United’s Paper Vouchers Must be Costly


A couple weeks ago, I mentioned that I had a credit on United that I was only able to partially use. The remaining $32.40 from the credit was mailed to me. At the time, I said, “Let’s forget about how ridiculous it is that United can’t handle this transaction online and just appreciate the fact that the airline actually, adequately served me via their phone reservations team.” I think it’s time to revisit that point.

Airlines always like to tout how much they can save with new technology, new procedures, etc, but clearly, at least on United, there are still some areas where technology is vintage, to say the least. I booked my new ticket over the phone, but for the remaining $32.40 credit, I received a shockingly large ten page “travel document” that had only one page that mattered to me. Five of these pages were printed on thick, expensive cardstock. The combined costs of paper, printing, labor, and shipping has to be astronomical for something other airlines can effortlessly handle on line.

I know it’s not a simple task, but if you’re really looking to move people online and reduce your costs, this is an incredibly obvious place to look. Here’s a fun-filled tour through the document.

The first page is just the cover, which has reservation telephone numbers on the reverse. I’m surprised it doesn’t include how to reach United by telegraph or morse code.
United Voucher Page 1

The second page just thanks me for choosing United and tells me what vouchers are enclosed. Oh thank you. I couldn’t have figured that out on my own, and now I feel good about it.
United Voucher Page 2

The third page is the only one that matters. This is my voucher for $32.40.
United Voucher Page 3

The fourth page has my voucher terms and conditions. It is my least favorite page, because it tells me exactly how hard United has made it for me to redeem this. Yes, I’ll have to wait in line at the ticket counter if I want to use this. Oh, I could go to a travel agency, but for a simple air ticket purchase, the agency fee will wipe out at least half my voucher’s worth.
United Voucher Page 4

The fifth page has my itinerary for the flight I booked using the other part of the credit. Yes, I could easily look this up online and I got an email as well. But just in case the world melts down, I have a paper itinerary as well.
United Voucher Page 5

The sixth page is my e-ticket passenger receipt. It’s just a receipt that, as far as I can tell, has no useful information that I can’t get online if I needed it.
United Voucher Page 6

The seventh page is where you start to fall asleep. This one just has conditions of contract. It’s pre-printed legalese.
United Voucher Page 7

The eight page has more conditions of contract. Hey, wake up. Seriously. I’m almost done.
United Voucher Page 8

The ninth page has notices of limitations of liability and overbooking. I’m sure this needs to go out with every ticket that’s paper, but remember, I didn’t want paper in the first place.
United Voucher Page 9

The tenth, and final, page is the most interesting. Wait. That’s crap. This one is the back cover and has info on dangerous goods, baggage, and check-in. Oh thank you for telling me all this.
United Voucher Page 10

How is it possible that this sort of waste still exists? I emailed United asking if there were timelines to automate this process, but I have yet to hear back.

Update 4/9 @ 1146a: United spokesperson Robin Urbanski confirmed that there are plans to make this electronic. I’m still checking to see if there’s a timeline.

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23 comments on “United’s Paper Vouchers Must be Costly

  1. I’m willing to bet this “product” was generated thru a 3-rd party service under contract to United. Meaning, UA doesn’t incur the full brunt of the cost yet the vendor is obligated to include all the “full disclosure” documentation associated with any printed ticket, voucher or other travel tender issued on behalf of the airline.

    Waste? Absolutely. Litigation exposure. Just as much. Why? If it were simple cash you wouldn’t need or receive all of that liability literature.

    I agree that the fact that they still use paper is laughable but even then, ultimately they could have simply had a one-pager that said “Here’s your voucher, all rules, conditions, limitations and baggage allowances can be viewed online at our website.” Hug a tree, United!

  2. I also get something very similar whenever I make changes to a rewards ticket on United. A small booklet with the new itinerary and receipts for any fees. And yes, I get it all by email as well.

  3. This past winter I booked a trip through AA Vacations and received a similar travel voucher. (I didn’t really care since AA gave me an incredible deal and a bunch of bonus miles just for using them.) At first glance I thought they were sending paper tickets. I haven’t used one of those in 10+ years. Flipping through it was the same show, just my flight schedules and the hotel info. Same stuff I printed off when I originally booked the flight. Still had to go online and print the boarding passes, etc. Such a waste, but I guess there’s some law/contractual obligation that they send this via the postal mail. Oh well, mine went it the recycling bin.

  4. I believe you can also redeem the voucher by mail if you call to make the next reservation. Should be easier/faster in most cases than standing in line at the airport.

    And yes, UA could and should change the process to purely electronic transaction. But maybe the cost for mailing these things out is more than covered by the “breakage” due to the hassle of actually using the credit?

  5. Exactly the same thing happened to me with American recently. I almost mistook it for junk mail and was about to throw it in the trash!

  6. Well, they did automate the process for a while, but unfortunately it was refunding the difference to the credit card instead of issuing vouchers. D-OH!

    Also, since now they charge an $150 administrative fee for all refares, i somehow don’t think they are worry about a few cardstocks.

    Lastly, you can redeem your voucher by mail if you want to save a trip to LAX or BUR. Just hold the reservation online, or over the phone, and tell them you are redeeming the voucher and want to ticket-by-mail, and they’ll set it up for you.

  7. OK, Cranky, are you actually going to use that paper ticket? I’ve gotten several that I have never used. If it costs ten bucks and the usage rate is only 50% it’s a money maker.

