The MapleMoney Show » How to Spend Money Wisely » Loyalty Rewards

How to Get the Most Out of Travel Rewards, with Ricky Zhang

Presented by Wealthsimple

Welcome to The MapleMoney Show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their finances to create lasting financial freedom. I’m your host, Tom Drake, the founder of MapleMoney, where I’ve been writing about all things related to personal finance since 2009.

Loyalty rewards programs can be very lucrative, rewarding their members with free flights and hotel stays, and other luxury experiences. But why do have to be so confusing? This week, I sat down with an expert to find out what really are the best credit card rewards programs in Canada, and how the average Canadian can maximize their earnings.

Ricky Zhang is the founder of Prince of Travel, Canada’s leading travel rewards website. Leading up to our conversation, I was hoping that Ricky could clear up some of the confusion I had regarding credit card travel rewards, so I came prepared with lots of questions.

Ricky begins by revealing what he believes are the top 3 travel rewards programs in Canada, for most people. I say most people because it really depends on the individual. For example, there’s no point collecting Aeroplan points if you only fly Westjet.

But Ricky explains what makes Aeroplan such a rewarding program, especially when it’s used in conjunction with American Express Rewards. Ricky lets us know which credit card has the most powerful earning rate in Canada, why using points to fly business class is probably worth it, and how a Canadian can get a U.S. travel rewards card. Hint: it’s complicated, but it’s possible.

Do you prefer to invest in socially responsible companies? If so, our sponsor Wealthsimple will help you build a portfolio that focuses on low carbon, cleantech, human rights, and the environment. To get started with Socially Responsible Investing, head over to Wealthsimple today!

Episode Summary

  • The three loyalty rewards programs most Canadians will benefit from, but;
  • Choose loyalty rewards programs that are tailored to your lifestyle
  • How the 80/20 rule applies to credit card rewards
  • Ways to leverage the American Express rewards program
  • Credit card companies treat welcome bonuses as a marketing expense
  • The card with the most powerful earning rate in Canada
  • The value of paying for business class with rewards points
  • How the Marriott Bonvoy hotel rewards program works
  • How a Canadian can get a U.S. rewards credit card

Read transcript

Loyalty rewards programs can be very lucrative, rewarding their members with free flights, hotel stays and other luxury experiences. But why do they have to be so confusing? This week, I sat down with an expert to find out what really are the best credit rewards programs in Canada and how the average Canadian can maximize their earnings. Ricky Zhang is the founder of Prince of Travel, Canada’s leading rewards travel website. Leading up to a conversation, I was hoping Ricky could clear up some of the confusion I had regarding credit card travel awards so I came prepared with a lot of questions. Ricky is hosting The Travel Summit in late October in Toronto and is giving Maple Money Show listeners a discount. If you’re interested in learning more about making the most of your travel, head to and during checkout use coupon code Maple Money to save $50. 


Welcome to the Maple Money Show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their personal finances to create lasting financial freedom. Do you prefer to invest in socially responsible companies? If so, our sponsor, Wealthsimple, will help you build a portfolio that focuses on low carbon, clean tech, human rights and the environment. To get started with socially responsible investing, head over to today. Now, let’s chat with Ricky… 


Tom: Hi, Ricky. Welcome to the Maple Money Show. 


Ricky: Hey, Tom. It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me. 


Tom: There’s something I still haven’t fully wrap my head around, which is taking proper advantage of loyalty, rewards and all these points. I’ve got different cards. I collect points in different places, which obviously defeats the point of being loyal. I’m probably in too many different things, but I just wanted to walk through with you how some of these programs are currently working. I know different credit cards change all the time. But how we can take advantage of this better—not just collect points, but really know how to use them. Right off the bat, one of the biggest things is, what do you think are the best current programs in Canada? And just to give you an example of something that you probably won’t say is one of the best—I collect Air Miles just through the promotions Sobeys or Shell or something like that. Not so much on a credit card level, but I know something like that may not add up the most, but it’s also a real hassle to use them too (for certain flights). So assuming you agree with me that maybe that’s not one of the better programs, what else is there and what should people be collecting nowadays? 


