To the Village of Polar Bears: Atlanta to Churchill, Manitoba

To the Village of Polar Bears: Atlanta to Churchill, Manitoba
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Image courtesy: Evil Twin21401
 

Trip Information

Reader Leslie wants to travel to Churchill, Manitoba in October of next year. Though the town is located on the southwest end of the Hudson Bay, it remains a very northern city, located far from Canada’s population centers.

Leslie wants to make her way to this remote village with her husband because Churchill has a unique claim to fame: each October and November, polar bears descend on the area around town, making Churchill one of the few places in the world where polar bears can be observed in their natural habitat.

Getting to Churchill is no easy task, especially because Leslie has a special request for her transport: she’d like to fly into the town’s small airport but take a train from Churchill back to Winnipeg before heading back to Atlanta.

Can we stretch the reach of miles and points to a location so far off the beaten path? Of course! Read on to learn how.

Current Program Status

Leslie and her husband have a massive trove of points squirreled away in a wide variety of programs. Take a look at what we have to work with:

Program Leslie’s Points Husband’s Points
Alaska Airlines 8,491 25,247
American Airlines 19,443 17,149
British Airways 68,182 91,361
Club Carlson 85,000 85,000
Delta Air Lines 62,870 53,407
Discover 44,702 9,803
Discover Escape 25,000 25,000
Frontier Airlines 41,415 29,225
Hawaiian Airlines 0 36,091
Hilton 156,687 125,354
Hyatt 25,155 0
SPG 16,311 0
Ultimate Rewards 9,797 43,454
US Airways 4,043 43,825
Virgin Atlantic 45,000 45,000
Barclaycard Arrival 40,000 0
FlexPerks 20,000 0
Subtotals: 672,096 629,916
Total: 1,302,012 Combined Miles/Points

This is a war chest so overflowing with points and miles to make most loyalty travelers green with envy. However, the substantial diversification between programs doesn’t necessarily work in our favor.

Setting the Route

For this trip, it will be necessary to separate the trip into three separate bookings: one taking Leslie and her husband roundtrip from Atlanta to Winnipeg, with a second getting them to Churchill by air and a third bringing them back to Winnipeg by train.

When making your way to Churchill by air, there’s one commercial name in town: Calm Air.

This small carrier focused exclusively on providing transport to Canada’s northern reaches is aligned with Air Canada for purposes of earning Aeroplan miles. It’s possible to redeem Aeroplan miles for flights on Calm Air, but they can only be booked by calling Aeroplan’s award ticketing desk. Flights from Winnipeg to Churchill go for 15,000 miles each way.

Unfortunately, Leslie and her husband don’t have any Aeroplan miles in their stash. It’s possible to convert some of their hotel points for use on Aeroplan, but the exchange rate is brutal for two of them.

Club Carlson points can be converted to Aeroplan miles at a 2,000 per 200, 50,000 per 5,000 or 100,000 per 10,000 rate. Conversions must be made in some combination of these increments. That would leave Leslie and her husband with only 16,800 Aeroplan miles, even if they were able to deposit the converted miles into the same account.

Converting Hilton points to Aeroplan miles is possible at a 10,000 to 1,000 ratio, so Leslie could liquidate her Hilton account for 15,600 Aeroplan miles, while her husband would come up short at 12,500 total.

Of course, Starwood offers the best transfer option with a solid 1:1 transfer ratio to Aeroplan.

Seeing these options, let’s take a look at the cash cost for this flight. We used October of 2014 as an analog since bookings for 2015 aren’t yet available:

Given the substantial cost of the tickets, the good transfer ratio for SPG and the relatively poor value per point for Hilton and Club Carlson’s programs, this is one of the rare cases where we’d recommend considering converting hotel points for use toward this trip.

In this case, we’d recommend Leslie transfer 15,000 of her SPG Starpoints to Aeroplan and recommend her husband liquidate a combination of points from Club Carlson and Hilton to cover his fare. Of course, Leslie should call Aeroplan to confirm availability before making these transfers, as there’s no reneging on such transfers.

Should Leslie and her husband be planning other itineraries where they could put these hotel points to better use, they should use them for that purpose, but planning this trip in a vacuum given what’s in front of us, converting these points to Aeroplan is our best option.

The Train Back to Winnipeg

The train ride from Churchill to Winnipeg can be booked with VIA Rail.

This train ride of over a thousand miles takes a stunning amount of time: the return trip takes a full 45 hours and 15 minutes! Because the journey takes so long, we can’t recommend Economy Class. Thankfully, Sleeper Fares are available, which should make the very scenic journey back to Winnipeg more comfortable.

Fares come to $361.20 a piece for sleeper accommodations in October, with trains running on Sundays and Thursdays:

As you might expect, no traditional miles program is going to come to the rescue here, but that doesn’t mean we’re out of luck. Train rides are an area where cards like Barclaycard Arrival shine. Because points from cards like Arrival can be used to cover any travel expense, it’s possible to simply pay for a train fare and then redeem miles to wipe out the charge with a statement credit.

Since Leslie has a full 40,000 Arrival miles, she has more than enough to wipe out her own fare back to Winnipeg. Her husband appears to have wiped out his Arrival balance, so his best bet is to apply his 25,000 points in Discover’s Escape program, which also offers penny-per-point value for travel redemptions. Leslie’s fare will be knocked down to free, while her husband’s will come to just $111.20.

