In March 2020, millions of travelers were forced to put their future travel plans on hold indefinitely as international borders closed and travel came to a virtual standstill.
Since then, airlines have had to cancel thousands of flights because of travel restrictions and in response to a drastic drop in demand as large swaths of the population stayed home to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
In early April 2020, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) reminded carriers that they are obligated to provide passengers with a refund for flights canceled by the airlines or when the airline makes a significant schedule change. In response, the airlines made their refund policies and the process for obtaining refunds more transparent on their websites.
But the countless customers who canceled their flights of their own volition, or who did not pursue a refund, had the option to obtain a future travel credit. Depending when the flight was booked and on what airline, some of those credits could be expiring soon.
Here are some tips on how to make sure you don’t lose the value of those flight vouchers.
Not ready to book? Call the airline
In prepandemic times, maybe we didn’t think much could come of a customer service plea to the airlines, but Scott Keyes, founder of flight deals newsletter Scott’s Cheap Flights, says there’s no reason not to give it a try.
If your travel credit expiration date is coming up but you really aren’t ready to book, why not pick up the phone and give the carrier a call to see what it can do?
“Folks might be surprised the level to which airlines are actually being accommodating for those types of extension requests,” said Keyes. “Airlines’ reputation for customer service was not exactly stellar prepandemic. But that was also a time when airplanes were 90 percent full.”
Now, with many flights still nowhere near that full, Keyes says that the airlines are doing everything they can to get customers back into the air and excited about traveling again.
“In many cases, if you give them a call and just sort of explain why you might not feel comfortable traveling for the next few months and you’ve got an expiring voucher, you’d be surprised how often that they’re willing to accommodate. But you have to ask,” says Keyes.
Book a flexible flight
If requesting an extension didn’t work or if you are ready to book regardless, you may still want to make sure that the flight you book doesn’t have a change fee attached, just in case, oh you know, circumstances shift again as they do during a pandemic.
All the major airlines had a no change fee policy in place through the end of March 2021 for all flights and all fares. Starting April 1, those policies started to have some exclusions and exceptions—not many, but some. Notably the no-change-fee policies no longer apply to Basic Economy fares and to some international flights.
If you are not totally confident in your flight and dates, you will want to make sure that the airline will let you change the flight again with no fee if you are using a flight credit. There may be limits on the number of times you can change your flight—for instance, American only allows one flight change sans fee, while United and Southwest have unlimited changes.
Check the voucher—and the flight change policy
This may seem like an obvious one, but it’s been a long and crazy year so let’s start with the basics. Now would be a good time to go through the flights you had to cancel in the past year and the future travel credits you received to see where they all stand and whether any are coming up on their expiration date.
Be sure to note whether the expiration date is the date you need to book new travel by or the date you need to actually travel by.
While you’re at it, double-check the airline’s change fee policy. Most carriers allowed no change fees for any flights, no matter the destination or fare class, for travel booked by the end of March 2021. As of April 1, many flights are still change fee–free, just not all of them. Some airlines only allow you to change your flight once, so in that case you’ll need to be extra careful in strategizing what you book with the flight credit because you may not have the chance to change the flight again without a fee.
Here’s a quick cheat sheet on the airlines’ current flight credit and change policies.
On American, flight credits issued for flights that were canceled due to COVID-19 can be used for travel that takes place up until March 31, 2022—previously it had been for travel through December 31, 2021, but American recently extended the grace period. All other travel vouchers and trip credits must be used within one year of being issued, but the actual travel date doesn’t have to be within the year.
Any new tickets booked between March 1, 2020, and March 31, 2021, have no change fees, regardless of the fare type or itinerary, including Basic Economy and AAdvantage award tickets (a fare difference will apply).
For tickets booked after March 31, 2021, you won’t be able to change a Basic Economy ticket sans fee. American will still forgo a change fee for all other fare classes as long as the flights are in the 50 U.S. states, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Canada, Mexico, Central America, or the Caribbean—or if the trip starts in North or South America and you are flying to Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, North America, South America, or the United Kingdom.
If a rebooked flight is less expensive than the original, customers won’t lose the cash. The remaining balance is issued in the form of a trip credit and the traveler has one year to use it from the time it was issued.
