When Liza Schejtman-Bach couldn’t use her flight credits, she thought she would lose them. She’d planned a family trip to Malaga, Spain, earlier this year. Then the pandemic hit, and her airline offered flight vouchers instead of a refund.
“I won’t be traveling anytime soon,” says Schejtman-Bach, a state employee who lives in Hackensack, New Jersey, and has an autoimmune disorder that puts her at higher risk if she contracts COVID-19.
Her problem may soon become your problem. At the start of the pandemic, a lot of air travelers accepted ticket credits instead of refunds. But those vouchers will expire before long, leaving them with worthless scrip. And the airline gets to keep their money.
“This is a tough one,” says Jeff Klee, CEO of Qtrip.com. Typically, passengers could get full refunds only if the airline canceled their flights, he says. Travelers who canceled before the airline did had to accept a credit – an expiring credit.
After a two-month fight, Schejtman-Bach disputed the charges on her credit card and received a full refund. But not everyone is so lucky. It turns out there are three flavors of ticket credits, each with its own rules and refund options.
Time is running out to use these vouchers, and that’s particularly true if your airline goes out of business. Fortunately, there are ways to get your money back now instead of accepting an expiring airline voucher.
Thousands of travelers accepted vouchers from their airlines when their flights were canceled in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now some of those credits are expiring and the customers won’t have a chance to redeem them.
Here’s how airlines are trying to keep your money
If you canceled your flight, here are some of the options that airlines offered:
An expiring one- or two-year credit
Many airlines are offering credits for 12 or 24 months to passengers who canceled their flights. But some discount carriers offered credits that disappeared after just a few months.
Last February, Robert Johnson booked a flight on Spirit Airlines from Baltimore to Orlando, Florida, for spring break. But his departure date in April fell into a gray area. It was unsafe to travel, but airlines hadn’t started canceling their flights. So Johnson, a computer security specialist who lives in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, canceled the flight himself and accepted $743 in ticket credits.
His Spirit credits expired in September, but because the pandemic lingered, he couldn’t use them. He contacted the airline, which extended his credit through next May.
Johnson says he’d prefer a refund and has seen online that some passengers have received refunds by texting the airline.
A ticket credit with an option for a refund
Other airlines offered a credit that can be converted into a full refund after a year.
Ilse Dumont’s flight from Madrid to Brussels on Tui, a regional European carrier, was canceled during the pandemic. The airline offered a one-year credit, which could be turned into a refund after 12 months.
“We won’t be able to use the credit within a year,” says Dumont, a culinary blogger who was living in China at the time. “It’s a little bit annoying because we have to follow up and really don’t know what will happen then.”
A credit that can be turned into points
Southwest Airlines has offered its customers that choice. Its points do not expire.
Sandra Tobolic wondered what to do with that offer. She had $333 in Southwest credits after she canceled a recent flight. The airline offered to convert it to 26,050 points, a rate of a little more than one cent per point.
“Is that a good deal?” asked Tobolic, who lives in Plainfield, Illinois. Short answer: Yes. Airlines value their points or miles at about one cent. But it’s a qualified “yes.” If she never uses the points, the money’s gone for good.
Is time running out for your expiring airline voucher?
Travelers may fear they made a terrible mistake in accepting ticket credits when they could have taken a refund. By taking miles or a voucher that expires, they’re committing to flying on an airline. And what if they can’t?
Or, what if the airline can’t fly them? As the pandemic drags on and the airline industry receives no more meaningful federal bailout money, one or two bankruptcies are a possibility. So is airline insolvency. If that happens, then the ticket credits will fly away, leaving tens of thousands of passengers holding worthless airline scrip.
Even if you get your credit, can you use it the way you want to? Dan Presser, the owner of FourWinds Travel in Carmel, California, says maybe not. One of his clients tried to redeem his travel credits on Delta Air Lines for a flight from San Jose to Atlanta. True to its promise, the airline didn’t charge any change fees or penalties.
“What did change was the cost of the new ticket,” says Presser. “The base fare went up over a grand. My client went ballistic.”
For a variety of reasons, air travelers are fretting about their ticket credits now. They should. Airlines prodded their passengers into accepting vouchers after the pandemic, often making us think they were generous by offering the credit. But they were actually helping themselves. And now, with time running out on some of these vouchers, they’re about to pull the ultimate airline trick – and make your money disappear forever.
How to turn your expiring airline voucher into a refund
Reality check: Once you accept a credit from an airline, it’s almost impossible to get a full refund. But it’s not entirely impossible. Here are a few tricks:
Ask for a refund. Airlines understand that some passengers won’t ever be able to use the credit. If you have a medical reason for avoiding air travel, present it to the airline in a brief, polite email. Include any necessary documentation. Agents can waive rules on a case-by-case basis.
Cite the rules. If you accepted a ticket credit after an airline canceled your flight, you might have some recourse. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) requires an airline to offer a refund when it cancels your flight. Ask for your money back. If it doesn’t, complain to the DOT.
Dispute your credit card charges. Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, you have the right to file a chargeback for a product purchased but not delivered. If an airline pushed you into accepting a ticket credit for a canceled flight, you might have a strong case.
If you need help with an airline ticket refund, please contact my consumer advocacy organization. We’re here to help.