What You Need to Know About Redeeming Travel Credits

Passengers should look closely at vouchers for trips canceled during the pandemic

By Stephanie Hacke

Published June 7, 2021

Read Time: 4 mins


Whether your big travel plans in 2020 were to head to London for your anniversary or New Orleans for your bachelor party, chances are that trip didn’t happen.

During the height of the pandemic, as travel nearly came to a halt, many of those with trips booked on airlines and cruise ships alike received credits toward future trips. Now, as the world starts to open up again, the deadline to use those travel credits begins to loom.

If you have flight and other travel credits coming your way, your first step is to understand the rules, said Brett Snyder, founder and author of airline industry site Cranky Flier.

“You just need to be aware of what your actual expiration is. Some will say that you have to travel by a certain date. Others will say that you have to book by a certain expiration date, but you can travel beyond that,” he said. “Make sure that you don’t miss that expiration.”

Airlines have been regularly extending expirations over the past year, Snyder said. However, as life gets back to normal, the less likely it becomes that they’ll keep adding on time to those extensions.

“Most of them stretch into next year, depending on the airline,” he said. “Travelers can either try to use something to travel before then, or they can wait and hope that it gets extended again. It’s hard to know what may or may not happen.”

The rules

Each airline, cruise line or travel company has its own rules. That’s made the issue complex as an estimated $10 billion-plus in unused airline travel credits existed at the end of 2020.

Andrea Koos, American Airlines’ senior manager of corporate communications, said the carrier is continuing to evaluate its travel waiver and travel credit policies. Most recently, American extended its waiver of change fees on new international tickets originating outside of North or South America for tickets purchased by May 31, 2021.

American is allowing anyone who holds a flight credit to use them for travel through March 31, 2022, but different rules apply for vouchers and trip credits.

“Based on the increasing availability of vaccines and the fact that we’re seeing more leisure travel booked every day, we are confident that by next spring, anyone who wants and is able to travel will be able to do so,” Koos said.

Southwest Airlines has extended deadlines for customers who booked travel or had travel funds set to expire between March 1 and Sept. 7, 2020, out to Sept. 7, 2022. From August to December 2020, the airline also allowed customers to convert travel funds into Rapid Rewards points, which never expire, Southwest said in a statement.

“We offered the flexibility of a two-year extension during the earliest days of the pandemic, when the largest volume of our customers had their travel plans impacted,” according to the airline’s statement.

Spirit Airlines’ website indicates that all reservation credits issued since March 2020 were extended and are now redeemable for trips traveled by Dec. 31, 2021. Those trips must be booked by Sept. 30, 2021.

Where to go?

With many international trips still not happening, people have been sticking closer to home to use up their travel credits.

“What we’ve seen through the spring is a lot of Florida,” Snyder said.

Vicki Abel, owner of Pittsburgh-based Odyssey Travel since 1988, has clients who racked up more than $3,000 in flight credits each from a canceled first-class trip to Hawaii during the height of the pandemic.

“He went on a golf trip to Florida. They went on a vacation to Florida together. They booked a cruise in November,” she said. “They’re flying first class each time to use it up.”

She’s seen clients partake in what’s been labeled “revenge travel,” where people who haven’t left home for more than a year splurge on extravagant perks and features they would not have considered purchasing on a trip before the pandemic.

“It’s like they’re rookie travelers almost and they’re taking this opportunity to go crazy,” she said.

Last year, many cruise lines were offering 125 percent credit if customers were willing to bump their trip back. Many people went for it, said Steve Lange, owner of Squirrel Hill-based Travel Sharks. With much still unknown, many people are lining up trips for 2022.

“People are thinking that we still might not be able to (fully) travel in 2021, so they’re making plans and looking forward to travel in 2022,” he said.

Take action

When it comes to flying, Abel reminds her clients of the pending deadlines—one benefit of having a travel agent, she said. If they’re not satisfied with the set deadlines, she encourages her clients to call the airlines directly.

While booking trips for future travel, Lange is either including them as a part of a package—to ensure the flights are protected via insurance—or delaying booking the individual flights until closer to the time of travel.

He also has always recommended his clients purchase insurance.

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