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What to do with expiring travel credits

If you had to cancel a flight in 2020 and received a credit, make sure you have a plan to use it before it expires

Summary

As a result of the pandemic, airlines have extended their expiration policy for trip credits. But each one has slightly different rules. Here’s what you need to do if your trip vouchers are about to expire.

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Remember that travel credit you received after canceling your 2020 spring break or summer vacation? It’s time to dust it off, because it might expire soon.

The good news is that air travel is picking up. Through March 28, the TSA has processed over 1 million air travelers for 18 straight days (and counting) for the first time since Feb. 28-March 16, 2020.

There are many nuances to this issue. Let’s use American Airlines as an example. Their policy is emblematic of many other airlines in that it’s about as clear as pea soup.

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Normally, American Airlines’ travel credits expire one year after the date they were issued (which is probably on or about the date you cancelled your trip). Because of the pandemic, American extended their travel vouchers’ expiration dates. Vouchers expiring between Jan. 1, 2021, and May 31, 2021, will be automatically extended to expire on March 31, 2022. But currently, vouchers expiring in June have not been extended.

On American, your travel must be completed by the expiration date. Some Airlines merely require you to rebook by that date. At least you can use the funds to book an American Airlines flight for anyone. Some airlines mandate that the original passenger must be the one to fly on the reservation booked using the travel credit.

Many airlines have enacted seemingly customer-friendly policies such as eliminating change fees. And these can be very good for consumers. But they’re not perfect, as evidenced by travel credits’ expiration dates. If you need to cancel, it’s usually best to wait as long as possible to see if the airline changes something first. But even if you end up with a credit instead of a true refund, waiting pushes back your credit’s issue date and subsequent expiration.

In my view, these airlines have the most generous travel voucher policies:

  • JetBlue
  • United Airlines
  • Alaska Airlines
  • American Airlines

And these four carriers offer the least generous policies:

  • Frontier Airlines
  • Southwest Airlines
  • Delta Air Lines
  • Spirit Airlines

Each airline treats these travel credits a little differently, but the summary is that it’s confusing and your expiration date might be approaching rapidly. Here’s what I suggest:

Check your airline’s terms and conditions

Figure out when your travel credit expires and what you need to do to use it. For example, does your travel need to be completed (or at least started) before the expiration date? Or do you just need to book the trip by then? And can you use the funds to plan a trip for a family member or friend, or do you need to travel yourself?

Supplement with points and miles

This tip works especially well if you’re able to use your travel credit but it doesn’t stretch as far as you’d like. Let’s say you want to bring along additional family members or friends. Or maybe it simply costs more to fly to your chosen destination than you have in your travel bank. Putting some frequent flyer miles or credit card points to work can give you more bang for your buck.

Miles and points can also help you start over if your travel credit ends up expiring. Scoring a credit card sign-up bonus or redeeming existing miles can at least soften the blow.

Upgrade your experience

The price gap between economy and premium class seating has narrowed. Airlines are obviously hurting financially, and business travel is projected to rebound more slowly than leisure travel. Several airlines are selling cross-country first and business class fares for around $500 each way. Splurging with your travel credit reduces the out-of-pocket cost. Plus, it’s a lot easier to socially distance in the front of the plane.

If you don’t think you’ll use the credit, ask for more time

There’s no guarantee the airline will give you more time, but it never hurts to ask. Just like you can often get a credit card annual fee or late fee waived upon request, I suggest calling the airline and politely pleading your case for an extension. And while getting a break for free is preferred, sometimes money talks. Southwest Airlines has reportedly been selling six-month extensions for $100.

Even if you’re not ready to travel yourself, utilize these strategies to hopefully get some value from your expiring travel credits before it’s too late.

Have a question about credit cards? E-mail me at ted.rossman@creditcards.com and I’d be happy to help.

Editorial Disclaimer

The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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