What to do with your travel points during COVID-19

Hyder Owainati
by Hyder Owainati April 7, 2020 / No Comments

COVID-19 has put most travel plans on pause. The Government of Canada has issued a worldwide travel advisory, airlines are grounding planes and limiting flight schedules, and cities across the globe are on lockdown. You know this already. Most of us are huddled indoors for the majority of the day, practising social distancing.

But what if you have a travel credit card and a stash of points or miles? You might be wondering what you should do – hold on to your points until travel returns to normal or cash in for less-lucrative rewards like gift cards or statement credits to save right now? 

In the midst of a global pandemic, adjusting your rewards strategy isn’t the most pressing problem but it can affect your wallet at a time when it matters most. 

Below, we break down the pros and cons of different redemption options and the average points values for some of Canada’s biggest programs.

Points values by program

Points values fluctuate depending on what you’re redeeming for:

Average value of 1 point 
Rewards program Travel Gift card Cash credit
BMO Rewards 0.71 cents 0.48 cents 0.33 cents
Scotia Rewards 1.0 cent 0.75 cents 0.66-0.80 cents
TD Rewards 0.50 cents 0.33 cents for limited-time 0.25 cents
Amex Rewards 1.0 cent 0.77 cents 1.0 cent until Sept 30 (0.7 cents afterwards)
CIBC Aventura 1.16 cents 0.71 cents 0.625 cents
RBC  1.14 cents 0.71 cents 0.58 cents
Air Miles 12.1 cents 10.5 cents
Aeroplan 1.20 cents 0.70 cents

*Values above are based on general averages calculated by Ratehub.


Why you should redeem points for gift cards or cash credits

  • The obvious benefit of going this route is you can use points to save on your current everyday purchases. A gift card to Costco or Amazon can cut down the bill on your next grocery run or online purchase while a cash credit will reduce your card’s overall balance. This can be particularly helpful if money is tight and you’re looking for ways to save on your spending now.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has put the brakes on most non-essential travel, and it’s uncertain when things will go back to normal. It’s also unclear if and how travel programs, point values, and flight prices will change in a post-COVID-19 era.

Why you should save your points for travel

  • Holding onto your points until travel is back on the agenda has its merits. In the case of virtually every credit card rewards program, you’ll get far more value out of your points on travel redemptions (like flights and hotel stays) versus non-travel rewards (like gift cards or statement credits). For instance, while 10,000 TD points are worth $50 in travel rewards, those same points work out to $25 in cash credits. That’s a big value gap. Some points programs and travel providers are even running limited-time promotions to try and enctice people to book travel in 2020.
  • If you plan on using points to shop for gift cards or merchandise, you may have to wait for up to three weeks for items to arrive in the mail with further possible delays due to COVID-19 and the impact it’s having on the shipment of non-essential items.
  • For the vast majority of rewards programs, your points won’t expire as long as your account is in good standing or your credit card is used at least once every year, so you won’t have to worry about a looming expiry date.

Regardless of how you choose to redeem your points, you should always compare your options to get the most value as possible. To make comparing easier, take out your trusty calculator and divide the dollar value of the reward by the points needed (i.e. if a $25 gift card requires 2,500 points, you can work out each point is worth $25 ÷ 2,500 = 1 cent). Boiling down values to a per point basis makes comparing far more straightforward. 

Note: Most programs also let you redeem points for merchandise. Since point values vary dramatically by each item and the catalogue of products can differ vastly by program, we chose to focus on gift card and cash credit redemptions for this blog. If you’re considering merchandise, be sure to research the final sale price of the item and how much you’ll get per point to ensure you’re earning the most value. Generally, we’ve found merchandise offer less value than gift cards.


BMO Rewards

  • Travel: 140 points = $1 / 1 point = 0.71 cents 
  • Gift cards: 1 point = 0.48 cents on average
  • Statement credits: 15,000 points = $50 / 1 point = 0.33 cents 
  • Investments: 15,000 points = $100 / 1 point = 0.67 cents 

BMO has quite an extensive catalogue of gift cards you can redeem points for, and while many are for restaurants and clothing stores, there are options like Costco, Sobeys, Amazon.ca, Canadian Tire, Best Buy, and Indigo which are open or delivering during COVID-19. Most are physical gift cards and are shipped by mail, so you may have to wait up to three weeks for them to arrive.

