Cash Miles vs. Dream Miles: Understanding Your Air Miles Rewards

Air Miles is Canada’s largest loyalty program with more than 10 million active collector accounts across the country. The company has come under fire recently as the expiry policy that Air Miles introduced four-and-a-half years ago comes into effect at the end of 2016 and many collectors stand to lose their miles.

At the same time the company announced its expiry policy Air Miles also unveiled a feature called Cash Miles; a way for collectors to redeem points instantly at participating sponsors.

Traditional rewards for flights and hotels can be found in something called Dream Miles while collectors looking to instantly redeem miles at grocery stores, gas stations, and at the movies should opt for Cash Miles.

Cash Miles vs. Dream Miles: How to use Air MIles

Air Miles Dream Miles

What is it? Dream Miles is basically the Air Miles rewards program that existed before Cash Miles were introduced in 2012. Here you’ll find options for travel rewards, merchandise, plus tickets for events and attractions.

Types of Dream rewards: Flights, hotels, car rentals, package vacations, and cruises can be booked with your Dream Miles online or through customer care. There are options to book tickets for concerts, plays, sporting events, as well as golf or spa getaways. The merchandise catalogue includes electronics and household items.

How much are your miles worth? A flight from Toronto to Orlando during high season starts at 3,500 reward miles. One night at the Westin Bristol Place Toronto Airport starts at 1,065 reward miles. Car rentals start from 500 reward miles.

A Broil King Regal 420 propane grill costs 9,100 reward miles.

Air Miles Cash Miles

What is it? Air Miles introduced its Cash feature in December 2011 and collectors then had the option to allocate a portion or all of their future reward miles earnings into their Cash Miles account. Cash Miles allow collectors to redeem instantly at participating sponsors in smaller increments starting at $10.

Types of Cash rewards: There are three types of cash rewards; redeem in-store for rewards such as groceries, gas, and home renovations; redeem online and get an eVoucher for items such as pizza, movies, and Starbucks coffee; or donate your reward miles to one of over 86,000 charities.

How much are your miles worth? Cash Miles come in a standardized format so that 95 reward miles = $10. That means one reward mile is worth approximately 10.5 cents.

For a full list of participating Air Miles Cash sponsors click here – https://www.airmiles.ca/arrow/Sponsors

The verdict:

One of the more insidious features of this two-tier rewards structure is that there is no way to transfer Dream Miles to Cash Miles, or vice-versa. Collectors must choose their earnings preference – 100 percent Cash Miles, 100 percent Dream Miles, or anything in-between.

Set your preference here – https://www.airmiles.ca/arrow/CashDreamTool

Dream Miles are more valuable than Cash Miles, however collectors must be wary of saving too long as reward miles expire if unused after five years. The best value for Dream Miles is on hotels, flights, and rental cars. Skip the merchandise and contests.

Air Miles Cash is a decent program that gives collectors a quick and easy way to save $10 each time they’ve earned 95 reward miles. The number of sponsors is broad enough that collectors can redeem their miles for useful rewards such as groceries, gas, movies, coffee, and even iTunes.

Let’s Recap This Air Miles Fiasco

Air Miles made headlines for all the wrong reasons as major media and financial blogs expose shocking details about the loyalty program’s new expiry policy that kicks-in at the end of this year. Let’s recap what we know about this Air Miles fiasco:

Air Miles expiry announcement

Air Miles first announced changes to its program in late 2011 when it launched the Air Miles Cash program where collectors could earn miles and redeem them instantly at participating retailers (while quietly reducing the value of a redeemed reward mile).

Then, as I reported here at Rewards Cards Canada, the Air Miles loyalty program said that starting December 31, 2011 all reward miles will be time-stamped and expire if unused in five years. That means any reward miles earned prior to December 31st, 2011 will expire at the end of this year.

Don’t worry, Air Miles said, “No action is required by Air Miles collectors at this time.”

Air Miles Cash vs. Air Miles Dream

After these announcements Air Miles collectors now had two rewards buckets with which to earn and redeem their reward miles; Air Miles Cash and Air Miles Dream.

If you were the type of collector who liked to redeem their miles instantly for things like free groceries, gas, and movie tickets, then you’d set your earnings allocation to 100% Air Miles Cash. If you preferred saving up your Air Miles for flights, hotels, and rental cars, then you’d just continue collecting Dream Miles.

