Banff National Park is the unquestionable gem of the Canadian Rockies. Banff and the surrounding natural beauty were listed in 2017 as the top place to visit, a perennial favorite for outdoor enthusiasts, and a bucket list trip for many who visit.
I’ve been lucky enough to use miles and points for Banff and the Candian Rockies 2x and already I’m planning a 3rd Banff itinerary! The fact is a Canadian Rockies vacation can cost much less than you imagine if you use your credit card, airline, and hotel miles and points correctly.
In this guide, we’ll look at travel hacking the Canadian Rockies and money saving tips for visiting Banff National Park so you can make this bucket list trip a reality.
How to Use Miles and Points for Banff and the Canadian Rockies
Travelers heading to Banff National Park and the surrounding area will want to fly into Calgary in Alberta, Canada. The airport is a straightforward 90-minute drive to Banff, while the next closest major Canadian airport, Edmonton, is more than double the time at 4 hours by car to Banff.
A North American economy award flight between the continental U.S. and Canada typically costs 25k-30k miles roundtrip on airlines like United and American.
Southwest Companion holders will be sad to learn neither Southwest or budget airline competitor, JetBlue, operate flights to Calgary.
However, bargain airline Frontier will begin flying a direct route from Denver to Calgary June 1st, 2018. While Canadian budget carrier WestJet flies between several U.S. cities (Houston Intercontinental, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York-JFK, Orlando, Palm Springs, Phoenix-Sky Harbor, and San Diego) and Calgary.
Use Google Flights to search for the cheapest dates on these budget carriers and other airlines.
For those of you looking to use miles and points for Banff, let’s take a closer look at your options and some possible ways to save miles.
Star Alliance airlines Air Canada and United run direct routes from several U.S. cities including
- Los Angeles,
- Las Vegas,
- San Francisco,
- and Denver.
United and Air Canada service Seattle and Chicago, as well. But, folks in these cities should keep reading to see how they can benefit from cheaper mileage award flights.
As with all award redemptions, you want to avoid high surcharges or else they’ll negate the value of your award ticket. Air Canada Aeroplan miles can be earned by transferring American Express Membership Rewards points to your loyalty account. However, Air Canada imposes high fees on award tickets making this not a good deal.
Take a look at this example between San Francisco and Calgary. Redeeming Air Canada miles costs 25k for a round-trip flight and a whopping $192.71 CAD in fees! Consider that a cash price on this ticket is typically between $200-$350 USD (or $250-$430 CAD) depending on the time of year.
Even when taking advantage of Air Canada’s short haul redemption between Portland and Calgary, the round trip miles are only 15k but the fees are still $192.71 CAD!
The best way to avoid these fees is to use Air Canada’s Star Alliance partner, United. There are no surcharges on United award flights, just the applicable and unavoidable taxes. If you don’t have United miles, Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer to United 1:1.
Here are the same Air Canada flights from San Francisco to Calgary but booked on United’s website with United miles. The miles are the same and only the taxes are charged for a cheaper out-of-pocket cost.
American Airlines also operates direct flights to Calgary from Dallas Fort Worth and Chicago (starting 6/7/18). American Airlines charges 15k or 30k miles round-trip to fly from the continental U.S. to Canada.
The plus here, though, is American Airline’s relationship with British Airways through the Oneworld Alliance. British Airways prices their awards by the distance flown rather than flat mileage costs based on regions of the world.
Short-haul flights within the U.S. and Canada are great ways to use British Airways Avios. For 20k BA Avios in economy or 40k BA Avios in business, travelers from Dallas-Fort Worth (and Chicago starting in June 2018) can book the exact same American Airlines round-trip flights by booking with British Airways for cheaper.
Searches on the British Airways website show examples like this one between Dallas-Fort Worth and Calgary in business class.
It would cost 40k BA Avios OR 60k AA miles and roughly the same amount in taxes for the exact same flights. And, with British Airways a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, Amex Membership Rewards, and SPG, Avios are easy to earn! So, which sounds better to you?
One last flight redemption I’d like to point out is on Alaska Airlines. For 7.5k Alaska miles, you can fly one-way between Seattle and Calgary. Round trips are double the miles at 15k. In addition, Alaska’s continental U.S. and Canada redemptions range from 5k-20k miles each way depending on where you’re departing from and can definitely be a good deal.
The caveat to these lower award redemptions is finding the availability with that pricing. For example, in April 2018 there was plenty of 7.5k redemptions between Seattle and Calgary, but only 10k for the same route in September.