You can also redeem BMO points for cash credits to pay down your credit card balance – which only takes about three to five business days to process – but you’ll usually get more bang for your buck on gift card redemptions so you may want to keep that in mind.

Interestingly, BMO offers great value when redeeming points for money into a BMO Investment Account. If you don’t need the cash to cover everyday purchases and are looking to invest, this could be an option worth considering.


Scotia Rewards

  • Travel: 5,000 points = $50 / 1 point = 1 cent 
  • Gift cards: 1 point = 0.75 cents on average
  • Statement credits: 1 point = 0.66 up to 0.80 cents

With gift cards from Walmart, Amazon, President’s Choice, Metro, Longos and Costco, Scotia Rewards offers plenty of ways to use points to save on groceries. You’ll generally get a solid 0.75 cents per point for gift card redemptions, which is around 33% less what you’d for a travel redemption, which all things considered isn’t too dramatic of a drop in value compared to some other programs. It also helps that Scotia Rewards has one of the more intuitive websites, letting you search gift cards by the name of the retailer instead of just sorting alphabetically.

Using points for cash credit is another option that delivers solid value, but you’ll get more bang for your buck when redeeming a larger number of points in one go. For example, while redeeming just 3,000 points will get you $20 in cash credits (0.67 cents per point), redeeming 62,500 points works out to $500 (a more impressive 0.8 cents per point).

One incentive of using and sticking with travel rewards is you can redeem Scotia points up to one year after your flight is booked using Scotia’s “Apply Points to Travel” option, giving you some added flexibility.


TD Rewards

  • Travel: 200 points = $1 / 1 point = 0.5 cents on travel booked online using ExpediaForTD 
  • Gift cards: 1 point = 0.25 cents on average
  • Statement credits: 400 point = $1 / 1 point = 0.25 cents 

Update: For a limited-time, 1 TD point is worth 0.33 cents in gift cards (an increase in value of 32%).

While Amazon is currently missing from the list, TD Rewards does let you redeem points for gift cards from Costco, Longos, Metro, Rexall, Spotify, Best Buy, and more. Plus, unlike many other rewards programs, point values on gift card redemptions are pretty consistent regardless of the retailer and the gift card amount as you’ll always get about 0.25 cents per TD Point.

When using points for cash credits, you’ll get $1 for every 400 points you redeem – or 0.25 cents per point. 

Since TD Rewards is one of the rare programs where gift cards and cash credits offer the same value from your points, it could be the better move to stick with the latter since cash credits are more convenient and flexible.

It’s worth noting you’ll get about half the value out of your TD Points on non-travel redemptions like gift cards and cash credit cards compared to travel rewards like flights and hotel stays, which is a considerable difference.


American Express Membership Rewards

  • Travel: 1,000 points = $10 / 1 point = 1 cent. Note: points values on travel redemption can be worth more through point transfers and AMEX’s Fixed Points Program.
  • Gift cards: 1 point = 0.77 cents on average
  • Statement credits: 1,000 points = $7 / 1 point = 0.7 cents

Update: AMEX has announced 1,000 points will equal $10 in statement credits (1 point = 1 cent) for a limited time until September 30.

Out of all of Amex’s non-travel redemption options, our favourite involves using points to get an American Express Prepaid Card. You’ll get 0.8 cents per point and can redeem for Prepaid Cards ranging from as little as $25 to $500. You can swipe an American Express Prepaid Card at any store just like you would an Amex credit card – except you won’t earn any rewards.

American Express Membership Rewards points can be used for cash credits to pay down your balance in increments of 1,000 points for $7 – or about 0.7 cents per point. You can also redeem points for gift cards at about 0.77 cents per point, though values do vary by gift card. Admittingly, American Express doesn’t have the most diverse catalogue of gift cards, and is especially lacking in terms of grocery and pharmacy retailers.