**Note that any reward miles earned prior to December 31, 2011 were defaulted automatically into your Dream Miles balance. There was and is no option to transfer existing reward miles from Dream to Cash, or vice-versa.**

Air Miles speaks (sort of)

Air Miles collectors didn’t hear much about the upcoming expiry dates for the next few years. In March, 2016 I posted on the Boomer & Echo blog an interview with Air Miles about its expiry policy to help inform readers and let them know their options for redeeming miles. Here’s what I learned:

The Air Miles expiry policy states that beginning December 31, 2016, reward miles older than five years will begin to expire on a quarterly basis. Quarters are set up as the following:

  • March 31
  • June 30
  • September 30
  • December 31

For example, a mile you earned in January 2014 would expire, if unused, after March 30, 2019. Collectors who engage, get and use miles regularly, will be least affected by expiry.

You can request a personalized expiry statement to show you how many miles are due to expire each quarter, for the next 12 months. To request an expiry statement, sign into www.airmiles.ca using your collector number and PIN.

Once you’re signed in, click on Your Profile on the top right corner of the screen, from there you can click on Request Expiry Statement, which you’ll receive in an email within 24 hours. For a shortcut to the page, visit: https://www.airmiles.ca/expiry

It was also revealed that collectors who have ONYX status (i.e. those who collect 6,000 reward miles in a calendar year) would not be affected by the expiry policy so long as they remain ONYX each year.

Judging by reader comments, many collectors were unaware of the expiry policy and of the short window they had to use their miles. One despondent reader said:

“We have over 22,000 Air Miles. We cannot travel by air because of health. Any ideas what is the best way for two seniors to get the most bang for our reward miles, as we’ll lose the majority of them in 2017?”

Media Frenzy and Consumer Outrage

A CBC reporter contacted me in July after reading my interview and the subsequent reader comments. She featured me in a CBC news story about Air Miles expiring and what collectors could do to cash-in before the deadline. The article went viral – over 25,000 shares – and people went ballistic.

Air Miles fiasco

In the aftermath of this article I appeared on half a dozen CBC radio shows across the country to talk about Air Miles and the upcoming expiry date. What amazed me was how few people knew of these changes and how upset they became once they found out.

But that was nothing compared to what happened next.

One week later, CBC wrote that frustrated Air Miles customers were struggling to redeem their points because the Air Miles website was down intermittently, and the phone wait time for customer service was two hours or more.

When customers did connect with Air Miles online or by phone they discovered that the catalog of ‘Dream Rewards’ left much to be desired. Gone were items such as gift cards for groceries and gas – those options had been moved over to the ‘Cash’ side years ago – or subscriptions for magazines such as MoneySense.

Instead, customers found overpriced merchandise and gift cards that cost more than they were worth ($95 cash, plus 50 Air Miles for a $100 gift card), and sweepstakes, which collectors could spend miles for the chance to win various prizes.

**Even the option to donate your reward miles to charity no longer exists inside the Air Miles Dream Rewards bucket. It’s on the Cash Rewards side.**

An open letter to Air Miles

Frustrated, and feeling the pain not only of my readers but of the many Air Miles collectors across the country, I wrote an open letter to Air Miles asking the loyalty company to allow its collectors to make a one-time transfer from Air Miles Dream to Air Miles Cash before the end of the year.

Other bloggers, such as Stephen Weyman from How To Save Money, wrote a helpful guide that showed the five best ways to redeem your Air Miles Dream Rewards (Spoiler: Hotels provide the best value).

Patrick Sojka from Rewards Canada offered three ways to keep your Air Miles reward miles from expiring:

  1. Earn enough miles to get ONYX status
  2. Get the American Express Air Miles Reserve credit card, which automatically gives you ONYX status
  3. Request an expiry statement and spend your miles

Jonathan Bishop from the Public Interest Advocacy Centre said Air Miles could have foreseen this spike in redemption demand based on a previous experience with Aeroplan.

Even Maclean’s got in on the action with an article by Chris Sorensen about why Air Miles is the worst.

Personalization or Deception?

Rewards Canada readers revealed something strange when searching for rewards on the Air Miles website. Customers were seeing different rewards based on their mileage levels, recent activity in the program, location, and whether or not they had logged-in with their PIN.

Apparently Air Miles is hiding certain merchandise from collectors who have enough reward miles to buy it. Air Miles disagrees, however, stating that, “it offers a personalized experience where members’ online access to products is streamlined according to their tastes and engagement with the program.

Final thoughts

Some collectors have called for a class action lawsuit against the loyalty program, similar to when Aeroplan collectors threatened a class action lawsuit and managed to successfully overturn its seven-year mileage expiry policy.

What’s clear is that this is just the beginning of the story for Air Miles and its collectors as the first expiry date draws near and consumer outrage continues to grow. Stay tuned for more on the Air Miles fiasco.

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