To And From Winnipeg

Of course, we can’t forget about the need to get Leslie and her husband from Atlanta to Winnipeg and back. For this, Delta is our best option, since Leslie and her husband both have enough miles within this program for an award redemption.

In theory, this redemption could be had for as little as 25,000 miles per person roundtrip. In reality, as is often the case, Saver flight availability with Delta is pitiful:

That means settling for a Standard redemption, which will require 40,000 miles per person:

Notice the $120 of taxes and fees on this award flight for two passengers. By paying for these fees with Leslie’s Arrival card, she can use her remaining points – plus the 10% redemption credit she got back for wiping out the train fare – to a total of $45.

While it’s possible to knock this down to zero by taking a statement credit from Ultimate Rewards large enough to wipe out the rest, we consider statement credits a poor redemption option for the program and would recommend Leslie simply pay.

Wrapping Up

Between a Delta roundtrip, a substantial but necessary conversion of hotel points to Aeroplan miles and travel credits from both Arrival and Discover Escape, we were able to knock even this unlikely itinerary down to just a fraction of its typical cost.

Though the trip will take some legwork and planning to ensure of award availability and work around the non-daily train service back from Churchill, this trip is well within the realm of possible, even if the destination is far from the realm of civilization!

Trip Component Cash Price Points + Cash Savings
Delta Award Flight: Atlanta to Winnipeg • Economy 2 Passengers $1,002.96 Total 80,000 SkyMiles + $120 Taxes/Fees – $75 in Arrival Credit + $45 Cash $957.96
Calm Air: Winnipeg to Churchill • Economy 2 Passengers $1,310.40 15,000 SPG Starpoints (to Aeroplan) + 150,000 Club Carlson + Hilton Combined (to Aeroplan) + Unknown Taxes/Fees ~$1,310.40
VIA Rail: Churchill to Winnipeg • Sleeper 2 Passengers $722.40 $361.20 in Arrival Credit + $250 in Discover Escape Credit + $111.20 Cash $611.20
Total: $3,035.76 80,000 SkyMiles + 15,000 Starpoints + 150,000 Hotel Points + $436.20 in Arrival Credit + $250 in Discover Credit + $156.20 Cash $2,879.56 (95% Off!)

Happy travels!

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12 Comments
  1. Leslie from Atlanta

    I am so thrilled with this assistance! Maybe we will pull this off in 2014!?!

    • PointsAway

      Hi Leslie,

      Great to hear! :) And yes, I think you should shoot for it this year, really no reason to wait based on the miles and points you have at your disposal right now!

      • Leslie from Atlanta

        It took three years since I submitted the initial query this post is based on but I have just booked by Calm Air flights for Churchill with points during prime polar bear season next November.

        Taking the advice of this post, I applied for the TD Aeroplan VISA credit card and started collecting Aeroplan miles.

        Due to a lovely loophole in which fewer miles are required for Aeroplan flights that originate and end in the same province, my flights were only 7,500 miles per leg (15,000 RT) because Winnipeg and Churchill are at opposite ends of Manitoba. With a value of $900, this is quite possibly this is my best redemption ever.

        I had to call the Aeroplan Service Centre office. I was on hold for 45 minutes, which the CSR said was typical. Once a human came on, I was told I had to submit my preferred flights dates and then they’d contact (telegraph?) Calm Air up in Churchill to see if the dates work. I needed to call back after 24 hours to see if my itinerary was approved. Internet chatter suggested this back and forth iterates until I and Calm Air are in agreement. However when I called back yesterday, I found out my first choice of filights had been approved! Getting to Winnipeg will be easy with a decent choice of routes.

        Thanks again for helping me make this dream come true!

  2. Leslie from Atlanta

    Is it possible for a US citizen to get an Aeeroplan credit card with a nice bonus challenge?

    • PointsAway

      Not that I’m aware of, unfortunately, but you could earn Membership Rewards points and transfer them over at a 1:1 rate. Use this tool and see if any good Amex offers come up: https://www.creditcards.com/cardmatch/ That’s your best bet right now as all the public offers for Membership Rewards-yielding Amex cards aren’t great at the moment. Alternatively, you could look at the SPG Amex and transfer its points over 1:1, but the sign-up bonus would potentially be less.

  3. Leslie from Atlanta

    That works, thanks!

  4. Scott from PA

    Great example…thanks for walking your readers through it

    • PointsAway

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment! :)

  5. tiffany l

    Would it be possible to redeem Aeroplan miles for a straight roundtrip redemption from the States? Or does the addition of a Calm Air segment mean that it must be ticketed separately? Thanks!

    • PointsAway

      My understanding is no, since Calm Air awards are processed under a separate partnership. However, an Aeroplan rep may be able to work this out on the phone, even though it’s not bookable online.

  6. Tina

    I know I am late with this discussion, but I had heard that you could also use the Air Miles program to get a Calm Air flight. Or is that no longer possible? I was considering transferring IHG points to Air Miles for the Calm Air flight from Winnipeg to Churchill. Thanks!

    • Casey Ayers

      Hi Tina,

      This should be possible, as well, but make sure to check on the number of miles needed and award availability before making the transfer. Good luck!

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About PointsAway
Casey Ayers is a consultant and entrepreneur with a passion for travel. After amassing enough miles and points to travel anywhere in the world for almost free in less than six months, he developed PointsAway as a way to help others make travel dreams big and small come true.
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