Pending changes by major airlines to their frequent flyer programs (shifting the rewards model from miles flown to dollars spent) have many Canadians reviewing the effect on their international travel earnings. Add the late 2013 changes by Air Canada, affecting the ability to upgrade through its Altitude program, and many international travellers are increasingly confused about how to maximize their rewards.

The travel industry should recognize the risk. With an estimated 70 percent of Canadians holding passports, it is a significant market. In the first five months of 2014, roughly 14 million Canadians travelled internationally, according to the Canadian Tourism Commission. The figure is up just an eyelash over the same period in 2013. Loyalty membership, meanwhile, stood at 120 million in 2012, representing 90 percent of Canadians, according to the 2013 COLLOQUY Loyalty Census.

But none of this means the passport should stay closed. Some industry players do realize the need to right the ship following key frequent flyer changes and are introducing consumer-friendly perks, some geared towards international travel. Here are three areas Canadian travellers should examine to save money on that next cross-the-border venture:

Foreign transaction fees

Several credit card providers, including Capital One, Chase and Citi (Thank You Premier), do not charge international purchase fees, which can add up to a lot. Further, travellers can look for co-branded credit cards that will additionally earn them points with a favourite hotel or carrier. Among them are the Marriott Rewards Premier Card and Delta SkyMiles from American Express, which dropped foreign transaction fees soon after Delta announced changes to its rewards model.

Sign-up bonuses

These enticing perks make sense when the card is a good fit with the consumer lifestyle, as they usually require charging a minimum amount in a given timeframe. If the consumer is already planning on laying out that sum, why not get extra points in return? The Chase Sapphire Preferred card, for example, awards new members 40,000 bonus points if they spend $3,000 in the first three months of enrollment. Hilton HHonors Reserve (Citi) gives members who spend $2,500 within four months of enrollment two weekend night certificates.

Fee offsets

Many travel credit cards charge an annual fee, and they can be hefty — north of $400. Fortunately, there are ways to offset them. Several hotel-based loyalty programs offer anniversary perks, such as a free room night, which can even cover the fee. Among them: The Hyatt Visa gives members one free night at select hotels from Toronto to Seoul, according to, and Club Carlson Visa bestows 40,000 bonus points every year a member renews.
The takeaway is that loyalty-programs change, much like round-trip tickets, go both ways. A little research and diligence can save a lot of money, and that can translate to more passport stamps.