Ricky: There’s always some programs that are easier to collect, and Air Miles is one of those programs of convenience where you go shopping, swipe a card and collect the miles. That’s where a lot of this confusion around loyalty programs comes from, because a lot of consumers out there are in the habit of earning points in the most convenient way. But that’s not always necessarily going to result in the best outcomes in terms of the actual travel that you can book using the points you’ve collected. When I think about where most Canadians are in terms of their loyalty habits, I really do think that taking a little bit of time to figure out the right strategy, maybe learning a little bit about the best credit cards, best lots of programs to participate in, and some of the travel outcomes that they can deliver and thinking about which ones of those appeal the most to you and tailoring your strategy that way, is going to result in a much better outcomes for the little bit of time spent. To delve into some of those optimal programs at this point in time, most Canadians would do well focusing on the ecosystem of Aeroplan for flights, Marriott Bonvoy for hotels, and American Express for earning American Express membership rewards points that then transfers to both Aeroplan and Marriott Bonvoy. That’s probably the easiest place to start with these three programs serving your flight, hotel, and rapid point collection purposes. The idea there being that you can earn Aeroplan points directly. You can earn Bonvoy points directly. Both of these have easy ways to earn them. With Bonvoy, it’s when you stay at Marriott Hotels, which is the world’s largest hotel program with the greatest footprint. You earn points there. With Aeroplan, they’re doing many of the earning methods of convenience that Air Miles has been doing. In fact, they’ve poached many Air Miles partners such as LCBO and Ontario. So, when you show your Aeroplan card or digital card, you can get Aeroplan points at LCBO, Starbucks and Uber these days which are some of the brands and services that Canadians use the most. And when you combine all of that with the sheer variety of credit cards that American Express offers, and the huge welcome bonuses on many of these cards, as well as the strong earning rates on a few of them for very common lifestyle expenses, you’re really funneling together a lot more points through just the regular spending you’re doing. And these points you’re earning are far more powerful than, let’s say, Air Miles that many Canadians choose to earn. 


Tom: I certainly realize that Air Miles wasn’t the best credit card option. But if you’re shopping at a Sobeys or something, you might as well earn those as well and then get some other points in your credit card too. But you mentioned how a lot of us are doing it based on convenience. I’ve got two things that I really like that don’t match up with your suggestion. I really like flying WestJet and I really like giving all my money to Costco. Are there options there that work? I fully agree about Aeroplan and Marriott, but in my case, (with WestJet) I’m out near Calgary and shopping at Costco so some of this doesn’t work out so well for me. 


Ricky: Okay, so here’s where we get into the fact that this whole pursuit of loyalty programs and points is extremely individualized, right? When it comes to thinking about strategy, we (at Prince of Travel) put out tons of content, trying to serve as many Canadians as possible. But at the end of the day, every consumer needs to take what’s out there and kind of figure out what works best for them. You live in Calgary, right? 


Tom: Yeah. 


Ricky: Somebody based in Alberta who is going to fly WestJet a lot more often than somebody based out in Ontario, Costco shoppers can only use Mastercard at many locations that. That’s going to drive a lot of the strategy compared to somebody who lives in a big city who doesn’t go to Costco and shops at places like Metro are Sobey’s. That’s where they take American Express. You get five times the points with the Cobalt Card. Maybe that doesn’t apply to you, right? So for anybody listening in, it’s really important to think about all of the possibilities out there and how they’re tailored to you. Now, for you flying WestJet, let’s say their schedule fits your needs and you like going to the destinations served by WestJet, and you shop a lot at Costco, the first thing that comes to mind is very much the WestJet, RBC, World Elite MasterCard. You’ll have no acceptance issues at Costco, no problem. You’re earning WestJet dollars that can be funneled towards your future flights by spending on it. And by holding the card, you are getting the first free checked bag for yourself and the whole family. You get a companion fare that you and your spouse could use. Or, if you want to bring the family, both you and your spouse can get the WestJet card and then bring your kids as companions. These are additional benefits for flying WestJet. I’d say this is actually a great example (in your case) of finding the right product for your needs and tailoring it towards that. Then the question becomes, what if you wanted to go somewhere that’s not served by WestJet? Or what if you wanted to treat you and your spouse to an anniversary trip in business class? WestJet has business class, but they haven’t made a compelling pathway to redeem points for it. So now you’re thinking about dappling into Aeroplan, Marriott Bonvoy and elevating your travels through the other possibilities out there. But I think for many Canadians— first, they haven’t taken the time to think about the strategy for their core needs. And they’re not aware of all these possibilities that Aeroplan, Marriott Bonvoy, and American Express can bring for some truly unforgettable trips. This can be a once-in-a-lifetime trip for many people that can really add a lot of value to their life. That’s the upside to loyalty programs that we, here at Prince of Travel, hope to bring to as many (people) as possible. 