Alaska miles can be transferred from your Starwood Preferred Guest points or earned with a co-branded Alaska Airlines Bank of America credit card.
One interesting development is the partnership between Singapore Airlines and Alaska Airlines. The award chart for redeeming Singapore miles on Alaska flights is a bit quirky, but not without its perks.
The catch is flights with connections or transfers will cost more. So, when using Singapore miles on Alaska flights, you want to look for routes Alaska flies direct.
Why am I even bringing Singapore Airlines up? Their miles are much easier to get than Alaska miles because they transfer directly from Chase UR, Amex MR. Citi TY, and SPG.
If you’re in Seattle and want to fly Alaska’s direct route to Calgary and don’t have Alaska miles, you can find availability on Alaska’s website and call into Singapore to book with their miles instead. The mileage cost will come out the same, 15k round trip, as had you booked with Alaska miles.
Lastly, an important note for Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholders. If you plan to look for cheap economy flights, check the Chase travel portal for cheaper mileage redemptions. The 50% bonus on your UR points makes it possible to get a deal on an award flight. These tickets will even earn frequent flyer miles!
Banff National Park Hotels
There aren’t many points hotels in Banff or the immediate Canadian Rockies area. Using a tool like AwardMapper, it’s easy to see the award hotel properties in a given area. For example, checking the hotels near the Calgary Airport, you’ll find no shortage of Hilton, Marriott, Choice, SPG, and Club Carlson properties.
The Banff Springs Fairmont and Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise make for great redemption value if you’re one of the lucky remaining few who has Fairmont points or free nights. In 2017, Accor bought Fairmont, therefore dissolving the relationship between Chase and Fairmont. All Chase Fairmont credit card holders were converted to the Sapphire Preferred. Currently, there’s no co-branded Fairmont credit card available.
Within the town of Banff, there’s a Delta Hotel which should be bookable with Marriott or SPG points. However, reports online indicate limited availability.
The nearby town of Canmore about 20-25 minutes from Banff has Best Western, Radisson, Choice, IHG, and Wyndham (Ramada) hotels. Banff National Park is easily accessed from Canmore and tends to be more affordable than staying in Banff.
For those of us who prefer to stay in Banff, there are still a few cost-saving accommodation tips to consider.
For those of you with the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase travel portal will have access to independently run hotels in Banff that can be booked with UR points. The 50% bonus on the card makes this a viable option and a decent value for hotel award nights.
I did this on my most recent trip to Banff, using UR points to book several nights at the Juniper Hotel. For roughly 7k UR points a night, I was able to save this cost out-of-pocket.
Another option is Hotels.com. While not a points loyalty program, Hotels.com gives a free night for every 10 paid nights. If you’re going to pay for your nights in Banff, then why not have them count toward a free hotel night at some point down the road?
Finally, if you’re looking to save even more or have a large family group, booking an Airbnb in Banff could be the way to go. There are lodging options in all budget ranges for solo travelers to groups. Plus, with a kitchen, you’ll be able to save money by preparing snacks and small meals.
Banff Car Rental
In order to explore Banff, drive the Icefields Parkway, and maximize your time in the Canadian Rockies, you’ll need a rental car. Calgary Airport has all major car rental companies like Budget, Hertz, Avis, Enterprise, etc.
The key to feeling good about your rental is to only rent the car you need. Now, if you’re heading to Banff in winter, you’ll need a vehicle with snow tires. They don’t come standard. But, 2 people visiting Banff in summer will be just fine in a smaller car.
Credit cards like the Chase Sapphires or the Citi AA Platinum Select come with primary coverage on your car rental insurance. This can help you save money by waiving additional insurance for an added cost per day.
Bottom line to saving money on a car rental is not to pay for things you don’t need.
After making a reservation on any car rental site, though, do use Autoslash to track the booking. They’ll let you know if they find a better price so you can rebook for less.
If you have a travel credit like the Sapphire Reserve, you can use the $300 travel credit to pay for all or some of your car rental fees. Cashback rewards can also be used to pay for car rental costs, but remember to add in insurance coverage since many of these cards don’t include it as a benefit.
Miles and points can help you save a bundle no matter where you want to travel. Banff National Park and the Canadian Rockies are bucket list worthy for sure! But, you don’t have to break the bank in order for this trip to be a reality.
Would you like to travel to Banff National Park and see the Canadian Rockies in person? How will you use miles and points to book your trip?
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