Shop smarter, not harder

plane at sunset

You may not know this about me, but I am a hard-core points collector. Not all the points—nobody’s got time for that ( I’m looking at you Shoppers Drug Mart.)  I pick my battles and then I fight to win.

My primary points system is AirMiles. I’ve made a dozen trips on my AirMiles points over the last five years. They’ve all been within North America, and most during non-peak times, but that’s six round-trip tickets I didn’t pay for. Considering how much I enjoy travelling, that’s a significant savings.

How did I do it?

I worked the system.

The first thing you need to do is get a list of sponsors and see which ones will work for you. I like Safeway and Sobey’s. Some people consider those grocery stores overpriced, which is fair. However, even if you do your primary grocery shopping elsewhere, by keeping an eye on their flyers and shopping the AirMiles sales and specials, you can still get them to add up. I also use Shell as one of my primary gas stations*. In Manitoba, LiquorMart is your only option, so if you drink at all, put it on the list. I’m a writer, so I hit Staples a few times a year for ink and paper and sundry items (like Post-its. I adore Post-its.) I’ll also check out Rexall once or twice a year and flash my card there. I used to have an AirMiles American Express card (which counted as my fifth sponsor), but it had an annual fee, so I cancelled it. Now there are fee-free Bank of Montreal AirMiles MasterCards out there. If you charge your purchases, you double up on miles.

That’s five different sponsors. Five is a significant number – visiting five sponsors and getting 1000 points in one year gets you Gold status. Gold gets you even more benefits, like free stuff, chances to earn more points, and discounts on flights.

“But I’ll never get to 1000 points!” you cry.

Here’s where working the system comes in. It takes planning, but it’s doable.

I want to fly from Winnipeg to Ottawa to attend Romancing the Capital this August. I have 1777 AirMiles. Because it’s peak season, I’ll need 2000 for the ticket. At the moment, this leaves me 223 miles short. So I got to work.

AirMiles coupons come out about four times I year. I went through my recent batch, and found some for Safeway, LiquorMart, and Staples, so I pulled them. I also had some others, but as my dad taught me, it’s not a sale unless you were going to buy it anyway.

I don’t drink much. I received 3 bottles of wine in December for hosting Christmas dinner. Before that, it had been several months before I’d purchased a bottle. However, the one wine I like is Moscato, and there was a Moscato coupon. So, since it never hurts to have a bottle of wine in the cupboard, I hit the LiquorMart and got the bottle and my 16 AirMiles.

Then I took my “Spend $100 get 50 AirMiles” and “Buy 3 2L Coke products get 10 AirMiles” coupons to Safeway. I shopped from my list, and kept an eye open for sales. I didn’t need two bottles of Centrum, but one bottle was on my list. Since vitamins keep, and since they were twenty per cent off, and since they were “Buy 2 get 20 AirMiles”, I now have one bottle in reserve. The Cokes were also on sale and on my list. By the time I was done shopping, I used both my coupons, found an in-store special on something that was already on my list, and received my base miles. 85 points to me.

Then I took my 7-cents-off-per-litre coupon from Safeway and went to Shell and filled up. More points for me at sponsor #3.

I have no need to go to Staples at the moment, but I’ll keep the coupon in my wallet until it expires in case I find myself there. It doesn’t hurt to be prepared.

That’s over 100 points in a single trip. If I had an AirMiles credit card, I would have charged them to that and hit four sponsors in an hour.

Granted, I could do this because I had an extra $35 to spend this week ($23 on the wine and $12 for the extra bottle of vitamins.) If I didn’t, I would have waited till the next week and hit Safeway on Tuesday because they have “20X the AirMiles” events on the first Tuesday of every month, with a minimum purchase amount of $50. That works out to one AirMile per dollar spent. The wine was a nice bonus, but it was definitely a bonus. I generally only get LiquorMart points a couple times a year anyway. I likely won’t be back before summer.

But here is where I like to think I excel. As I mentioned, my previous AirMiles American Express card had an annual fee, so I cancelled it. Now I have a TD Platinum Travel Visa Card. Note – it has a $99 annual fee (which is waived with my bank plan. And my bank plan fees are waived if I maintain the minimum required balance in my chequing account. If I didn’t get this card for free, I’d definitely consider the fee-free AirMiles MasterCard.) I charge all my AirMiles shopping because I get points on all purchases. Unlike AirMiles or Aeroplan cards, these points can be used for any travel expenses. When I book a flight on AirMiles, I charge the taxes and fees to my Platinum Travel Visa Card, then I cash in my credit card points and apply the credit to the taxes and fees and I truly fly for free.

“But I don’t travel” you may say. You can still make this work for you. And you can do it without the Travel Visa. In fact, a fee-free MasterCard will work even better for you. AirMiles can be converted to Cash miles. For the cost of my ticket (2000 AirMiles) you could have $200 worth of free gas, groceries or other goods, and still have a few AirMiles left over.

Free is good. If you are willing to invest your time, you can make free pay off.

Good luck, and may the coupons be ever in your favour.

*My other preferred gas station is Red River Co-op. Membership is free, and I got a cheque this month for more than $30 as my annual member rebate. They also have Co-op grocery stores. What to guess where I go if I’m not shopping at Safeway? Of course, I use my points credit card there too. There’s always a new way to make it work for you.

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