Tom: Yeah, sure, I’m stuck certain times. The RBC card is a great example that would fit those two needs, but there’s other spending I do that I could look at American Express. I remember seeing on Prince of Travel—about a year ago. I assume it still exists. I think it was a PDF or at least web page that had an “order” to sign up for different American Express cards. It can get pretty complicated, but if someone’s willing to put in the effort and sign up through these cards, get the bonuses, sign up for the next card, I assume that’s pretty worthwhile. Are there any catches to that? Do you just sign up for all these cards over a certain amount of time? Then do you cancel them? Can you resign up? How does that work? We can link off to that that page because the actual chart won’t convert well on a podcast. But if you can kind of explain how that works overall?


Ricky: Yeah, sure. This is now we’re getting into the more advanced strategies in play. I think for a lot of people, a little bit of attention. Like I said, it’s an 8020 rule. Putting in 20 percent of the effort will get you 80 percent of the rewards. For a lot of Canadians, a simple strategy would be switching a few cards, putting the right spends on the right places. That can deliver a business class trip once every couple years. That’s a dream for many people. Now, if you’re the type who really wants to take it to the maximum and earn as many points as possible to fuel multiple business class or first class trips—well before you do multiply, you need to do one. The classic example for many people to get into the more advanced side is, a honeymoon. Let’s say they have a wedding. They have wedding expenses so they want to spend on the right credit card so they can use those points towards a luxury honeymoon. It’s really like a once in a lifetime trip that they’re really going all-out for, right? In this case, yeah, absolutely. The flowchart shows you order to apply four different cards in and refer your spouse to cards of their own and kind of back and forth in order to maximize the refer-a-friend bonuses that’s unique to American Express. In Canada, it’s really only American Express that offers for referring other cardholders to cards of their own. And actually, when you do that, the other cardholders actually often get higher points bonuses than the publicly available ones too. By kind of leveraging this feature and getting cards within your household and maximizing those bonuses, you can rack up hundreds of thousands of points in a couple of short months. And that’s where a lot of people who are getting married are using this strategy. Many of these cards require you spend a certain amount and often it’s a high amount for the higher points totals in order to earn the points. So if you have wedding expenses that go on the card, perfect—you’ve kind of parlayed your wedding expenses, gotten the points, now you can book a luxury honeymoon, first class to the Maldives and stay in one of their ultra, water villas. When it comes to the actual process of signing up, whether or not you keep the cards, I think it has to be done with around six months of a timeline to rack up a meaningful amount of points for two people to take a trip. And after you sign up for the card, pay the annual fee for the first year, which is obviously offset by the value of the points you’re earning as a sign up bonus, it’s really up to every card holder to decide whether or not to cancel. These premium cards—many of them are styled with benefits that are supposed to justify the annual fee on an ongoing basis, though, obviously, you don’t get welcome bonuses in future years. You have to take a look at your travel patterns, see whether or not these high-end, travel benefits (like lounge access and hotel elite status) are going to be worthwhile year after year. If not, there’s nothing forcing you to keep the cards. You can go ahead and cancel. And then the strategy for people who are doing this lot is, how do we do this and maximize our earnings without falling too far afoul of the financial institutions and their risk tolerances? That’s when it becomes a bit more of an art than a science. 


