‘I was completely flabbergasted:’ A year into pandemic, travelers finding some flight credits are expiring

Shelly McClaskey and her family planned to spend Christmas in Los Angeles with family but canceled their flights a few weeks before the trip due to COVID-19 shutdownsin southern California.

The insurance company executive wasn’t eligible for a refund and happily accepted $878 in Southwest Airlines credit because the suburban Chicago family travels three or four times a year and goes out of its way to fly Southwest.

She didn’t think about the money again until a couple weeks ago when she tried to book three tickets from Chicago to Baltimore for a late-June trip to her teenage son’s lacrosse tournament in Delaware.

Southwest’s website flashed an error: the travel credits couldn’t be used because they expire before the end of the planned trip.

McClaskey dug up the email from her canceled flight and saw that the expiration date for her Southwest “travel funds” is June 2. That’s a year after she bought the tickets for the California Christmas trip.  A year is the standard deadline for rebooking and, in Southwest’s case, completing a trip using credits. But Southwest and other airlines extended expiration dates when travel ground to a halt a year ago due to the coronavirus pandemic.

McClaskey figured she was covered by Southwest’s more generous COVID-19 policy, which broadly extended credit expiration dates to September 2022. But that policy covered travel funds that expired or were issued between March 1 and Sept. 7, 2020. Her credits weren’t issued until Nov. 22, the date she canceled her flight to LA.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t even look at the (email) confirmation of the travel funds,” she said.

As the pandemic enters its second year, a hodgepodge of expiration dates, travel-by restrictions and other fine print on the mountain of travel credits and vouchers airlines issued threaten to sting passengers eager to take those already-paid-for-but-postponed trips and those not yet ready to travel again.

Consumer Reports’ advocacy division said it has already seen an “dramatic” uptick in complaints and questions about airline vouchers and travel credits in the past two months, a shift from complaints about the lack of refunds in the early months of the pandemic, as people realize expiration dates might be looming.

 “It hit people, ‘Oh my gosh it’s 2021,”’ said William McGee, Consumer Reports’ aviation adviser. “It seemed like a long way off last year and now it’s not.”

The situation is far from dire for all travelers who canceled trips during the pandemic – many airline ticket buyers are covered by expiration dates that run into 2022. Southwest passengers who canceled eligible flights early in the pandemic have more than two years to use their credits, for example. A couple airlines issued blanket extensions with little fine print, but many policies are based on ticket purchase or flight cancellation dates, as McClaskey found out the hard way with her Southwest ticket.    

An airline-by-airline look at pandemic flight credits

►United Airlines, which was blasted for its early pandemic refund policies, extended the expiration date of tickets purchased as far back as May 1, 2019 to March 31, 2022.

►Allegiant Air issued a blanket expiration date of two years from the date of ticket purchase for all vouchers issued.

►Delta extended travel credit expiration dates to the end of 2022 but only if you bought your ticket by April 17; otherwise you have a year from date of purchase. That means travelers who bought a Delta ticket in May and beyond have looming expiration dates.

►American is giving travelers until December 2021 or a year after ticket purchase to use flight credits issued last year, but only if the canceled tickets were purchased by Sept. 30;passengers who bought tickets after that date are covered by the standard one year expiration date.

►JetBlue is giving passengers 24 months to use travel credits issued by June 30, 2021; credits issued after that are good for one year.

►Alaska Airlines travel credits issued on or after March 1, 2020, are valid through Dec. 31, 2021.

►Frontier Airlines initially stuck with its standard 90-day voucher expiration date but has since extended it to one year. 

►Spirit Airlines extended the expiration date of credits issued since March 2020 to Dec. 31, 2021, but the flight has to be booked by Sept. 30, 2021. 

Confused yet? So are the experts. McGee has been sorting through airline travel credit policies issued during the pandemic and finds the process dizzying. Some airlines have multiple types of credits and each airline has different names for credits, from reservation credit to eCredits.

“What hope does that person who goes to Disney World once every 18 months have?” he said.

Got flight credits? Dig up the details now 

Travelers planning a getaway this spring or summer are quickly learning – and in some cases cursing – the particulars on the travel credits and vouchers they received during the blur of the pandemic’s first year.