American only allows travelers to make one change to their trip with a waived change fee. American typically charges $200 for flight changes.
Delta Air Lines
Travel vouchers for tickets booked prior to April 17, 2020, for travel between March 2020 and March 2021 will expire December 31, 2022. Travel vouchers for tickets purchased after April 17, 2020, are valid for one year from the date of purchase. For all other flights, the new travel must take place within one year of the original ticket purchase date.
Delta has eliminated change and cancellation fees for all domestic travel and international flights originating in North America booked by March 31, 2021. A fare difference will still apply. For flights booked after March 31, 2021, Basic Economy fares will be nonrefundable and unchangeable. If the new flight costs less than the original flight, travelers will receive a credit for the difference.
Future flight credits for United tickets issued between May 1, 2019, and March 31, 2021, must be used for travel that takes place by March 31, 2022. For bookings made after March 31, 2021, future flight credits will need to be used for travel that takes place within 12 months of when the original ticket was issued.
United isn’t charging change fees for any flights booked by March 31, 2020. After March 31, change fees will apply to Basic Economy purchases or international travel that doesn’t originate in the U.S.
There is no limit to how many times you can change your flight, but a fare difference does apply (each time). And United does not refund the difference if the new flight is cheaper than the original one.
Southwest has a long-standing policy of no change fees and also allows customers to hang on to unused travel credits if the flight they rebook is cheaper than the original flight. Southwest travel funds are good for up to one year from the original ticket purchase date. During the pandemic, Southwest extended the expiration date of travel funds to September 7, 2022. There is no limit on how many times you can change your flight on Southwest.
JetBlue travel credits issued between February 27, 2020, and June 30, 2020, have a 24-month expiration period. All other JetBlue travel credits are valid for one year from the date they were issued.
All JetBlue tickets booked by March 31, 2021, have no change fee. After that, Blue Basic fares will require a $100 fee to change the flight for travel within the U.S., Caribbean, Mexico, or Central America, or $200 for all other routes. No change or cancellation fees will apply to Blue, Blue Plus, and Mint fares on all routes (but fare differences will apply).
Any Alaskan travel credits issued on or after March 1, 2020, that were set to expire by July 5, 2021, are now valid through December 31, 2021. Alaska travel credits are typically valid for one year after the issue date.
All Alaskan tickets booked by March 31, 2021, have no change fee. Beginning April 1, 2021, change fees will be eliminated for main cabin and first-class fares everywhere Alaska flies, but fare differences will apply. Saver fares purchased on or after April 1, 2021, cannot be changed or canceled.
The sooner you book, the better the deals will be
If you want to make the most of those flight credits, the sooner you book, the better. As travelers get vaccinated and start looking at options for where and how they can safely travel this summer and beyond, airfares are likely to start inching up.
According to travel booking site Kayak, searches for travel that takes place between the upcoming Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends increased 78 percent from February to March 2021.
“As we approach summer and demand continues to increase, we expect prices to do the same,” Kayak said in a statement sent to AFAR. Kayak is reporting an average price increase of 7 percent month over month to its top 100 most searched domestic destinations.
Keyes of Scott’s Cheaps Flights says he’s currently seeing great deals to domestic destinations such as Montana and Alaska, as well as to popular Europe destinations, including Portugal, Spain, and France—the latter clearly based on the hope that travel to Europe will be opening up sometime this year.
Mix and match
If you have amassed a potpourri of flight credits over the past year, you will need to spend some time taking a closer look at how and whether credits can be combined and used. For instance, American has three types of credits: a flight credit (for canceled flights), a travel voucher (only for U.S. residents) and a trip credit (airline compensation). Only the travel vouchers and trip credits can be used to purchase travel for someone other than the person who holds the credit. Flight credits can only be used by the original flier.
There are other rules as well. United passengers can combine up to 10 travel certificates to use for one booking, and travel certificates can only be used to book United or United Express flights, while a future flight credit can be used on Star Alliance partner flights. On Delta you can combine up to three flight credits to purchase a new flight.
It’s a lot to sift through, but the ultimate goal is to hopefully not let those future flight credits go unused.