4 non-travel rewards for your travel rewards card

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A travel rewards card, used wisely, can earn you enough points to cover a hotel stay, a cruise or a plane ticket.

But while travel is always going to be the best value for your points, collecting enough rewards can be time-consuming, or, you might not be in a good position to travel - maybe you have young children or a sick family member. Or, in light of a looming split between Aeroplan and Air Canada in 2020, you may need to use your points - fast.

Whatever your reason, there are plenty of non-travel redemption options for your travel rewards.

1. Donate your miles.
Most travel rewards programs offer a portal to allow you to donate your miles to charity. Charitable organizations can use your miles to offset travel costs or even as prizes in their fundraising efforts.

Aeroplan started its member donation program more than 10 years ago, says Francine Stemthal, director of product management at Aeroplan.

"To date, 640 million miles have been donated," she says. Eligible charities include travel-heavy programs such as Doctors Without Borders and Make-A-Wish Foundation, as well as several local grass-roots organizations.

Aeroplan also lets you donate miles to offset your carbon footprint. Its calculator can help you determine your flight, car, or household emissions, and you can donate points to offset them.

"Donating 7,500 miles will offset 3.2 tonnes of greenhouse gases," says Stemthal.

Check with your rewards cards to see what charities they support. Some, such as RBC Rewards, allow you to donate directly to a few specific charities, such as Ronald McDonald House Charities or Hope Air. With CIBC's Aventura Rewards, you can donate through CanadaHelps.org, a much larger selection of national and local charities.

2. Transfer or convert your rewards.
A few programs, including Air Miles and Aeroplan, give you the option to transfer your miles to a family member or friend - for a fee. Aeroplan, for example, charges 2 cents per mile, although occasional promotions may allow you to transfer your miles for less. Air Miles charges 15 cents per mile.

While not all programs allow you to transfer your points to other people, you may be able to convert your rewards into another loyalty program. On the American Express Membership Rewards website, for example, you can currently exchange your points for Aeroplan miles or British Airways Executive Club Avios at a 1:1 ratio. The points conversion rate varies by program and may be subject to change.

You also can convert miles using the Points.com portal, which supports several loyalty programs. With Points.com, you may be able to move points from a card you don't use to one you will. However, keep an eye on the conversion rates to make sure you are getting good value.

"It's a great opportunity to consolidate points," says Stemthal. "The trick to any rewards program is to get the biggest bang for your buck." Having a few points in several programs may not be as rewarding for you as consolidating them into one.

Another option for Aeroplan collectors is HigherEdPoints, which was launched in 2013 to allow people to use their loyalty program points to fund their post-secondary education. The program includes educational institutions across Canada, such as Dalhousie, McGill and UBC, and also can be used to pay back student aid. Stemthal says that parents often use the program as well as older, returning students.

"Members buy a $250 certificate for 35,000 miles," says Stemthal. The certificate is used to offset costs associated with post-secondary education, such as tuition and meal plans.

The TD Travel Rewards Program is also a HigherEdPoints partner. You'll receive a $250 certificate for 62,500 TD Points.

3. Redeem points for merchandise and gift cards.
"Clients are empowered to use their points the way they want for redemption options including rich travel rewards, paying credit card balances and purchasing investments, access to exciting merchandise from major brands, and purchasing gift cards," Jacquelina Calisto, vice president of loyalty and rewards for RBC, said in an emailed response to questions.

"Premier brands including Apple, Best Buy and Saks are part of our extensive redemption options," she said. "RBC Rewards clients have access to full merchandise catalogues with no restrictions or points expiry."

All the major banks offer merchandise and gift card rewards. Check out your rewards card's website to see what choices are available. Most offer several rewards categories to choose from, from gift cards to your favourite stores, home decor pieces and electronics.

4. Cash in points for financial rewards.
You may be able to convert your rewards into cash - sort of. Many of the major bank cards allow you to redeem points for a statement credit. Some of the banks go a step further.

For example, with BMO Rewards, you can convert a minimum of 10,000 points for a $50 investment in your BMO investment account.

RBC also has several options to redeem rewards for financial purposes.

"RBC Rewards clients have choice and flexibility in how they use their rewards," said Calisto. "Clients can use their points for financial rewards, including paying a credit card balance or mortgage, contributing to an RRSP, or offsetting Direct Investing commissions."

With your rewards points, you have lots of options. Instead of simply collecting your reward points for future travel, check out your loyalty program's website to see how else you can redeem your points.

See related: 4 ways to maximize cash back rewards cards, Smart credit card tips for every season, How to make the most of your Air Miles rewards
Published May 22, 2017

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