have never forgiven Err Canada for that. It would be another decade or more before I had enough miles to visit Europe. I didn’t have a good enough credit rating at the time for a premium card, and the annual fee for AMEX scared me away. I didn’t understand the whole points game until very recently, and I wish I had before!

  19. It is not difficult as a Canadian to get a US bank account. I have so far persuaded my US bank to give me a British Airways and successfully obtained an AA Advantage credit card. I believe with an ITIN(international US taxpayer number) others are available. I have my eye on the Capital One Venture card which requires an ITIN. Years ago a Canadian SIN worked-not anymore.
    I live jointly in Canada and South Africa and the credit card points available in both jurisdictions are very poor compared to the US.

  20. I don’t mean to be picky and I know you selected random dates, but I used to live in central Maine and never ever found any prices resembling that from Bangor (maybe to Boston?). We always drove and flew out of BOS because of the outrageous prices from Bangor and Portland, on top of having to connect 15 times. So it’s a little misleading to suggest that domestic US air fares are inexpensive. Anyway, as I said I don’t want to be picky or anything. It’s mainly for the non-US or even non-main city US people out there :). Thank you and welcome – we all look forward to your input!

  21. I have to say that I’m disappointed with the argument made in this post. I live on the US west coast and my interest in points/miles is not driven by domestic travel irrespective of whatever the going airfare might be. It has to do with long-distance overseas aspirational travel. And I suspect that this applies to Canadians as well.

  22. Hi Kate,

    Thanks for joining the One Mile at a Time team to provide us insights on points and miles from a Canadian perspective.

    Don’t forget that Ottawa reached 1 million people on June 14th 2019.

    From CBC:
    Ottawa is about to reach a major population milestone: the city will officially join the one million club on Friday, June 14th, Mayor Jim Watson announced Tuesday.
    Watson said Friday’s the day when the city’s population ticker will jump from six digits to seven.
    “It’s symbolic in some respects, but it also brings us into the league of cities like Toronto and Calgary that are over a million people, and I think it’s a feather in our cap,” Watson said.

    According to Statistics Canada, three other Canadian cities have reached populations of one million: Toronto, Montreal and Calgary.

    While Edmonton and Vancouver are often cited as cities with over a million residents, the City of Vancouver’s population of 631,486 doesn’t include the populous neighbouring cities of Burnaby, B.C., and Richmond, B.C., nor does Edmonton’s at 932,546 include St. Albert or Strathcona County.

  23. I’m the same as Charlie McMillan above. Born and lived here in Toronto my whole life. Besides a few Ontario towns/cities, I’ve only ever been to Montreal. But I’ve travelled extensively throughout the US and Europe. Canada will always be here, when I’m old and can’t go anywhere anymore, I’ll take a bus trip to Quebec City. In general, though, there’s nothing here that interests me at all.

  24. I have been to all provinces except PEI and Newfoundland and both are on the to-do list. Also Saskatchewan was a pass through on the train, so probably deserves a return trip.

    I disagree with @neil. As I live in Asia, I have lots of interest in traveling in North America once I retire. It’s a shame some North Americans think all the interesting places are overseas.

    Look forward to your posts.

  25. Canadians, when is the best time to visit Montreal? (not touristed out, yet still warm). Or is there such a thing? Thanks.

  26. I was so hopeful when reading the title of this post, and then found it to be fluff, losing the feeling entirely.

    Apparently, others have already beaten me to the punch when it comes to correcting the population references here. Shame, as that was about all I got from the article.

    Unlike most other Canadians here, I actually have full access to the US credit card and points game via cards, and have been gleefully working my way through the Chase and AMEX portfolios. And no, I’m not a dual citizen, and yes, I’m a full time resident of Vancouver, BC.

    I wouldn’t touch a single credit card in Canada with a 10 foot pole compared to what I can get south of border.

    So unless the content shifts to opening up perspective on MS and other useful activities in Canada, of which there are are hardly a fleeting few (short of the AC Conversion card…which is peanuts anyways) I have a feeling there won’t be much to talk about on the generating side of things, and as for the redemption side… Same story, until Air Canada works out what it’s doing to replace Aeroplan.

  27. Its true that the points game is better in the US but given the right situation you can earn really really fast…

    I’ve been able to make enough points each of the past 3 years to make have an round the world trip with my wife in business/first the entire way. And on top of that I fly at least once a year to the ME on points in j or f.

    Amex is a has some good cards and yes you can refer yourself and spouse etc for additional gains. Amex Canada does have fewer transfer partners though.

    RBC as some mentioned is also a decent choice with the avion card, and if you spend more than 30k a year on cc then the RBC British airways Visa is good due to the companion ticket

    Both amex and avion have frequent transfer bonuses to avios which are 25 to 50 percent typically.

    Because of the exchange rate, Canadians actually get some better earn rates
    For example $1US = $1.3CAD (about) do for each $1US we spend we earn 1.3 points.

    And, if you’re a small business owner and use your card for purchases you can often get great earn rates and double dip when using online stores. For example I recently had to upgrade several laptops and earned 10x the points plus the typical card spend points on top of that, enough for a j return ticket to Europe just for spending money in i would have spent anyways, but doing it wisely.

