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Friendly service, some complimentary items and comfier seats than a typical low-cost carrier.
Expensive fares for a LCC, tight pitch.
After spending a couple of weeks flying up and down the Eastern Seaboard predominantly on low-cost-carriers (you have to start somewhere, right?), it was time to move on to bigger and better things. The goal was to send me to China (and get me back home) on a mix of Chinese carriers in order to get a sense of how the mainland Chinese carriers stack up.
After my low-cost adventures throughout the US, I was in Las Vegas, so we were targeting a West Coast departure point to take me to China. I was on the right coast for sure — there are plenty of nonstop flights between cities up and down the West Coast of North America to Chinese cities both large and small. (Keep in mind that small in the Chinese context, this means less than about 10 million people.)
I was on the right coast, but in the wrong country. China Southern operates its new 787-9 between Vancouver, British Columbia (YVR), and its hub in Guangzhou (CAN), and one-way tickets that connected at CAN and terminated elsewhere in China (Chengdu in this case) weren’t all that expensive. Since we were booking so close to departure and didn’t have a ton of flexibility, we weren’t able to find availability on the route or date we needed.
But I was in Las Vegas. Enter the positioning flight.
When you work for The Points Guy, traveling far and wide just to catch a specific flight is nothing out of the ordinary, in fact it’s almost expected. I was already on the western half of the North American continent, so this wouldn’t be a huge deal, but it was a consideration nevertheless.
When I was researching options that could take me from Las Vegas (LAS) to Vancouver — and give me enough time to make the flight to Guangzhou — I didn’t have too much of a choice. The YVR-CAN flight was scheduled to take off at 12:50pm, meaning I needed to be on the ground in Vancouver no later than about 10am in order to give myself enough time.
The only two carriers to operate the LAS-YVR route nonstop are, unsurprisingly, Air Canada (operated by Air Canada Rouge) and WestJet. From there the decision was easy: WestJet’s flight doesn’t land until around 3pm, and the Rouge flight at 9:41am. Star Alliance it was!
Air Canada Rouge is the only surviving wholly owned low-cost subsidiary of a legacy carrier in North America. Former similar ventures include Delta’s Song and United’s TED. Remember those?
I’d never flown with Rouge before, and though I knew it’d be a totally typical coach flight, I was still excited that it would be a new airline taking me on the first 992 miles of an 8,000-plus-mile journey to China. Here’s what the experience was like.
Rouge is Air Canada’s budget carrier, but it charges not-so-budget prices — at least on the day I was flying. The prices were astronomically high, since the flight was almost sold out. The only remaining fares were booking in full-fare “Y” economy class, which is notoriously expensive on any airline, budget or not. But even factoring this pricey ticket into the total trip, we still came out well ahead when compared to booking a business-class ticket that originated in Las Vegas. We purchased the $517 ticket using the Platinum Card® from American Express to take advantage of the 5x points earning on airfare (when booked directly through airlines or through American Express Travel).
Since I decided to credit my mileage earnings to my United MileagePlus account. Although the flight was operated by Air Canada Rouge, the ticket was issued by United, so the earning chart resembles the standard rates for flights on United metal.
Since Air Canada is a Star Alliance member, I had the ability to credit the flight’s mileage earnings to my United MileagePlus account. Although the flight was operated by Air Canada Rouge, the ticket was issued by United Airlines (all ticket numbers starting with “016”), so the calculated mileage earnings were equivalent to a flight operated on United metal.
I don’t have any status with the airline, so I earned a total of 2,405 redeemable miles on a $481 base fare.
My flight was scheduled to depart at 7:05am, so I arrived at McCarran Airport just after 5:30am to a completely empty Air Canada check-in area.
Both my Rouge and China Southern flights were booked on the same American Express reservation, so I was wondering how this would be handled at the airport. I first went to the self-service kiosk and scanned my passport. Once the system located my reservation, it directed me to see an agent to complete check-in, which I guess is what I ultimately expected to happen.
Because Air Canada and China Southern aren’t codeshare partners, the agent could only issue my first boarding pass and couldn’t check me in for my China Southern flights. She told me I’d have to check in with the staff at Vancouver Airport. Additionally, since they were treated as separate tickets, thus the LAS-YVR flight was treated as its own segment, so standard baggage fees applied. I had to pay $30 to check my bag, the standard rate for all Rouge flights.
Thanks to interline baggage agreements, though, the ticket agent was able to tag the bag all the way through to Chengdu (CTU) (since China Southern wouldn’t be assessing a baggage fee anyway). She urged me to hang onto the bag tag because the China Southern staff in Vancouver would likely need it for their records.
I was departing from Gate D24, so I had to take a train to Concourse D after clearing security.
Signage at the gate indicated priority boarding on the left for Premium Rouge, the airline’s First Class product, as well as Star Alliance elite. This was an international flight, so boarding began a full 45 minutes before the scheduled departure time.
Cabin and Seat
The Airbus A319-100 that took me up to Vancouver was nearly 22 years old, originally delivered in November 1997 to mainline Air Canada before being transferred to the Rouge fleet in 2014 and getting a new interior in the process.
On board was Rouge’s standard economy product. Each seat had a pitch of 29 inches, so the legroom felt similar to that of a US low-cost carrier. In fact, it was just 1 inch more than Spirit’s standard economy product, which holds the distinction of being America’s tightest pitch. However, these seats were significantly more padded, complete with adjustable headrests and a solid amount of recline.
The hardshell seatbacks featured a similar design to what you’d find on United and American’s latest cabins without IFE.
The tray table was standard size and fit my 13-inch MacBook Pro without any issue.
The two lavatories for economy passengers were about as standard as they come, but were clean throughout the flight.
Amenities and IFE
Something that sets Air Canada Rouge apart from its low-cost competitors is the compelling Wi-Fi options it offers: You can buy a one-hour Browse Pass from CA$8.49 (about $6.50), or a Stream Pass for CA$12.29 ($9.50). The airline claims that the Stream Pass allows you to stream your favorite movies and TV shows just as you would at home — meaning entertainment services such as Netflix, Hulu and HBO would all be fair game. That is, of course, if you’re willing to pay to access your inflight entertainment.
I purchased the browsing pass, and the connection speeds were great for inflight internet. I was able to send messages, emails and even use data-heavy media such as Instagram.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
While all standard beverages (water, juices, sodas, tea and coffee) are offered free of charge, the airline has an extensive buy-on-board menu featuring anything from light snacks and refreshments to full meals on select flights longer than two hours.
Hungry for a sweet breakfast item, I purchased a small chocolate croissant for CA$3 ($2.25). It was a great snack for the three-hour flight.
For an economy flight, the service was top-notch.
This flight was staffed by a great crew of flight attendants. They were all fully bilingual, making announcements first in French then English (the airline’s headquarters is in Montreal, Quebec, so this makes sense). Everyone I interacted with was energetic — even at the early hour — and was dedicated to performing his or her duties with a smile and providing good service for the passengers.
Air Canada Rouge offers a solid economy product for those traveling between the United States and Canada. The cabin is one notch above the traditional low-cost carriers, and the complimentary drink service and buy-on-board menu resembles a legacy carrier, though the comfort level overall isn’t quite up to par.
Considering how expensive my flight was, I wouldn’t go out of my way to fly this airline for a similar or higher price than any other carrier unless it was totally necessary (like it was in this case). However, if an Air Canada Rouge fare offers a significant savings, I would choose this carrier over another LCC or legacy carrier in a heartbeat.
Know before you go.
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