I thought I’d do a proper rundown of my favourite loyalty program in Canada. The main reason why it is my top pick is because travelling by train is my most preferred mode of transportation. The icing on the cake is that VIA Rail’s, VIA Preference, offers a very competitive loyalty program with lots of value to be had.
Free to Sign Up and Bonus
First of all, the VIA Preference program is free to sign up. You also qualify for a Welcome Bonus of 500 points when you spend $250 or more (before taxes) on VIA Rail travel within the first 6 months of registration. I value 1 VIA Preference point at 6 cents a piece, so that’s a $30 bonus.
Below are the earning ratios for your spending, all before taxes. Note that you do not earn any points on taxes.
- Earn 1 point for every $1 spent on 6-Paks, Bizpaks, Escape or Business class fares, as a basic member
- Earn 1.25 point for every $1 spent on Economy fares, as a basic member
- Earn 1.5 point for every $1 spent on Economy Plus or Business Plus fares, as a basic member
- Earn 2 points for every $1 spent on Escape or Business class fares, as well as Bizpaks and 6 paks, as a Privilège elite member
- Earn 2.5 points for every $1 spent on Economy fares, as a Privilège elite member
- Earn 3 points for every $1 spent on 6-Paks, Bizpaks, Escape or Business class fares, as a Premier elite member, as well as on Economy Plus or Business Plus fares, as a Privilège elite member
- Earn 3.75 points for every $1 spent on Economy fares, as a Premier member
- Earn 4.5 points for every $1 spent on Economy Plus or Business Plus fares, as a Premier member
You can also earn VIA Preference points by doing surveys with AskingCanadians.
The qualifying period for elite status runs from April 1 to March 31, instead of the usual calendar year with most other loyalty programs. Once you qualify for elite status, you will immediately enjoy the perks until April 30 of the following year (i.e. you get an additional 30 after the qualifying period ends on March 31).
Below are some of the key highlights of the two elite statuses:
- Achieved when you spend between $1,000 and $1,999 (before taxes)
- Selection 2 exclusive coupons
- Access to a priority ticket line in major stations
- Achieved when you spend $2,000 or more (before taxes) and complete at least 8 segments (a one-way trip counts as a segment and if you change, it counts as a new segment)
- Selection 4 exclusive coupons
- Access to a priority ticket line in major stations
- Unrestricted reward travel (except December 23 and 24)
- Priority boarding in Montréal, Toronto and Quebec City, Business or Economy class
- Business lounge access when travelling on Economy Plus and Economy BizPak
- Priority meal selection on board when travelling in Business class
I will be writing another post how the exclusive coupons.
Just like hotel reward programs (minus resort fees), you do not earn points on the taxes when you pay for a train ticket, but when you redeem for a reward ticket, all the taxes are covered (unlike airlines). I really love this model, much more customer friendly, and it also makes the VIA Preference points much more valuable.
The reward redemption is based on so many different factors and can really vary. For example:
- It costs 1,125 points (or 550 points for a child) for a long distance (3.5 hours and more) Economy trip between Toronto and Montreal.
- It costs 700 points (or 350 points for a child) for a long distance segment (8 hours or less) Economy trip somewhere along the Toronto and Vancouver.
Let’s take the math one step further. On a side note, you will want to target purchasing your ticket during Discount Tuesdays. Keep in mind that you may not get the itinerary that you are looking for, so you need to have a flexible schedule. Otherwise, there are general system wide sales that are similar prices to Discount Tuesdays. Back to the calculations, assuming you manage to book your ticket during a promotional period:
A train ticket between Toronto and Montreal can be had for $39 for a one-way economy fare, while a ticket between Edmonton and Jasper goes for $86 (this example qualifies for the under 8 hours rule along the Toronto and Vancouver route). The following is your return:
- $39 / 1,125 points = 3.5 cents per point
- $86 / 700 points = 12.3 cents per point
See how large the difference is in reward redemption? My 6 cents per point valuation is probably very low, because if you leverage your points well, you can get double the 6 cents per point. Also note that your points become even more valuable if you cannot find a cheap ticket at the time that you want to travel, you still redeem the same number of points.
Furthermore, you may also find discounts on the number of points required for a reward redemption, so be on the lookout for that!
When I was a student, I racked up most of my points through the 6-Pak program. The 6-Pak requires you to pay for 6 one-way tickets up front, but you can use those tickets on any train, at any time, so long as their is availability. The benefit is that you lock in the cheaper rate, so that you do not have to monitor the fluctuating prices. Because I purchased so many tickets ahead of time, that is how I qualified for the sign up bonus.
The 6-Paks are only available to people between 12 and 25 or 26+ with a valid ISIC card for travel on the following two routes:
- Corridor Windsor-Québec City
- The Ocean: Montreal-Moncton-Halifax
Personally, I find that the train is the most comfortable way of travelling, along with being probably the most eco-friendly mode of transportation.
Even though I have not taken the train as often as when I was a student, I continue to be a very big fan of VIA Preference and give them a HUGE stamp of approval. I really do hope that they continue to remain competitive and look forward to riding with them again!