  8. Oliver/ptahcha – If you can indeed redeem by mail, you’d think that would have been the one useful piece of information they could have actually included in this document. *sigh*

    Oliver/jonathan – I have very little doubt that your point in breakage is correct. Clearly these will be redeemed far less often because they make them so difficult. Talk about being penny-wise, pound-foolish. They may think this is a great thing for them because they get to keep people’s money, but it’s not their money to keep. To make it deliberately harder for people to redeem, if that’s in fact what they’re doing (I have no proof that this is the case), would be borderline unethical and clearly customer unfriendly. It may save money for them in the short term, but in the long run it will continue to drive people away.

    jonathan – If I fly United in the next year, I will definitely use the voucher.

  9. Yeah, but you get that nice little warm feeling that only legacy carriers can give you, right?

    I hear folks saying that “card stock can’t cost that much……” But how much could they save by getting rid of it?

    Then again, if the point is to make it harder to redeem……they’ve already made much more on their card-stock investment….

  10. Hey, they have this entire warehouse/museum in Oakland filled to the brim with the last functional ticket printers in North America.

    Union rules require they remain functional and that a certain volume of material be printed annually. United is, after all, Union Owned and Union Operated.

    What you are looking at is United Pride. Nothing more, nothing less.


  11. Amazing. Who issues paper documents these days?

    It could only be more astonishing if they sent you a handwrite MCO on red ticket stock.

    Apparently, the purpose behind this rather antique approach to issuing and processing your voucher is to protect your security. You can transfer the credit to another traveler, but you have to be present with the voucher inhand in order to process the transaction. So they can check ID and make sure nobody, say, stole your mail.

    Which would not be a problem if they hadn’t mailed you a voucher.

    When travel agencies process such transactions, they don’t generally issue paper MCO exchange vouchers – they simply track all the residuals, unused coupons etc by traveler/corporate profile and make sure they get used prior to expiration. Of course, as you point out, they also charge for that service – usually about $50.00 to process an exchange transaction.

    Why couldn’t UA just associate the residual value of your original ticket with your FFP profile? It’s PIN/Password protected, would save them the expense of this hot mess, and would add value to your FFP program/relationship.

  12. I just returned from Puerto Vallarta and booked on Orbitz. My flight down was UAL, return AeroMexico.

    Our two tickets arrived UPS, and each were only a page or two shorter reading that above.

    Maybe it was due to using two carriers, or int’l traveling, but I wondered the same thing. If you can travel paperless with simply your confirmation number and printed boarding pass it shouldn’t be that complicated to escalate this concept to additional ticket ops.

  13. By the way, UA doesn’t in all cases issue a stack of paper. I cancelled a non-refundable ticket last year, and the remaining value (after subtracting the change fee) could easily be applied via the phone to a new ticket simply by giving the ticket agent the old ticket number. It was “stored on account” for several months, but I had to make sure I kept track of the original ticket number (not record locator as those get recycled).

    And my online refare refunds all went back to my credit card account — no paperwork involved. Of course, that’s now likely a thing of the past with the 150 “refare fee”.

  14. Oliver – That’s initially what happened to me. I had a credit and I was able to apply that over the phone for a new ticket. I made sure to keep my ticket number since I’d run into this problem before. But the new ticket didn’t use my entire credit, so they sent the difference on paper.

  15. Well, one thing you can say for UAL is that all pass travel (both non-rev and positive space) is electronic. That is one area where UAL is better than SWA. (SWA 226 – UAL1!)

  16. At least you got something in the mail. I did a refare on United about a year ago and never received a travel credit which was stated would be sent my way in the mail. As it was about $25 I just gave up, since it would be a pain to redeem sort of like this voucher you have.

  17. @Neil Corman,

    It’s not really all that hard to redeem. You can make the reservation online and ask to apply the voucher, in which case they will waive the phone booking fee. Then, they give you your options to redeem the voucher – visit an airport ticketing counter or mail it in to their Detroit center. Turnaround via mail is stunningly fast. Mine was applied within 58 hours of dropping it into a mailbox in Chicago. There is a Flytertalk thread with similar tales.

  18. And we complain about our government being inefficient and paperwork-crazy!

    Reminds me of the good old days, filing my set of airline air fare/rules tariffs, page after page, revised page after revised page, most with those immortal words:


    491st Revised Page UA-216-FF, No Substantive Change on this Page, Correction No, 19, (Printed in U.S.A.)

    Now, we have automated boarding pass machines that ask us to “check” that we have read, and understand(?) the contract of carriage, whether we would like to pay $302.30 to upgrade, whether we might not want to pay for additional miles to be earned on this trip and, of course, would we like to apply for a Chase Visa card.


  19. “As it was about $25 I just gave up, since it would be a pain to redeem sort of like this voucher you have.”

    I’m guessing UA wasn’t all broken up about it. Just think…..$25 here…..$25 there….

  20. One option seems to be to wait for an electronic miscellaneous document server; second option could be to automatically process the refund using back office robotics, deduct the original cancellation fee, enter a fake segment, extend the life of the PNR and then cancel it after desired expiration date; then you effectively get an e-Voucher containing the residual stored value that is much more efficient than the paper based way of doing this. Using the PNR as a credit shell means you have a stored value facility that is fully compliant with existing revenue accounting processes at an airline – and no expensive card stock.

  21. What bugs me about the paper voucher is that to my knowledge, United has no way of tracking how many of them I have out there. They are usually sent to the address of the credit card used to purchase the ticket, which for me can be several different locations since I use different cards for work and leisure travel. So not only might I have paper vouchers piling up in different places, but UA can’t even tell me where / when they sent anything.

    I don’t care that I have to go to the airport to use them–I spend enough time in airports anyway–but I’d at least like to have some idea of what I have without referencing a stack of paper.

  22. That is odd. United does have e-vouchers and paper ones.. i don’t know why they dont just stick the the electronic ones.. also you can redeem your voucher via mail..but safer to go to the airport..they claimed not to have recieved one i mailed and was a big mess

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