CIBC

  • Travel: 1 point = 1.16 cents on average
  • Gift cards: 1 point = 0.71 cents on average
  • Statement credits: 4,000 points = $25 / 1 point = 0.625 cents
  • Money in a CIBC Financial Account: 12,000 points = $100 / 1 point = 0.83 cents per point

Like all of Canada’s big banks, CIBC’s gift card catalogue is extensive and includes options like Amazon, President’s Choice, Longos, Metro, and Walmart. Point values on gift cards are pretty solid and consistent at around 0.71 cents per point. Aventura points can also be redeemed for cash credits to reduce your card’s balance but at a less favourable rate of 4,000 points for $25 – or 0.625 cents per point.

Aventura points can also be used to pay down existing loans or invest in accounts from CIBC, which can come in handy if you carry multiple accounts with the bank. For instance, you can use points towards your CIBC mortgage, CIBC Investor’s Edge Account, or CIBC Tax Advantage Savings Account at a rate of 12,000 points for $100 – or 0.83 cents per point. All things considered though, this isn’t the best option if you’re in a cash crunch and need the money to cover more immediate essential purchases like groceries.


RBC

  • Travel: 1 point = 1.14 cents on average
  • Gift cards: 1 point = 0.71 cents on average
  • Statement credits: 17,200 points = $100 / 1 point = 0.58 cents
  • Money in a RBC Financial Account: 12,000 points = $100 / 1 point = 0.83 cents per point

You’ll earn a consistent 0.71 cents per point when using RBC points for gift cards while redeeming for statement credits works out to a far-less-impressive 0.58 cents per point. Between those two options, gift cards clearly offer better value.

One big plus of this points program is that RBC also lets you transfer points to Hudson’s Bay Rewards points at a 1:2 ratio. Since Hudson’s Bay points can be redeemed for gift cards and are worth 0.5 cents each, you’ll get a solid 1 cent return on your RBC points when shopping from the department store. Hudson’s Bay gift cards can be used for online purchases at thebay.com, which is currently shipping items during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

RBC points can also be applied towards other RBC banking products like mortgages, lines of credits, and investment accounts. You’ll need to redeem in increments of at least 12,000 points for $100 – which works out to 0.83 cents per point.


Air Miles

  • Dream Miles (travel): 1 mile = 12.1 cents on average
  • Cash Miles (gift cards): 95 miles = $10 / 1 mile = 10.5 cents

If you’re an Air Miles collector, you can log in to your account and adjust your preferences from earning Dream Miles to Cash Miles. While the former can be used for travel rewards like flights, the latter can be redeemed for discounts off purchases from retailers partnered with Air Miles either in-store or for virtual vouchers.

You can redeem in increments of 95 Cash Miles for $10 (or 10.5 cents per Mile) off your purchases from retailers including Rexall, Safeway, Sobeys, UberEats, Metro, Shell, Doordash, and more.

Unfortunately, you cannot convert any existing Dream Miles you have into Cash Miles. If you want to use your Dream Miles now for non-travel redemptions, you can get free merchandise but not gift cards. Merchandise redemptions don’t offer as much value as Cash Miles, but Air Miles does run special offers on the regular and has an extensive catalogue of products.

It’s worth noting that if you don’t redeem or earn Air Miles for two consecutive years, your Miles will expire. So, make sure to swipe or tap your Air Miles credit card at lease once every 24 months.

Since Air Miles is a co-branded loyalty program, you can’t use miles to pay down your credit card balance. 


Aeroplan

  • Travel: 1 mile = 1.2 cents on average
  • Gift cards: 1 miles = 0.7 cents on average

Update: Aeroplan has a special promotion (ends July 1st) that effectively lets you book Air Canada flights within Canada or the US with 50% fewer miles. Read the details here.

Similar to Air Miles, Aeroplan Miles can’t be used for cash credits but they can be used for gift cards and merchandise.

Aeroplan offers gift cards from close to three dozen retailers including Amazon, Costco, Best Buy, Hudson’s Bay, and more, though grocery options are lacking. Your point values vary depending on the retailer and the gift card amount with higher-priced gift cards usually offering a higher return.

You can lose the Aeroplan Miles you’ve earned, but only if you don’t redeem or earn miles for 12 consecutive months. Making just one purchase a year with your Aeroplan credit card will ensure your points don’t expire.


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