Earlier this month, the Department of Transportation proposed new rules that would clarify and expand the department’s authority around airline ticket refunds for canceled flights and changes in service.
In the past, policies governing these credits and refunds have been murky at best. The proposed rulemaking would define what constitutes a flight cancellation and clarify when service has seen a significant change.
The proposed changes would also establish a “no-expiration” policy for travel credits in certain circumstances and mandate refunds instead of flight credits or vouchers for airlines that had accepted government help during the pandemic.
That news comes on the heels of an announcement that Southwest Airlines would eliminate expiration dates on all its flight credits. The policy, which the carrier called the “first-of-its-kind,” gives customers “definitive simplicity and ease in travel,” according to Bob Jordan, Southwest’s CEO.
Airlines typically offer travel credits in lieu of cash refunds when customers either cancel travel on already-purchased tickets or change flights and the new itinerary is of lesser value than the originally booked ticket.
When travel demand collapsed in the wake of the pandemic in early 2020, airlines grounded hundreds of flights and travelers were forced to cancel or change plans, creating a vast pool of unused and underused ticket value. In response, carriers dropped change fees and flight credit expiration dates were extended.
Now, as travel rebounds, many travelers are looking at their flight credits and vouchers and discovering the looming expiration dates. This has created what DoT calls “a flood of air travel service complaints from consumers,” and prompted calls from policy makers to institute some reforms.
However, any changes to the rules could take some time to go into effect. Meanwhile, with the exception of Southwest, travel credits from other carriers still come with expiration dates. In addition, the other rules surrounding flight credits vary from airline to airline, and navigating them to get full value out of your ticket can be tricky.
That said, here’s a look at what you need to know about flight credit policies from the four largest US airlines:
American issues three different types of future travel credits: Flight Credits, Trip Credits and Travel Vouchers.
Flight credits are created by unused or canceled tickets. Only the passenger named on the Flight Credit can book and travel.
Travel must begin one year from the date of issue. One exception: AAdvantage members with an original ticket issued between Jan. 1, 2020 and Dec. 31, 2021 can apply the value of the unused ticket if it’s used by Sept. 30, 2022 for travel through Dec. 31, 2022. Note that change fees apply on original ticketed travel prior to March 1, 2020.
Trip Credits are issued for compensation, refunds and remaining value from flight credit exchanges. They are valid for domestic or international flights originating in the US on non-award bookings only and cannot be used for extras like seat upgrades or bags.
Travel vouchers are issued to travelers for, among other things, compensation for oversold flights. They come in two forms: Electronic Travel Vouchers, aka eVouchers (US residents only), and paper vouchers.
American Airlines travel credits are valid for one year after the date of issue. Travel credit holders will be able to redeem them by calling American Airlines Reservations, or online at aa.com.
Delta Air Lines
Delta flight credits are called eCredits. They can come as the result of an unused or partially used past date eTicket, as a voucher for the balance when an eTicket is exchanged for one of lesser value, as Delta Dollars in compensation for denied boarding, or as a transportation credit voucher issued as the result of a service issue.
Previously Delta eCredits expired one year from date of purchase (not from the date of the original flight). However, the airline extended the expiration through 2023, including all tickets bought in 2022, and customers will be able to use the credits throughout 2024 if the trip is booked by Dec. 31, 2023.
Delta flight credits are accessible in the customer’s account, or by purchasing a flight and choosing to use them for payment.
The new policy at Southwest drops the expiration date on all currently valid, existing flight credits, including any unexpired credits as of July 28, or any created on or after that date.
Customers with flight credits in the bank are not required to take any action. For now, the airline says a placeholder expiration date of Dec. 31, 2040, will appear on valid flight credits while systems are updated to eliminate the expiration dates on flight credits altogether.
Travel credits from United come in two flavors: Future flight credits and travel certificates.
United issues future flight credits if you cancel your trip or change your flight to a less expensive one. Credits can be used to book flights on United and partner-operated flights through united.com or the United app, and can also be applied to some non-ticket items like upgraded seating.
Travel certificates, also known as electronic travel certificates, are issued if you volunteer to give up your seat on a flight, or “as a gesture of goodwill,” the website says. They work much the same way as future flight credits.
In most cases, United travel credits expire one year after the date of issue. Credits set to expire or issued on or before Dec. 31, 2022 have had their “book by” or “travel by” date extended to Dec. 31, 2023.
The expiration date will be listed on the credit itself and will vary depending on the type of credit. A future flight credit is good through a “travel by” date, meaning the trip must begin before the expiration date listed on the credit. A travel certificate expires on a “book by” date, meaning you must book your flight before the expiration date.
The Bottom Line
In these days of canceled flights and changing airline schedules, travel credits are easy to get, but hard to redeem. And once they expire, they’re gone.
To make sure you get full value for the travel dollar, check the fine print, understand the carrier’s terms and conditions, and read up on other travelers’ experiences.