When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. early last year, it wreaked havoc on the tourism industry. Airlines were inundated with cancellation requests, and by mid-April, they had issued an estimated $10 billion in travel vouchers.
As we enter the second year of staying closer to home, those vouchers may be expiring soon. If your voucher’s expiration date is approaching or you're not sure when your travel credit expires, and you’re not sure when you’ll feel comfortable traveling, here's what you need to know.
When the extent of the coronavirus pandemic became clearer, many airlines grounded between 60% and 80% of their flights. However, despite federal law requiring airlines to offer cash refunds when they cancel flights, many airlines provided travel vouchers instead. And for customers who decided to cancel their own tickets before the airline did, cash refunds weren't even an option.
These decisions left the airlines with billions of customers' dollars. In exchange, most airlines provided travel vouchers that needed to be used by a certain date. Depending on the airline and when you booked your ticket, though, the terms of your voucher can vary.
Despite the issues created by flight credits, one of the good things that came out of this situation is that many airlines dropped the punitive fees they charged customers who cancel or change their flights—some for specific time periods, and some permanently. However, basic economy fares are generally excluded from these offers.
Airline Travel Voucher Expiration Dates
Depending on when you booked your canceled flight and the airline you were planning to fly with, expiration dates can vary wildly. Here's a summary of the current policies:
|Airline||Expiration Date||Eligible Vouchers|
|Alaska Airlines||One year from the original travel date||Tickets booked Feb. 27, 2020, to March 31, 2021, for travel through Feb. 28, 2022|
|Allegiant Air||Two years from the original reservation date||N/A|
|American Airlines||March 31, 2022||Vouchers expiring between Jan. 1, 2021, and May 31, 2021 Vouchers set to expire between March 1 and Dec. 31, 2020, can be extended for one year by calling Customer Relations|
|Delta||Dec. 31, 2022||Tickets booked prior to April 17, 2020, for travel between March 2020 and March 2021|
|Frontier Airlines||Sept. 12, 2021||Flights booked between March 10 and April 15, 2020, or between July 2 and 31, 2020|
|Hawaiian Airlines||May 31, 2022||Flights booked before March 1, 2020, with original travel dates through Feb. 28, 2021|
|JetBlue Airways||Book by Dec. 31, 2021, for travel through June 30, 2022||Tickets purchased before June 1, 2020, with original travel dates between Feb. 27, 2020 and June 30, 2020|
|Southwest Airlines||Sept. 7, 2022||Travel funds set to expire or created between March 1, 2020, and Sept. 7, 2020|
|Spirit Airlines||Book by Sept. 30, 2021, for travel through Dec. 31, 2021||All reservation credits issued since March 2020|
|United Airlines||24 months from the issue date for travel through March 31, 2022||Reservations booked between May 1, 2019, and March 31, 2020|
If you're still not sure of the deadline by which you'll need to use your voucher, contact the airline to get the details for your specific situation.
One thing to keep in mind is that not all airline vouchers are created equal. While some airlines may allow you to use them multiple times until you've used up your entire credit, others may only allow you to apply your voucher to a single transaction. And if your new flight is cheaper than your original one, a few will send you a refund for any remaining balance under certain circumstances.
For example, say you have a United Airlines voucher for a canceled flight you had booked before March 3, 2020. If you used your voucher to book a new flight worth less than the one you canceled, you'd get a refund for the difference.
However, if you had booked your original ticket after March 3, 2020, and your new flight is cheaper than the canceled one, United pockets the difference. Frontier Airlines also uses this approach for flights booked anytime. In both cases, if your new flight is more expensive, you’d pay the difference.
What About Travel Booked Through Websites Like Expedia?
Online travel agencies such as Expedia, Priceline, and Orbitz typically follow the policies set by their partners. So if you booked a Delta flight through Expedia and had to cancel it due to COVID-19, you'd refer to Delta's policy to find out how long you have until your voucher expires.
How To Keep Pandemic Airline Travel Credits From Expiring
Depending on your airline, you may or may not be able to extend the validity of your travel voucher. One strategy could be to book a flight before the deadline, then cancel it so you receive a new voucher with an extended timeline. For example, if you book a Southwest flight using a voucher from a canceled flight during the pandemic, you can cancel it and your new voucher will expire 12 months later. But be careful, because if you apply any other travel vouchers to that reservation, your credit will expire much sooner.
Basically, if you’re considering this strategy, read the fine print very, very carefully.
If you won't be able to travel or book a trip before your voucher expires, and your airline’s policies don’t allow you to extend the deadline by booking a new flight and canceling it, consider calling the airline’s customer service. Explain your situation, and politely request an extension on your travel voucher. There's no guarantee you'll get one, but it's worth a try.
While it would be nice to be able to sell your airline voucher or give it to a family member or friend, these credits are typically non-transferable.
Expired Credits? Here Are Your Options
If you find you have a travel credit that's already expired, your options may be limited. Calling the airline and requesting that your voucher be reinstated is worth a try. But again, you're at the mercy of the representative, who may or may not be willing to make an exception.
If you received a flight credit because the airline canceled the flight instead of the other way around, the U.S. Department of Transportation still says you're entitled to a full refund of what you paid. That refund also applies if you decided not to take a flight once the airline made significant schedule changes or delays.
Finally, you may be able to get your money back by disputing the original charge on your credit card. But this strategy only works for flights you booked relatively recently. The Fair Credit Billing Act allows credit card holders to dispute charges up to 60 days after the statement date for the period in which the transaction was made.