Despite enduring significant financial troubles throughout the 2000s — it entered bankruptcy once and had another close call later on — Air Canada has since rebounded and is currently in the middle of a renaissance. With brand new planes, kind service, and a decent loyalty program, Canada’s flag carrier is far and away the best North American legacy carrier. While Delta and Alaska may be worthy competitors, neither of them can offer the value that their counterparts from the North can. Add in a weak Canadian Dollar (1 CAD = ~0.75 USD), and flying Air Canada frequently becomes the most affordable option too, especially on international segments. If you don’t mind connecting via Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, higher flyers can’t go wrong with Air Canada.
- Name: Air Canada
- Code: AC
- Website: www.aircanada.com
- Domestic Hubs: Toronto Pearson (YYZ), Calgary International (YYC), Montréal Trudeau (YUL), Vancouver International (YVR)
- Destinations: 350
- Alliance: Star Alliance
- Loyalty Program: Altitude/Aeroplan. Although Altitude is the name of Air Canada’s loyalty program, reward point management is contracted to a third party, Aimia, which runs Aeroplan.
- Loyalty Tiers: (1) Super Elite 100k, (2) Elite 75k, (3) Elite 50k, (4) Elite 35k, (5) Prestige 25k
Three Notable Features
- Best North American legacy carrier: When considering all the factors that go in to evaluating an airline (hard & soft products, operations, loyalty program, partners, etc) Air Canada consistently has pretty good offerings and has no major flaws either. Sure, while American Airlines may have the nicest premium cabins in North America and first class seats to boot, Air Canada’s new reverse herringbone seats are still among the best in the industry. Plus, Air Canada operates the youngest longhaul fleet in North America, comprising mainly of 777s and 787s.
Delta is one of the most reliable airlines in the world, let alone in North America, and it boasts the fewest cancelled flights and delays. Air Canada is a close second, which is impressive nevertheless, but even more so when you consider how much inclement weather Canadian airports endure during the long winters.
Similarly, United’s MileagePlus may be a better loyalty program than Aeroplan, but the differences are in the small details. Both options are far superior to what American and Delta offer, as they feature some of the cheapest redemption rates for some of the best airlines in the world. Plus, availability is abundant.
A lot of people question Skytrax’s rating system, but for what it’s worth, Air Canada is the only four-star legacy airline in North America. That recognition is definitely well deserved.
- A better travel experience: As indicated by the high Skytrax score, traveling on Air Canada is just better than on carriers in the United States. There are a few factors that go unnoticed by many, but they make all the difference in improving your comfort. The Maple Leaf Lounges, for instance, are far-and-away the best in North America. They’re not glitzy like what Emirates and Etihad and Qatar offer, nor are they as impressive as Lufthansa’s First Class Terminal, but they are consistently fresh, stylish, and accommodating. They absolutely trounce what American, Delta, and United usually offer.
Air Canada also places a strong emphasis on its service. Everyone who works for the airline seems to be a quintessential Canadian, and I mean that in the best possible way. Kindness and humor, as well as helpfulness, are key components of the interactions you’ll have with employees. Whether your ordering a meal on a 14 hour flight, trying to find lost luggage, or booking a ticket, you can count on a favorable experience.
Other added perks: when you fly to the United States from Canada, you clear customs and immigration prior to boarding, so you arrive as a domestic passenger. That’s pretty convenient, especially after a longhaul international trip.
While all of these benefits are largely insignificant, collectively, they make air travel on Air Canada a lot more pleasant than the alternatives.
- Aeroplan: Aeroplan, which is managed by a third-party, is responsible for handling Air Canada’s reward currency. It’s a weird set up, and it’ll be terminated in 2020 in favor of the airline’s in-house program, but it currently gets the job done fairly well; the two companies are seamlessly integrated. Because Air Canada is a member of Star Alliance, Aeroplan members are entitled to redeem their miles for travel on all of its partners, which is usually a good value. Redemption rates are competitively priced, there are a number of special features like free stopovers and round-the-world awards, and points can be easily accrued thanks to a smattering of credit card offers and the ability to transfer in American Membership Rewards Points. It’s not as flexible as United’s MileagePlus, but it’s a terrific alternative nevertheless.
Three Notable Drawbacks
- Aeroplan kinda sucks now: While Aeroplan has its benefits, it is nowhere near as good as it used to be — it was once considered to be one of the premier loyalty programs. Higher flyers have since recognized the benefits of it, and many began to take advantage of the perks offered to them. The greatest consequence of this is unresponsive customer service; some have reported that they’ve tried to call in, but were put on hold for hours at a time. Such a wait time is unacceptable, especially when you just need to book a simple award ticket.
Beyond that, there have been massive devaluations to the program. While redemption rates are still competitive compared to the alternatives (United Airlines, Singapore Airlines), their long term stability is questionable — “will my points lose their purchasing power?” — customers worry. Fuel surcharges are levied as well, and those alone often add hundreds of dollars to the final price. That’s not cool! The inflated costs seriously detract from higher flying.
