It’s time to redeem myself in the travel points department

CanWest News Service
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It’s taken me years to get wiser to the ways of the travel rewards. But not before being completely turned off about seven years ago when I’d finally accumulated a critical mass of points only to have them vanish when a certain Canadian airline went into bankruptcy protection.

It was back to a big fat zero in the rewards department when its point-collecting card became a casualty of its financial collapse. It wasn’t until this past year that I finally got serious again about collecting points. I’m dutifully using my new credit card for all of my big purchases and I’m starting to see the points amount to something more than a movie ticket and popcorn.

According to a new Angus Reid study, I’m typical of most Canadians when it comes to collecting and redeeming reward points. The survey says 53 per cent of us collect points because we sincerely want to improve our travel experiences without having to pay more money for it. Still, less than 30 per cent of Canadians have actually ever booked a trip using travel rewards. The same poll says 84 per cent of Canadians would travel more often if they could use their points to do so.

So, what’s stopping us?

Patrick Sojka is an expert on collecting rewards and knowing which loyalty programs work best for consumers. There are a couple of factors and misconceptions among consumers, says Sojka. He’s founder and CEO of two consumer reward sites — rewardscanada. ca, geared to Canadians, and flyerbonuses. com, an international and country-specific consumer site.

The competition is fierce among credit card companies. Almost every banking institution offers a rewards programs.

Many people are not aware of the many rewards programs out there, Sojka says. There are literally dozens, some of them flexible — as in no blackout periods — and others not so much. When we do find what we think is the right program, Sojka says many of us simply sign up, thinking the points will miraculously accumulate.

"A lot of people don’t do a lot of research into reward programs. They just join and start collecting without reading." One or two hours of research, "will pay off in rewards," he says.

People also tend to focus exclusively on airline points. But Sojka says hotel chain reward programs, such as Starwood, are an excellent way to collect points.

Another misconception, say Sojka, is that people think they need to be big spenders, forking out at least $100,000 a year. Rather, "you don’t have to be a huge spender. It depends on what program you have."

Here are a few of Sojka’s tips for getting the most out of collecting points:

-If you have a credit card program, such as Avion, charge everything. "The points hounds say, ’If it’s over two dollars, I’ll pay credit." This includes the chocolate bar you might buy at the corner store. You have to be pretty disciplined to go this route, says Sojka, and make sure you pay off your credit card every month.

-Take advantage of bonus offers. Watch advertisements for retailers that offer double and triple points.

-Sign up for one or two programs and focus on them. For example, enrol in a hotel rewards plan, which Sojka says are often the most flexible, but not well known. Sojka likes Starwood’s because it allows consumers to accumulate points for hotel stays, flight and car rentals and even concert tickets, all without blackout dates for travel. It’s also a handy tool for booking your own holidays. (starwoodhotels. com)

According to Sojka, the following awards program have the most worth:

-Aeroplan: Because of its hundreds of earning partners

-Starwood Preferred Guest: Sojka says this hotel program consistently ranks at the top in hotel guest programs because of its flexibility (hotel stays, flights, frequent flyer miles, lifestyle experiences). There are no black out dates on reward night stays if there is standard room availability at the hotel (for example, if it’s not sold out)

-Travel points credit cards that allow consumers to book their own travel. Sojka recommends having a card tied into one of the two programs already mentioned. He cites Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from Amex, which allows users to earn Starpoints that can be used for hotel stays and the ability to transfer those Starpoints into Aeroplan miles — effectively killing two birds with one stone.

Meanwhile, I’m going to resolve to become a "points hound," using my credit card for the small stuff — even my morning coffee run and not give in to the temptation to use those points for anything less than a dream trip.

Calgary Herald

lmonforton<P>theherald.canwest.com

MORE CANADIAN TRAVEL REWARD STATS

-More than half of Canadians — 58 per cent — only stay in high-end hotels if they can get a deal or use rewards

-Of those who collect points, 53 per cent say that they collect points to enhance their travel experiences beyond what they could normally afford.

-Most Canadian — 96 per cent — say that budget is a major consideration when planning trips.

-When it comes to hotels, 82 per cent of Canadians agree that the hotel they stay in affects the enjoyment of their trips.

-More than one-quarter of Canadians (28 per cent) stated they would rather not travel at all than stay in a budget hotel.

-Regionally, Quebec residents were least likely to stay at a budget hotel, with 37 per cent stating they’d rather not travel at all than stay at a budget hotel. (This is nearly 10 per cent more than the national average. Only 20 per cent Albertans answered this way.)

Organizations: Amex

Geographic location: Calgary, Quebec

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