Don’t Get Left Behind When Your Airline Travel Credits Expire
Last updated February 28, 2022
Millions of Americans who had flights canceled or postponed their trips due to the COVID-19 pandemic are still sitting on unused airline credits. There are $10 billion in unused vouchers, according to Senators Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
The clock is ticking: Many vouchers (also called credits and e-credits) expire soon. Normally, airlines say these vouchers are good for 12 to 24 months after the date of purchase of affected flights. Fortunately, in 2021, when it became clear the pandemic wasn’t over, many airlines extended their expiration dates until the end of 2022. Delta recently pushed its expiration date to the end of 2023.
Listen to audio highlights of the story below:
To apply the value of a credit toward a future trip, you must rebook the new flight by the voucher’s expiration date—but your travel can occur after that date. For example, if you bought a ticket on June 1, 2021, but then canceled the trip and got a voucher for the amount you spent, you could use that credit to pay for future travel until June 1, 2022. You could even rebook the replacement trip for a different destination, so long as you do so before your voucher expires.
Because airlines often have different ways to determine expiration dates, and because their rules can vary depending on the type of ticket and when it was purchased, travelers face a confusing mishmash of possible deadlines. For example, Kevin Brasler, Checkbook’s executive editor, booked and canceled a trip with American Airlines in late 2019, months before pandemic disruptions began. The airline has extended the expiration date for credit a few times, but as of this writing it will expire on March 31, 2022. But in the last two years, for other trips Kevin booked and had to cancel, American Airlines has enforced different rules, leaving Kevin with credits with several different expiration dates.
Consumers risk losing billions of dollars by failing to use these credits to rebook flights. Many of them may be unaware that they still hold valid vouchers: While frequent fliers usually get notified about such policy changes, many others aren’t, and don’t know where to look for them. Plus, the different rules from airline to airline and even within each airline’s fare rules create enormous confusion.
Many Airlines Pushed Vouchers to Avoid Making Refunds
Since the start of the pandemic, travelers weren’t the only ones canceling their trips. A staggering number of flights were canceled by airlines that didn’t want to operate empty planes.
Many customers are unhappy with how they were treated. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) received more complaints about airline refunds than anything else—107,781—between April 2020 and August 2021, according to “Not First Class,” a report by the consumer group U.S. PIRG. “The airline industry failed to adequately deal with customers whose flights were canceled,” the report concluded.
When an airline cancels a flight or makes a schedule change that significantly affects an itinerary, it’s required by DOT regulations to provide ticketholders with full refunds. It can offer a voucher for future travel, but if a customer asks for their money back the airline must provide it. (If a flight departs as scheduled and you decide to cancel, the airline is only obligated to give you a credit.)
Yet, many passengers with canceled flights complained they were offered vouchers with no mention of receiving refunds. DOT had to order airlines in April 2020 to proactively advise ticket-holders of their right to full refunds.
“It’s in the airline’s best interest to keep that money, so credits and vouchers are the best thing for them, but not for consumers,” said Jacob van Cleef, consumer watchdog associate and author of U.S. PIRG’s report. “You should not have to jump through hoops to get your money back. It should be straightforward, like we see with other types of refunds.”
Consumer Reports is calling on the DOT to fine the airlines that did not follow the rules and failed to offer refunds when they canceled flights. “That is an out-and-out violation of federal law,” said Bill McGee, aviation adviser for CR.
Vouchers Are Often Difficult to Find and Redeem
Each airline displays credits in a different spot on its website. Generally, if you have an account with an airline, you’ll find vouchers by logging on and looking under “My Trips” or in a digital “Wallet.” If you don’t have an online account, you can use the booking code for your trip to search for any credit associated with it. If you’re not sure, you can always call.
You might be able to redeem a voucher by entering the full ticket number as a payment option at checkout. But often, you’ll have to pick up the phone.
“The vouchers have been complicated, if not impossible, for some folks to use,” said Willis Orlando, senior product operations specialist at Scott’s Cheap Flights. “If you’re having issues, just call, even though the wait times are long. If the airline has a text message option, I advise contacting customer service that way.”
Don’t be surprised if you run into roadblocks. Vouchers are usually non-transferrable—only good for another flight taken by the original passenger. And you may be restricted to booking the same class of service.
“This is absurd,” McGee told Checkbook. “Imagine any other industry making it so difficult to spend your money—and those vouchers are your money.”
Many passengers didn’t get refunds after canceling their flights, even when CDC guidelines advised against travel. And many basic economy tickets purchased after the pandemic began don’t even qualify for credits. Another huge problem: Many passengers unknowingly lose out on getting flight credits by not showing up to take flights; most airlines issue vouchers only if passengers inform them that they want to cancel.
What You Can Do
Travel experts we spoke with advised:
Hunt for Credits
Check with airlines you’ve booked tickets with over the last several years. Because airlines have myriad rules for issuing credits and their expiration dates, you might have a credit and not know. Don’t assume airlines will remind you!
Ask for an Extension
Call and see if you can get an extension, even if your voucher has already expired. You’ve got nothing to lose by asking. If you get turned down, call again; you might get a customer service agent more willing to help. Another option: Contact the airline via Twitter or Facebook.
Book Another Trip
Even if you’re not sure when you might fly, book a flight you might want to take selling for a price similar to the value of your credit. You can always change the date and even the destination later, as most U.S. airlines are still waiving change fees except for basic economy fares. Because most airlines let you book trips 11 months in advance, and because you can book travel that will occur after a voucher’s expiration date, the lack of change fees means you can rebook trips long after credits will expire. The key is to not cancel a ticket purchased using a credit that has since expired; if you do, you no longer have access to that voucher.
File a Complaint
Feel like you’re getting the runaround or not being treated fairly? File a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation. The DOT can’t solve individual problems, but filing a complaint with the federal agency that regulates U.S. airlines can sometimes get things moving.
Think Outside the Box
If you have travel credits you know you’ll never use, ask the airline if it will let you transfer them to someone else.
If you decide not to take a flight, cancel your trip on the airline’s website or by phone. If you simply don’t show up, you might not get a credit.
We Need Passenger-Friendly Rules
Consumer groups want the DOT to issue new regulations that would stipulate what airlines must tell ticket-holders when flights get canceled, and standardize travel vouchers industry-wide. Many people who are eligible for refunds instead take vouchers, not realizing they can get their money back, McGee told Checkbook.
Charlie Leocha, president and founder of Travelers United, a nonprofit advocacy group, is pushing the DOT to issue regulations requiring airlines to provide standardized vouchers to customers who canceled reservations during the COVID-19 pandemic for any reason.
“The airline owes them a travel credit, but it should be a non-restricted flight credit, maybe in the form of a gift card that never expires,” Leocha told Checkbook. “It is your money, and you should be able to use it for anything—to buy a new ticket, buy someone else’s ticket, pay future ancillary fees, or even purchase a vacation package—as long as you use it with that airline.”
Help Demand Better Treatment from Airlines
“After nearly two years of non-stop air travel chaos, it’s time for you to bring order, fairness, and accountability to the airline industry, and ensure passengers have clear and enforceable rights. We are calling on you to push for an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights that would, among other things, provide compensation and accommodations for flight cancelations, delays of varying hours, and mishandled baggage. These rights should also allow passengers to cancel flights without financial penalties during an ‘Act of God’ condition, and prohibit charging fees for families with young children to sit together.”
Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He is also the consumer reporter for NW Newsradio in Seattle. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at ConsumerMan.com.