Tom: In general, do they start to track that? Can you sign up for the same card? I think I’ve heard of that before where someone cancels a card and sign up for another one again—the exact same kind of card. Is that something that’s still doable? Or is it case-by-case? I’m not sure of how closely they look. 


Ricky: Well, the lay of the land when it comes to that stuff is always changing. But we can start with a basic truth, which is, let’s say every Canadian wanted to do this. Obviously, they would soon clamp down on it because the welcome bonus in the first year almost always outweighs the value of the annual fee. So if everybody were to go ahead and cancel their cards and get the bonuses again, then this would all come to an end. But ultimately, few people do this. Few people have travel needs and desires in the first place to go for it. Among those who do, some of them, feel risk-averse in this kind of this kind of behavior. But yeah, to answer your question, it’s basically all the issuers,  except American Express. It’s very much frowned upon but tolerated. That’s kind of a situation right now. Welcome bonuses are treated as a marketing expense to acquire new customers. And that’s the way that they should be thought of. Now, American Express, until a couple of years ago has been the same. I think during COVID, they were badly affected a little bit by the economic circumstances, and they decided they needed to cut their losses on problematic, unprofitable, customers, as it were. And so these days, it’s not recommended to do that with American Express. It’s recommended to treat it as once in a lifetime. And if you want more bonuses, then you get your spouse on board. You get your family members on board. You kind of convince them of the benefits for signing up. Referrer a friend obviously always helps. But with the non-American Express issuers—you’ve got the big five banks but often their terms and conditions say you’re not supposed to do it. But then the question is whether or not they’re enforced. And those who do choose to kind of push those boundaries take the risk of not getting the bonus if they were to apply again, even if they sometimes do get the bonus. 


Tom: Is there a case where they approve you for the card, but then say sorry, you can’t get the bonus. Is that what’s happening or did they just decline the whole thing? 


Ricky: Well, with American Express, sometimes that happens. It’s a bit of a gamble with American Express. You gamble on whether you get the bonus. Back in 2020, which is when they decided to cut their losses, they actually exited a bunch of customers for historical, unprofitable, behavior. But broadly speaking, no financial institutions are going to say you can’t get a credit card because there’s only an upside to them. They get to collect fees. And right now, no other banks are really doing it, but they reserve the right in the terms and conditions to say that you don’t get the welcome bonus. But again, that’s more on paper than in practice. 


Tom: And you’re right that it did skip straight to something pretty advanced. But I was thinking if someone’s considering all this and they’re going to get an American Express, it would be worth it for them to look at that chart and at least start with the beginner card, even if they’re not trying to rush through all these different card options and at least know where to start to do that flow properly. 


Ricky: The idea is to consider the premium cards, getting them when they have high bonuses. When you’re in an urgent need to earn points for a trip, that’s the time to consider the high fee, high spend, high points, bonuses. If that’s not the case right now and you’re happy patiently building up your balance towards a future trip, then let’s say you get the American Express Cobalt Card which is a very reasonable $12.99 a month for the fee. But it gives you five times the points on food and drinks, which is the most powerful earning rate in Canada. By doing your grocery shopping—and this goes back to where you do your grocery shopping, but if you can do your grocery shopping at Metro, Sobeys, and Safeway, places that take American Express and then use this card every time you go out to eat, drink, go to a coffee shop, then the points rack up really quickly. This is actually how I think the vast majority of Canadians can actually benefit from then transferring these American Express points to Aeroplan and using the power of the Aeroplan loyalty program to unlock these special travel experiences like business class and first class that you’d never pay cash for. Most people will consider this forever out of reach, but it’s actually well within reach just by leveraging your points. 


Tom: That’s an interesting thing I wanted to cover, I’m always seeing people sort of in the travel niche (like yourself) going on these nice luxury trips. Is it just a case of having so many points that you might as well do luxury? Or is there any kind of benefit to booking luxury—and by that I mean business or first class compared to just a regular flight? I assume it still costs more points, but why not just have more coach flights available to you? Or is it just that you have so many points, you might as well use them for something nice? 


