The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the travel and hospitality industry. One result is an abundance of eager travelers with vouchers they can use for travel later this year or even next year. If you have travel credits, here are some tips on how best to use them.
Cruise lines have basically halted all their sailings worldwide for the time being, and hotel capacity continues to plunge even though many properties have simply closed down for now.
According to recent statistics, flights operating globally are down 68% compared to last year and U.S. flights are down 74% compared to the same time one year ago.
This turn of events has done a number on consumers and travel businesses that count on recurring income. In most cases, disappointed would-be travelers have been able to get a cash refund for airfare that has been canceled by common carriers, which is good since this is mandated by the U.S. Department of Transportation anyway.
See related: Trip canceled? Your credit card may reimburse you
Carriers offer travel vouchers, flexible rebooking
But not everyone has been so lucky, and some carriers have resisted refunds for canceled travel. United Airlines was even hit with a class-action lawsuit in early April for “unfair and deceptive conduct” relating to refused refunds.
In some cases, however, consumers have chosen to receive travel vouchers instead of a cash refund. Cruise operators, strapped for cash, went to great lengths to ensure travel vouchers would be an acceptable option for many, some offering 125% of the fare paid toward a future cruise or a 100% cruise credit plus onboard credits for dining or excursions.
Airlines like Delta and American have also rolled out flexible rebooking policies, allowing consumers with travel before the end of September to rebook for a later date this year or get a voucher to use for travel once they’re ready.
Either way, the end result is an abundance of eager travelers with vouchers they can use for travel later this year or even next year. But, what will come of all those vouchers? And how can consumers ensure they don’t fall through the cracks or go to waste.
What to do if you’re stuck with airline or cruise credits
1. Keep a close eye on the fine print
People with travel vouchers should know exactly what the rules on their vouchers are, how much they’re for and the travel dates each voucher can be used for, says Riley Adams, a CPA who writes for Young and the Invested.
Vouchers for cruises, airfare and other travel come with an expiration date they must be used by. And if you fail to use them within the predetermined date range, you will likely be out of luck.
Your best bet is reading over your voucher so you understand exactly how long you have to use it, including the expiration date of the voucher and any “must travel by” date included. Also note that airline vouchers in particular are non-transferrable, meaning you can’t use the voucher for anyone other than the person who was originally scheduled to travel.
This last detail can be frustrating since you may prefer to plan a trip you paid for with different family members or friends next time. But you’ll be better off if you know this ahead of time.
2. Wait for a travel deal to come along
Anna Barker, who writes about personal finance at Logical Dollar, says she has a Lufthansa travel voucher for around $600 for a March flight she missed from New York to Frankfurt. As a frequent traveler who has visited 55 countries over the years, Barker says her plan now is waiting for an epic travel deal to come along so she can maximize her voucher to the hilt.
Flights are currently cheap, and airlines, cruise lines and hotels are expected to roll out deals in order to lure travelers back out of their homes later this year.
The majority of major U.S. and international carriers are also offering free changes or cancellations to new bookings, she says, which would normally incur fees of several hundred dollars.
“This is clearly a way to try to get people to start buying plane tickets again, but it can be a great safety net for using those travel credits you’ve accrued,” she says.
Molly Fergus of TripSavvy says that even as you pursue travel deals, keeping an eye on the cancellation policies of your new, replacement trip is worth the peace of mind in the current climate.
“I’m paying more attention to cancellation policies than I ever have before, even for potential trips in 2021,” she says.
3. Look for lower prices on premium travel
Fergus also says that with lower prices on travel here to stay in the short-term, you can maximize any vouchers you have in order to gain a better travel experience. This could mean using a cruise voucher for a balcony cabin instead of an interior cabin on a cruise next year, or splurging for a suite instead of a standard hotel room.
Since travel vouchers are for a fixed value, you can stretch them further when you find premium travel for discounted rates.
“Most of us assume that a business-class flight is too costly,” she says. “But demand is down right now, and it’s worth at least checking the cost of the upscale flight. You might be surprised and find a deal!”
4. Supplement your travel vouchers with award travel
A final way to maximize airline and cruise credits involves supplementing these travel credits with award travel and potentially even earning travel rewards now that you can use later on. If you have a cruise voucher you plan to use for an Alaskan cruise in 2021, for example, you could take steps now to earn airline miles for your flights.
Or, if you have an airfare voucher you plan to use once travel is safe, you can focus on earning flexible rewards points now that you can use later for a hotel or rental condo, or even a rental car.
With that in mind, you may want to consider signing up for a travel credit card in order to earn a big welcome bonus as well as points or miles on your regular spending. You may not be able to travel quite yet, but that doesn’t stop you from stockpiling rewards you can use later.
“If you have miles or points to use, this could be a great time to redeem them as well,” says Fergus.
By and large, airlines have been considerably more flexible in terms of giving refunds for travel booked with miles. Most major carriers will simply give you your miles back plus airline taxes and fees paid if you are canceling within their new rebooking policy windows, which may be more convenient than getting stuck with a travel voucher instead.
“Booking with points could allow you to take advantage of the bargains we’re seeing without putting real money on the line,” says Fergus.