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New unlimited air pass for travel between U.S. and Canada

This week, Air Canada debuted airfare passes that allow U.S. residents unlimited flights between the U.S. and Canada. The airline also announced a cheaper class of service and expanded route options on its 10- and 20-credit air passes good for travel between the two countries. Passes are available in both Air Canada’s cheaper Tango Plus class and its pricier Latitude class. Only one person may use each pass; more expensive small business corporate passes are available for multiple users.

Air Canada spokesperson John Reber says the Canada-only versions of these passes (introduced last year) have been particularly popular among individual business travelers and self-employed people who now don’t give a second thought to hopping on a plane to meet with clients in another city. The U.S. versions are aimed primarily at business travelers who travel between the U.S. and Canada frequently, U.S. residents with relatives or significant others in Canada, and travelers with homes in both countries.

While the concept is intriguing, it appears from my analysis that you’ll likely need to be an extremely frequent business flyer or else have a long distance lover you can’t see often enough in order to make these passes pay off.

Here’s the deal: Unlimited passes offer a choice between a three- or six-month subscription period and coverage in one of four zones: “Canada Commuter” (travel between Boston, Chicago, Newark, or New York and Hamilton, Montreal, Ottawa, or Toronto); “Eastern” (eastern U.S., Texas, and eastern Canada); “Western” (western U.S., Texas, and western Canada); and “North America” (all 120 U.S. and Canadian destinations.) Prices start at $1,737 per month, all taxes included.

How much would you need to fly to get your money’s worth? Let’s say you often travel for business between New York (La Guardia) and Montreal, where the lowest round-trip Air Canada fare I could find was $312. With the cheapest unlimited pass valid for those cities ($2,055 per month for the three-month Canada Commuter at Tango Plus level) you’d need to make seven or more round-trips per month for the pass to save you money.

The 10- and 20-credit air passes may be more useful for some. These passes cover 10 or 20 one-way flights (including connections) within one of the four designated zones. Rates start at $2,100 for a 10-credit pass and credits can be used over a 12-month period.

In my rate comparisons, the prices for passes versus the cost of individual round trips came out about even. For example, take the costs of a retiree living in Tampa traveling back and forth to Toronto to visit the grandkids five times per year (requiring ten credits). In this instance I priced out five round-trip Air Canada in April, June, August, October, and over Christmas week in December (flying mid-week, avoiding holidays, at the lowest possible fare) for a total of $2,204. The equivalent 10-credit Tango Plus Eastern zone pass costs $2,213—about $8 more. That doesn’t seem like a good deal to me but I suppose if you factored in some late bookings and weekend or holiday travel you might pay less with the pass.

Overall, these passes don’t offer the mainstream traveler much, but if you do travel quite a bit between the U.S. and Canada, do a price comparison on flights between the cities that interest you and see if you can’t save with a pass.

It would be really interesting if Air Canada’s concept inspired some of the U.S. airlines to create a similar product for travel within the U.S. A reasonably priced pass that covered travel between major cities on the East Coast or between major points on both coasts would certainly interest countless business and leisure travelers.

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