- Canadian operations makes the airline less convenient: I don’t mind connecting through Canada. Toronto Pearson, Montreal Trudeau, and Vancouver International are great airports; they’re not too big, they have quality amenities and lounges, and are kept very clean. Many also feature displays unique to the heritage and culture of the region. In Vancouver for instance, this sculpture greets arriving passengers…
But in some cases, it may not make sense to connect through the North. If you live far from the Canadian border, you’ll likely have to go far out of your way to fly on Air Canada. For instance, you could fly from Miami to Los Angeles direct. You’d be on a flight operated by American Airlines, and the on-board experience in all classes of service would be really crappy at worst, mediocre at best. The routing would be about 2,300 miles long.
Alternatively, you could opt to fly Air Canada via Toronto, and you would have much more comfortable flights. However, it would add almost a thousand additional miles to the trip.
If you live near Air Canada’s hubs, this is less of an issue. Boston to Los Angeles via Toronto adds only 10 miles to the direct route (!!!), and if you’d prefer to avoid an American legacy carrier, Air Canada is a viable, if not better, alternative.
- Some price premiums: Air Canada is like Delta in the sense that both, compared to other North American legacy carriers, frequently charge premiums on their air fares. The added comforts and higher quality of service don’t come free, after all. However, American customers seldom notice that difference in cost because the US Dollar is so much stronger than the Canadian Dollar (1 CAD = ~0.75 USD). So while something may be considered expensive north of the border, it wouldn’t be thought of differently in the United States. That said, there are two main things to take in to consideration when planning a trip: 1) is it cheaper to route through the United States on a domestic carrier than through Canada? It sometimes can be, despite the differences in currency. 2) If you’re booking an award ticket, how much are the fuel surcharges? They can be outrageously high in either USD and CAD. You may be paying a lot more than you otherwise would if you chose the Canadian option over American alternatives. Be aware…
Three Special Opportunities
- Amusing promotions with cheap premium fares: While Air Canada fares sometimes command a price premium on various intra-North American routes, the vast majority of the time, the airline uses its weaker home currency to offer cheap fares for Americans. It’s targeting business travelers in particular, and prices for premium cabins are often shockingly low. Higher flyers can take advantage of these deals with their travels, and in doing so, save a lot of money and earn lots of valuable miles. Just recently for example, it was possible to fly from Newark to Frankfurt via Montreal for under $1,000 round trip.
Economy travelers aren’t forgotten either, and those who live in smaller markets like Pittsburgh and Cleveland can connect internationally for cheap too. I routinely see tickets available to the Far East and the Middle East for under $500 round trip. Even for those who just want to explore the Great North, Air Canada has you covered…
Canada is a great destination itself, and it’s easy to fly higher there. The flag bearing airline can be a cost effective and useful tool in helping you achieve your travel goals in North America and beyond.
- Star Alliance redemptions: It’s no secret that I’m a huge Star Alliance fan, and I’ll reiterate that sentiment here. Because Air Canada is a (founding) member, its affiliation is undoubtedly a huge asset for both the airline and its customers. The former can cooperate with United within North America, Lufthansa, LOT, and SAS (and more) on transatlantic routes, and ANA, Air China, and EVA Air (and even more) on transpacific routes. Higher flyers stand to gain even more. Not only do they get their elite benefits reciprocated throughout the network, as well as the added conveniences from the “Move Under One Roof” initiative, but they have practical ways to spend their miles too. There are a lot of awards available on a number of reputable carriers. For example, between New York JFK and Frankfurt, there are 5 different flights available at the saver level in Business Class for only 55,000 miles one way.
Those prices are nice, but only marginally cheaper than what you would pay on United (57.5k miles). You also have a greater chance of paying fuel surcharges, which isn’t so nice. What really makes Aeroplan shine though is its round-the-world redemptions…
- Round-the-world awards with stopovers: Unlike with other Star Alliance carriers, Aeroplan allows its members to redeem miles for a series of flights at discounted rates. To take advantage, you have to originate and terminate in the same place, and include a stopover and/or an open jaw at the minimum. That combination of perks could be used to generate a round-the-world ticket. As an example, you can fly from New York JFK to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and then back to New York via Paris. The stop in Paris would be considered a stopover. The final routing, layovers included, looks like this.
The price of that entire itinerary, entirely in Business Class, is only 155,000 miles plus $197 CAD in fuel surcharges and other fees.
That cost is simply remarkable. Better yet, you could even add one more stopover in one of the layover cities (Taipei, Istanbul, Zurich) at no additional cost. Possibilities like this are endless, so be sure to take advantage of Aeroplan’s neat quirks when planning your higher flyer escapades!
As is the case with the other airlines, Air Canada has its share of strengths and weaknesses. While it’s one of my favorites, that doesn’t mean that its competitors are definitely inferior. You probably have different experiences, perspectives, and values than I do; what matters to me may not matter to you and vice versa. The point of this guide is merely to highlight the features that makes Air Canada unique, and help you better understand how it fits in to higher flying collectively.