Ricky: This is a very common question for a lot of people who are first starting out. There are a couple of factors which I’ll touch upon. Let’s start with the cost. It costs more points to fly business class or first class than economy class. So given the same number of points, you will take fewer trips with business class or first class. However, that differential in terms of price is far smaller than when you’re paying cash. Let me give you an example. If you’re going to Europe, an economy class ticket may be $800 from Canada. Business class could be $2,000, $3,000 or $4,000, far above the realm of what reasonable people would consider paying for. Most people would just spring for economy. If you look at points though, economy is maybe 70,000 points, 80,000 points round-trip and business would be 120,000 points or 130,000 points, or 140,000 points. So it’s almost two times the cost compared to five, six, seven, eight times the cost with cash. If you do have aspirations of experiencing flying up front (at least once in your life) then points are the best way to make it happen. If you’ve ever boarded a plane and walked past the fancy seats and wondered to yourself, “Oh, that would be nice. Now I’m stuck in economy for the next eight hours.” Well, it doesn’t have to be just forever dream, because just by making a few changes or thinking about your point strategy a bit, it’s well within reach. Now, when we talk about continual travels as part of your lifestyle, would you actually use points to continually fly in business class or would you rather take more trips in economy like you said? And this really boils down to the individual because on one hand, if you had unlimited time to take trips, yeah, take more trips in economy, if you really want to see more places in the world. That’s perfectly valid if that is the case. I find that a lot of people who get into points or a vast majority of Canadians, they have full time jobs. They have three to four weeks off in terms of vacation every year. They want to maximize that time and have the best experience possible so business class is something worth considering. Let’s say you’re going to Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Australia, especially, the economy class flight takes a full day at your destination to recover from. Whereas in business class, you sip champagne in the lounge beforehand. You’re treated to a welcome drink. You’re treated to good food on board, and you have a full, flat seat to relax in until you arrive at your destination. It’s a completely different experience. You arrive fully refreshed while rested, ready to take on the travel and the exciting adventures at your destination. And then think about the fact that the differential in cost with points is much smaller than with cash. Going back to some of the credit card strategies we talked about, the fact that so many points are available, so plentifully here in Canada—available to be earned, whether through regular spending or through welcome bonuses, once you start getting into really thinking about the possibilities, really dabbling with the possibilities at play here, you will likely find that using planes to fly business class is the way to go. 


Tom: Yeah, I think you had me at the point value there—the differential between the two because that makes your points technically worth so much more if you’re just doing roughly 50 percent more points. But the dollar cost is three times the value. 


Ricky: That’s a great point. We haven’t even touched upon the idea of value yet. But like you said, in terms of how much dollar value you’re getting per point that you’ve earned… If you’re getting into this game, you really want to maximize. The whole idea is to earn points cheaply and redeem them inexpensively and kind of capture that value of them. Redeeming them expensively means redeeming them for things that would otherwise cost as much money as possible or be as unattainable as possible with cash. And that’s where you get into the appeal of using your points for business class, first class and luxury hotels. Ultimately, yes, we want we want to travel and see the world. We want to do so comfortably. But for large swathes of this community, there’s also a very strong appeal in the sense of winning—winning at the game, maximizing the value of your points and kind of beating the airlines and hotels and banks at their own game. If that’s something that sounds appealing to you, then certainly it’s a very satisfying feeling when you’re sipping champagne at 35,000 feet. I’ll just say that. 


Tom: I like that you mentioned it being a game, because that’s kind of how I looked at it. There is a time commitment to it, but for some people fun to try to maximize this. And if you’re going to look at an American Express or an Aeroplan compared to the travel versions of them like a cash back card, all of that applies. It’s how many points you can earn and then how you redeem them to really figure out what that cash equivalent value would be. The higher you get it, the better off you are saying to yourself, “Oh, I’m glad I didn’t go for that cash back card instead.” 


Ricky: Exactly. I think cashback has its place for the types of consumers who are purely interested in simplicity. The thing is, with cashback you’ll never get some of the special experiences in life that points can unlock. 