But anyone who hopes to cash in their travel credits, even for flights in 2022 if eligible, should start researching the details now. Airline customer service lines and social media feeds are jammed with passengers frantically searching for information on their travel credits. 

“One of the biggest mistakes I think travelers make is making an assumption about the terms and conditions on their voucher rather than looking specifically at the fine print,” said Scott Keyes, founder of bargain airfare publisher Scott’s Cheap Flights.

Instead of furiously searching an airline’s website for its pandemic policies and trying to decipher what fits your situation, search your email or travel documents for the confirmation you received when you canceled the flight. 

It’s likely to have the expiration date of any travel credits and pertinent information you need to check balances and rebook online or over the phone, including the confirmation numbers and ticket number from the canceled flight.

Another source for travel credit information: your airline frequent flyer account.

Expiration date means different things at different airlines

A big question travelers need to answer is how the airline that issued their pandemic flight credits defines expiration date. This is also usually found in the fine print.

Southwest, American, Delta, Spirit and Allegiant require travelers to complete their travel by the expiration date, while United requires travel to start by that date.

JetBlue, Alaska and Frontier simply require you to rebook by the expiration date.

Another important detail to dig up when researching pandemic credits and vouchers: Whether they are only good for the ticketed passenger or can be pooled.

Most major airlines only allow the ticketed passenger to use the funds from canceled flights so you can’t use those credits your mother banked. Vouchers doled out for a variety of other reasons can often be pooled or transferred. American, for example, allows up to eight vouchersto be used in a single trip. American issues vouchers instead of flight credits for things like a fare difference on a rebooked flight.

I can’t travel by the expiration date. Can I extend my expired or expiring flight credit?

The airline industry is not known for the most customer friendly policies, but the pandemic crushed travel. A year into it, the number of flights is still down 50%, the number of passengers off 40%, according to industry trade group Airlines for America. In April 2020, passenger counts plummeted 95%.

“Counter to their sort of historical reputation of airlines being tight fisted and customer unfriendly, they’ve had to do a bit of a 180 during the pandemic and be much more accommodating and flexible,” Keyes said.

Hefty ticket-change fees, most notably, are largely gone unless you buy airlines’ no-frills basic economy tickets.

Keyes said travelers with expiring credits should reach out to airlines to politely ask for an extension, explaining the reasons you can’t or don’t want to travel now and any other factors. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still advises against travel to help stop the spread of COVID-19.)

He recommends calling back or trying a different social media channel if the first request is rejected.

“You’d be surprised to see how much they’re gladly willing to give you a six-month or 12-month extension,” he said.

North Carolina writer Matt Lardie wasn’t looking for an extension when he called Delta Air Lines in early February. He just wanted to get a handle on an estimated $1,500 in credits from canceled flights. Lardie and his husband had to cancel a Mexico trip for a friend’s 40th birthday celebration and business trips to Europe and are starting to think about rebooking trips.

“The woman I was talking to was going through all of my credits and she said, ‘Oh, you have one and it just expired yesterday,’ ” he said. “I just said, ‘Oh, crap.’ I had completely forgotten about it. ” 

The customer service agent told Lardie a supervisor might be able to reinstate it if he planned to travel within the next 30 days.

He called his family in California, whom he hasn’t seen in a year, and booked a trip to Los Angeles for late March. It was more than 30 days after the $400 credit expired, but an agent let him extend it as long as he agreed to forfeit the rest of his credit. His new ticket was $280, so he lost $120.

Some airlines are doing blanket extensions on travel credits and vouchers as the pandemic continues. In January, Alaska Airlines extended the expiration date of credits it issued on or after March 1, 2020 that were due to expire by July 5. The new date: Dec. 31.

Peeved passengers: Southwest Airlines isn’t extending credits – unless you pay a $100 fee 

McClaskey appealed to Southwest for a brief extension, first over the phone and then on Facebook. Her travel funds expire June 2, and the lacrosse tournament they’re going to is the last weekend in June. 

She got the same answer every time but one: no extensions. Use the funds by the expiration date or lose them.

“We aren’t making any exceptions to the expiration date of travel funds,” a Southwest representative told her via Facebook Messenger last week. “In order to keep your credits, all travel must be completed by June 2.”

The airline’s social media representatives repeat a version of that every day when passengers ask for an extension.

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