    So yes, Canada isnt as good as the US for collecting points but if you do it right you can still get a great bargain.

    I’ve done very well in this market and havent paid for a transatlantic or transpacific flight in over 20 years. I take at least two of those a year.

  28. @Andrew

    That is why I didn’t call out click bait, and I did so in many other posts.

    This is not click bait, but an introduction with a misleading title.

    I see where this introduction is going. But read again, I never got an answer to why Canadians should care. All I got is a big country with expensive airfare. You need to guess from your experience that redeeming miles saves money. But hey, it could be that the best way to travel this vast land is hitchhiking not redeeming points and the post still remains the same.

    Nowhere in the post did miles play a role in explaining. For what it’s worth I could change the title to “Why you shouldn’t have relatives in the other side of Canada” or “It’s cheaper to fly in USA” or even “Canada is huge, how many province have you visited?” and the entire post can still remain the same. Nothing convinced me as a Canadian to collect miles.

    Or in law, you can’t convince the Jury that the defendant is not guilty just because he has big hands. (or maybe you can, lol)

    Still looking forward for more heavy stuff.

  29. @cls
    You need to get out more. As a starting point consider the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Canada, including Rideau Canal, Quebec City, Joggins Cliffs, L’Anse-Aux-Meadows, Gros Morne, Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump…. There’s lots to see in Canada.

    @mo
    Depends on what you want to see and do. (I lived there for 30 years) November’s a bit grim, but otherwise there’s something for every taste in Montreal. There’s a winter festival, early spring you have Cabanes à Sucre, summer you have wall to wall festivals, fall you have gorgeous leaves not far afield, and there’s always Old Montreal, Mount Royal, tons of cultural events, museums, music, and a fabulous restaurant scene. You can go to Montreal and enjoy yourself any time of the year. It all depends on what you would find interesting.

  30. Agree with others on population. Toronto is not 7.4 million, it’s 2.5 million, but metro is about 6 million, and you can stretch that out if you include Hamilton and K-W. Metro population by size is Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa, Edmonton for over 1 million. Airport wise, even though Calgary has roughly the same population as Edmonton and Ottawa (maybe 10% higher), airport traffic is much higher. Calgary almost has as much passenger traffic as Montreal, though most of it (70%) is domestic. Edmonton has half as much as Calgary, and Ottawa half has much as Edmonton.

    A good first post, though I agree seems to be targeting an American audience. It’s pretty easy to discuss domestic travel when there are only two major carriers, an eastern regional carrier and a few ULCCs.

    For those trying to compare the U.S. points game to Canada – don’t. And in fact, the U.S. is largely unique in this regard compared to other countries in the world. If you’re a Canadian and want the hassle of getting U.S. cards, go for it. For the average Canadian flier though, these are not realistic options.

  31. @DenB® — Why the R in the circle? Have you registered our username? I didn’t think that was possible. Or maybe that’s just supposed to be part of your username (in which case I just don’t get it).

  32. Kate, welcome and it’s good to have a ‘correspondent’ from Canada. I posted the following in Ask Lucky last week but got no replies, so what do you think?

    I have the TD Visa Infinite card and have 300,000 Aeroplan miles; AMEX Gold card and AMEX Business Platinum with 200,000 reward points between them; I also have the Westjet World Elite Mastercard with 1300 Westjet dollars; and the Alaska World Elite Mastercard with 23,000 mileage points (just redeemed 40,000 for San Diego to Victoria (YYJ).

    I will not be renewing the AMEX Business Platinum because other than access to Priority Pass lounges there really isn’t much benefit for Canadian cardholders.

    I use the TD Visa to generate points to Aeroplan (when merchants don’t accept AMEX) but there’s no benefit to having both the TD Visa and AMEX Gold Rewards. I will not be renewing the TD Visa.

    My wife and I primarily use points to travel in business cabins using points in the last year to fly to/from Buenos Aires, London, Zurich, Sydney and Rome all booked using Aeroplan points and Narita using BA Avios.

    My questions are based on :

    1. Should I continue to use AMEX to transfer points to Aeroplan; or to BA Avios?

    2. Is it better to accumulate points on the Westjet Mastercard or the Alaska Mastercard, for use at merchants who don’t accept AMEX?

  33. Circling back to the population thing. The sentence would read more accurately as follows: “The second-largest country in the world has only six cities with a metro population of over 1 million: Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa”.

    According to Statistics Canada, the 2016 Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) populations of those cities/metros are:
    Toronto (5.93mn)
    Montreal (4.10mn)
    Vancouver (2.46mn)
    Calgary (1.39mn)
    Ottawa (1.32mn)
    Edmonton (1.32mn)

    By comparison, if you just look at the population of the municipalities, without any surrounding adjacent municipalities, the 2016 populations are:

    Toronto (2.73mn)
    Montreal (1.70mn)
    Calgary (1.24mn)
    Ottawa (0.93mn)
    Edmonton (0.93mn)
    Mississauga – part of Toronto CMA (0.72mn)
    Winnipeg (0.71mn)
    Vancouver (0.63mn)

    In only one instance (Calgary) is the city population anywhere close to the actual urban metro population. This is why its almost always better to cite the metropolitan population statistic and not confuse it with the municipality population statistic.

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