Tom: Yeah. And whether it’s a travel card or a cashback card, people need to look at that math to see if they want to pay that annual fee. I’ve had so many people talk to me through the blog and the podcast saying, “I would never get a credit card that has an annual fee.” And I get that. I didn’t do that when I was younger either. I didn’t like the idea of paying for something when you can get a free version. But if you do the math, you’ve just got to decide what works best for you. Even on a simple cashback card, it’s just, “How much am I going to spend and what am I going to get back?” You probably see that a lot too, where people are against this idea of an annual fee? 


Ricky: Yeah, I think that’s a natural place for basically everybody to start when it comes to thinking about credit cards. I was the same back in the day. The way I always present it, and I find that this really cuts through people’s misconceptions is, by paying credit card annual fees, effectively you’re paying the same price as economy class flights, but you get to travel better in business class and first class. It’s not going to be free because you do need to pay upfront, right? You have these costs involved. But the idea of this whole thing was never free travel. It was 10X your travel value. Spend the equivalent of your economy class ticket and get 10 times the value out of that. The people we find really attracted to this are the people who are seeking those better life experiences and treating their friends and family to those and elevating their lifestyle through this value arbitrage that’s available to them. 


Tom: Yeah. And, for anyone else that’s against the idea of an annual fee, if you’re using the card and getting that value, that’s great. If that’s the card that you end up not using and it’s sitting in your wallet, then that’s a problem. You might want to cancel that. 


Ricky: You can always cancel, right? There’s nothing forcing you to keep in years two and three. That’s an important thing to realize. Oftentimes, the value in year one outweighs the fee, and it’s completely well within your prerogative to go ahead and take up banks on that offer. 


Tom: And it’s probably worth remembering when to cancel, and not waiting until you see that annual fee hit your statement and remember, “Oh, I forgot that year old card.” 


Ricky: If you do see it hit, you always have at least 30 days to cancel because there’s a grace period. That’s a useful tip too. It’s always good to set reminders, but in case it does post, all is not lost. You can call them say, “I actually wanted to cancel. Can I get that waived 30 days?” 


Tom: And even beyond the points of these cards, the actual loyalty points, I would say too (if anyone’s weighing that annual fee) look at some of the other benefits too. If you’re getting lounge passes or all the different insurance, put a value on that. And if that’s better than paying for separate car rental insurance and everything else, it gets pretty easy to justify the annual fee as long as you’re outdoing things that would take advantage of these different benefits. 


Ricky: Yeah, everybody’s got to kind of take a critical look at their travel patterns, their lifestyle patterns, which of the credits and benefits available out there they’re likely to take advantage of. Like I said, it’s going to be very individualized. The point is, all these possibilities are out there and not enough people know about them. That’s kind of the crux of the work we do. 


Tom: We talked about Aeroplan and how the points work there. What about this Marriott Bonvoy? Is it something similar? Is there a benefit to getting better rooms or anything like that? How does that program work and what’s so good about it? 


Ricky: With Aeroplan, the way it works is, airlines try to sell as much of their seats as possible, obviously, but if some seats are going out empty, they’d rather reward loyalty users with them than just have the seats got empty because that just costs them money. With hotels, it’s kind of a three-pronged relationship. You’ve got the loyalty program, you’ve got you as the member, and you’ve got the hotel itself. The idea there is you can earn and redeem points through the loyalty program for free stays. And through the credit card, obviously, there’s points as part of the welcome bonus and as part of regular spend. Generally speaking, we touched upon the idea of value, the amount of money that things would otherwise the cost if you were to pay cash. Business class and first class flights generally have the highest value and hotels are probably a tier below that. And economy class are probably a tier below that. So with hotels, you’re still going to unlock pretty decent value many times when you’re redeeming for free night stays. But there’s also other times where it could make sense to simply pay cash for the hotel. Because, if you think about it—well maybe not right now because everything’s expensive, but in a normal year, if you go to a major city, you can expect to pay anywhere between one and $100 to $150 to $300, depending on the luxury or tier of the accommodations. With hotels, free night stays are one component. But the more you stay with a chain, you also earn elite status and you can get very meaningful benefits out of that status. That’s another component of the game where you’re getting these upgrades for free just because you stay frequently. You get a free breakfast in the mornings. You get lounge access at some hotels where they actually have an evening spread. I find that works really well for families where you bring your family to the evenings spread and that kind of takes care of one of the meals of the day, which can be otherwise quite stressful on a family vacation. There’s a whole ecosystem of benefits that you can unlock. Upgrading to a suite for free is also huge for a family if you need more space is one example. That’s where the benefits of being loyal to one hotel chain come in. And here in Canada, there’s really not much choice at this point in time because it’s really only the Marriott Bonvoy that has a co-branded, credit card presence where you can meaningfully engage with the program through your credit card and through transferring American Express points. The other major chains don’t have that in Canada. It’s mostly just Bonvoy until we see more competition. 


