Money & Career

Reward programs: How to make the most of air miles, credit card rewards and other points cards

Reward programs: How to make the most of air miles, credit card rewards and other points cards

Author: Canadian Living

Money & Career

Reward programs: How to make the most of air miles, credit card rewards and other points cards

This story was originally titled "Reward Programs," in the March 2008 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!

A remarkable 86 per cent of Canadian consumers identify themselves as participants in loyalty marketing programs. These programs come in many shapes, from Canadian Tire "money" to frequent-flyer programs. Typically, they consist of a plastic card that you present when you buy things from a particular business or its partners; the more money you spend, the more rewards (in discounts or products) you're entitled to claim. Here's how you can enjoy the highest return for your loyalty.
1. Buy what you need. A study found consumers will buy up to 20 times as much merchandise in one place if they feel emotionally attached to a loyalty plan. Buy only those things you would normally purchase, but make sure you always collect any applicable points for that item.

2. Use credit wisely.
Affiliated credit cards yield bonus points, but interest can eat up rewards fast. "There's no point chasing rewards if you don't pay off your balance every month," says Kim Barnhardt of Toronto, who uses her HBC MasterCard to collect extra HBC Rewards points.

3. Collect travel points. "Aeroplan is the best if you fly at least a few times a year," says Patrick Sojka, founder of It takes a long time to amass points if you're not travelling. "If you don't fly often and don't use a credit card, then Air Miles is better because it has a lot of partners," he says.

4. Diversify. Join at least two programs so that you have lots of opportunities to collect points from partner businesses. Safeway is an Air Miles partner, for example; Racquel Foran of Coquitlam, B.C., shops for a family of five at Safeway, so her Air Miles points add up quickly. "Two or three times a year, we do husband-and-wife weekends in downtown Vancouver hotels using our Air Miles," she says. Racquel has already booked a family trip to Europe this year by combining Aeroplan and Air Miles rewards.

5. Get web-savvy. Visit program websites for bonus offers and new benefit announcements. RBC Rewards and Esso Extra cardholders, for example, can trade points between programs. Shoppers Drug Mart/Pharmaprix Optimum members are automatically covered for three days of family travel insurance.

Page 1 of 26. Collect every point. Some retailers let you bring back a receipt to add points if you forget to show your card at the time of purchase. And be aware of every opportunity; for instance, HBC Rewards cardholders collect points at all company stores – The Bay, Zellers, Home Outfitters and Designer Depot – and for shopping online.

7. Use it or lose it. "Use those points as quickly as you can, and certainly don't wait more than 18 months," says Bruce Cran, president of the Consumers' Association of Canada. Points expire – Aeroplan points, for example, are valid for only seven years. And programs may change how you earn points. In January 2006, for example, Shoppers/Pharmaprix changed its Shoppers Optimum Program: the $75 reward level rose from 34,000 to 40,000 points (a $600 difference).

8. Choose rewards wisely. Redeeming points for big catalogue items such as electronics may not be worth it. "If you buy a barbecue, that could cost you $100,000 in purchases, but the thing's only worth a few hundred dollars, so evaluate anything that you are getting against the marketplace," says Cran. Alexandra Hood of Toronto regularly collects small-value rewards, such as lunch or a jar of peanut butter, using HBC and Shoppers Optimum cards.

9. Trade or top up. At, you can swap points between programs, and many programs allow you to transfer points to a family member – at a cost. If you're short of a plateau, you may be able to top up; for example, HBC cardholders can redeem 13 million points to receive a 50-inch Panasonic plasma HD television. If they're a little short, they can top up at a rate of $10 for 40,000 points.

10. Think small. Great rewards for loyalty come from small merchants, such as the coffee shop that gives you a free latte after you've bought five or the card store that gives you a free card after you buy 10. University of Calgary Bookstore members, for example, save up to 20 per cent off purchases as they buy more books.

Read more:
10 things you're wasting your money on
The world's 10 best budget travel destinations
How to live on less money

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Reward programs: How to make the most of air miles, credit card rewards and other points cards