Tom: When you talk about upgrading a suite, do use points to upgrade that or is it just that you have the status and they will do that? How’s that part work? 


Ricky: Well, it’s possible to book higher-end rooms or suites with points, but generally speaking, the most value is when you get to a certain level of status. It’s platinum elites with Marriott Bonvoy, which requires 50 qualifying nights. But having the credit card already gives you 15 so you really only need 35 nights and you get platinum elite which (as part of the terms of the status) gets you suite upgrades, subject to availability. Remember how we talked about the three-pronged nature of this whole ecosystem? The loyalty program dictates that you’re supposed to get free upgrades, but it’s subject to each individual hotel to deliver on that. Some hotels are more generous. Some are more stingy. You can always help your chances by proactively reaching out to the hotel before your stay. Marriott has a chat function in the app that makes it really easy to just chat with them and say, “Hey, I’m arriving for my stay. I’m really looking forward to it. Here’s my estimated time of arrival. I’m a platinum elite member or a titanium elite member (which is above platinum) and I was taking a look at the list of available rooms, and I’d love the opportunity to stay in your executive suite or Prime Minister suite or St. Regis suite.” The more enthusiasm you demonstrate, the more organically it comes off. Ultimately, hotels want you to have a good experience and come back, right? We call it “suite” talking. It’s very much the secret sauce to getting suite upgrades more than you would otherwise get if you just left it to chance, basically. 


Tom: You mentioned how many nights you have to stay at it to get a different status level. And the credit card gave you a 15, I think you said. The credit card spending, though, doesn’t have any effect on this, then, does it? It’s all about hotel stays? 


Ricky: Yeah, not in Canada. Some of the U.S. issued Bonvoy cards let you spend your way to a certain status, but not in Canada. It’s 15 elite nights, then you’ve got to stay for the rest of the 35. Here’s one more tidbit. If you didn’t care about platinum, the tier below platinum is gold elite, which still gives you room upgrades, not suite upgrades. It gives you a leg to stand on if you wanted to “suite” talk for a potential suite upgrade. And it gives you extra points and some smaller benefits. You can get that status instantaneously by holding the American Express platinum card or the business platinum card. It’s one of the benefits. That’s like a minor league, elevated hotel experience just by holding the platinum card of the business platinum card. Again, that’s one of many benefits on the card so you have to decide if that justifies the $499 net annual fee on those cards. But that’s a way to kind of get into the status game without having to stay much at all. Just get it instantaneously and enjoy the benefits. 


Tom: Yeah, that seems reasonable. If you’re able to do this “suite” talking to take that extra advantage of it just to kind of catch their attention instead of, “I’m someone that’s never stayed at this hotel chain before. Give me something.” Instead, you’re ultimately saying, “I’m a loyal customer. Can you help me out?” 


Ricky: Yeah. 


Tom: You mentioned the difference in the program and U.S. cards. I’ve heard, as a Canadian, you can get U.S. cards. How complicated is this? Is this something that’s actually common because I’ve seen U.S. cards in the past and thought some of those deals look way better. But I assumed I couldn’t have them and I’ve heard you can. How does that work? 


Ricky: You can, but… Remember, we earlier we talked about the 8020 rule, the more introductory stuff, the more advanced stuff? This is like super advanced stuff. If you’re comfortable juggling multiple credit cards in Canada and maximizing those benefits to your advantage and built up some experience there, I would recommend pursuing cards south of the border. It’s very much possible. Many people do it. It’s essentially all about building ties (to some extent) in the States, which includes bank accounts and an address to receive your mail. It’s hard to get a Social Security number though because you have to move there and have work or get an individual taxpayer identification number, which many banks recognize as a stand-in for the Social. There’s processes for each of these. For the U.S. bank account, that’s probably easiest. Many of the Canadian bigger five banks have cross-border banking branches so you could set yourself up with that easily. The U.S. address, it’s either family member or friends address in the States. Or there are mail forwarding services that will actually forward your mail up to Canada. And then the ITIN is kind of the last step, which is more involved, but it’s available to any foreign residents to apply for if they’ve earned U.S. income. And the stated purpose is to kind of either submit U.S. tax returns for your U.S. income or to show that you’re exempt from U.S. taxation as a foreign resident. So, anybody who has won $5 has technically earned U.S. income and is therefore eligible for it. I’d say that goes probably beyond the scope of this particular conversation, because these are the steps you need to take. To answer your question of whether it’s a lot of work, it is, upfront. That’s why I’d say it’s only reserved for people who are traveling a lot, people who really aspire to sample not just business class and first class, but many of the world’s best first class airlines like Emirates, Singapore Airlines, Etihad Airways, and kind of have that “bucket list” mentality where they want to pursue some of these really, really special experiences. The amount of work that goes into it, while it may seem outlandish from the outset, it’s all worthwhile. It really just depends on the person doing it and what they want to get out of travel and how central all of this is to their travel identity. 


Tom: It does sound complicated, but I guess if someone’s kind of hit this point where they’ve done all they can in Canada with it, with all the different card options, I guess that’s starts to make it more worthwhile. 


Ricky: Yeah. 


Tom: Well, thanks for running us through all this. I think it gives people a good base to consider what kind of cards to get, how this all works. I like the bonuses. I like the redemption side a lot. I think you made me understand the benefits of the business class and the first class travel through Aeroplan so much better than I ever did before. So thanks for doing this. Can you tell people where they can find you online? 


Ricky: Of course. We run Prince of Travel. You’ll find the website at You can also find us on YouTube. We have two channels. One is Prince of Travel. It’s all the information you need—credit cards and travel the world. We have Instagram, we have TikTok. We have a bunch of platforms. When you’re on, you can find our newsletter for all the key updates, delivered every Sunday. And lastly, we’re hosting an event in Toronto. It’s called The Travel Summit. You’ll find all the details at This is the number one event for elevating your travel. So if you want to get deep into the stuff or you’re just a beginner looking for the best place to learn the ropes from a wide range of expert speakers and panelists, this is the place to be. It’s going to be at the Metro Toronto Convention Center from October 29th to 30th. We’d love to see you there. 


Tom: Yeah, the event looks really good. I was looking at some of the session topics and there’s tons to go way deeper than this episode, so I think it would be a great option for people. 


Ricky: Tom, hope to catch you there as well. 


Tom: I’m hoping to make it. Thanks for being on the show. 


Ricky: Thank you for having me. 


Thank you, Ricky, for clearing up some of the confusion many Canadians have about travel rewards programs and for sharing some tips that make us all smarter travelers. You can find the show notes for this episode at And a reminder, to get $50 off the travel summit, go to and during checkout use coupon code Maple Money Show to save $50. I’m really looking forward to having you back here next week for episode 200. I’m bringing back the two guests that have been on most often, my friends, J.D. Roth and Miranda Marquardt. See you next week.

Most Canadians would do well focusing on the ecosystem of Aeroplan for flights, Marriott Bonvoy for hotels and American Express for earning American Express membership rewards points that then transfer to both Aeroplan and Marriott Bonvoy. - Ricky Zhang Click to Tweet