How Long Do I Have to Use My Airline Ticket? (Ask Cranky)

Ask Cranky

I realize the title of this sounds odd since, you know, you usually just use your ticket when you take the flights you booked. But tickets themselves have independent value, and if your plans change, you can usually cancel the flights you booked originally and save that ticket for future use. So it wasn’t a surprise to see a question come in from a Cranky Concierge client who had to postpone travel due to a major medical issue. The answer, however, surprised me a bit, so I thought it worthy of an Ask Cranky.

The question (paraphrased for clarity) seemed simple:

If I bought a ticket but can’t fly as planned, how long do I have to use the credit for a different flight before it expires?

Some may find the entire premise of the question odd. After all, if you have a gift card from Applebee’s, it doesn’t expire (though you’ll probably be happier if you never use it). But airline tickets most certainly do have an expiration and you could lose a lot of money if you aren’t careful. I’ll admit that I always thought this was straightforward. In general, you had to use a ticket to fly within one year of the original date of issue. There were some exceptions to that depending upon if you had already flown a part of the original itinerary or not, but it was pretty standard. If you bought a ticket on January 18, 2018, then you’d have to use it to fly before January 18, 2019 or it would lose all value.

For this particular client, she had a major medical issue, so were were investigating closely to see how we could fix it. Agencies often have the ability to waive fees or do something useful in situations like this. That’s when I learned that Delta’s rules had, at some point, changed from the standard when it comes to international travel. I found other airlines had also strayed, and I’m surprised at just how much variation there is out there now. You’re probably guessing airlines became more stingy, but nay. Many have loosened up.

Here’s a rundown of the ticket validity policies for US-based airlines where I’ve found clear policies.

Unused Ticket Partially-Used Ticket
Airline Book By Fly By Book By Fly By
Standard Policy Within one year of original date of issue Within one year of original date of issue Within one year of first flight taken Within one year of first flight taken
Alaska Standard or if converted to credit certs without charge, can also be 30 days after cert is created, if that’s better Standard or if converted to credit certs without charge, can travel at any time Standard Standard
American Standard Standard Standard Standard
Delta Domestic^ Standard Standard Within one year of original date of issue Within one year of original date of issue
Delta International Standard Within one year of the new ticketing date Standard Standard
Hawaiian# Standard Standard Standard Standard
JetBlue@ Standard or if converted to Travel Bank without charge, within one year of date Travel Bank credit created Standard or if converted to Travel Bank without charge, within one year of date Travel Bank credit created Standard or if converted to Travel Bank without charge, within one year of date Travel Bank credit created Standard or if converted to Travel Bank without charge, within one year of date Travel Bank credit created
Southwest Standard Standard Within one year of original date of issue Within one year of original date of issue
United Standard Within one year of the new ticketing date Standard Standard

^Delta domestic includes travel within the 50 US States and between those states and Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, and Canada
#Hawaiian validity can be extended up to 30 days if someone is sick and can’t travel.
@JetBlue bookings made directly go into Travel Bank credits automatically when original flights are canceled
*Southwest tickets are converted into Travel Funds

How’s that for a pain in the butt? These policies are all complex, sometimes unnecessarily. And this isn’t even complete. If you make a change and have residual value left over, you can usually (but not always) put it into another credit for future use, and those credits have different rules themselves. It’s all pretty confusing. Of course, airlines are good at making things confusing.

Are there any lessons to be learned? Sure. The most obvious is: don’t book so far in advance. If you do and need to change, with most airlines you’ll have less validity after your original travel dates available. Another tip is that if you do expect to need to change, then maybe consider an airline with a more friendly policy like United or Delta on international flights only. Some of you may be surprised to see Southwest as having one of the least friendly policies of any airline. You may not have a change fee, but there’s a lot less flexibility on when you can use your credit. Just keep that in mind.

Of course, you can always consider travel insurance. Then you don’t have to worry about these rules if you or a family members gets sick or you have to cancel for a variety of other reasons. Then you don’t have to worry about credits and you just get your money back.

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29 comments on “How Long Do I Have to Use My Airline Ticket? (Ask Cranky)

  1. Hi Cranky, What about the fees associated with reusing part or all of your ticket? Also, if for example I booked a flight from ORD to HEL and the first part is on AA metal but the second part is on Finnair what happens then? From my experiences with oneworld it’s been nothing but bad experiences.

    1. Wild Bill – Fees are an entirely different issue and it’s not tied to the ticket directly. It’s tied to the individual fare purchased. As a general rule, you have to look at the fees for each fare purchased and then the most restrictive rules apply to the whole ticket. (It’s rare that they’re additive, but a few airlines do it that way.) As for your ticket to Helsinki, each ticket is only issued by one airline. Airlines that partner together then settle up together on the back-end. The rule is that most significant carrier should issue the ticket. So if you’re flying an American code (doesn’t matter who operates the flight) from O’Hare to JFK and then a Finnair code from JFK to Helsinki, then Finnair should be the one who issued the ticket. You can tell by looking at the ticket number. The first three digits indicate the airline. 001 is American.

  2. I’m more curious about the world of travel insurance. Have never taken the “gamble” since the fine print makes it seem like it’d be hard to claim. It doesn’t sound like if I get the sniffles I can cancel the trip, however who wants to be sick for their beach vacation even if it’s something you don’t need a doc to diagnose? The rates are not insignificant and always thought it was for the extreme risk adverse, no?

    1. A – Each policy has different rules, and you have to read the fine print. I generally get it as catastrophic insurance, but I assume if I just get a cold, I’m out of luck.

    1. I agree, I’d love to see an honest review about that.

      Anecdotally, the extended warranty / purchase protection benefit offered by many credit cards (including that one) is surprisingly easy to use. My mother used it when a the ice maker in a fridge continued to leak water, despite several visits by repair techs (at $100+ each), and didn’t get the runaround at all She just had to send in a form, the receipt for the item, and a little other documentation, and was taken care of very quickly. I’m not sure what credit card company that was with, but I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the credit card banks outsource benefits like these to the same companies that their competitors use.

      My guess (and personal experience) is that all of the fringe benefits help the sales pitch when companies get you to sign up for a credit card, but that few cardholders really use them much.

    2. Jeremy – I’m not a travel insurance expert, but some cards can come in handy in providing that benefit. Again, it all comes down to reading the fine print to see if what you want covered is actually covered.

  3. A lot depends on the fare you actually purchased and the rules of that fare, there is to one rule for everything. Some fares require you change your ticket prior to the original travel date, and if you don’t you are out of luck.

    1. David – Sure, though I don’t see that much with US airlines. It’s much more common overseas that you have to book the new itinerary at the same time you cancel the old one. I hate those rules.

  4. One thing to look into for your client is medical waivers. Many airlines offers a partial refund (fare paid minus fees) if the reason for not able to travel is medically-related, including death in the family.

  5. If the medical or other issue comes up far enough in advance, for example, your long planned trip to a Caribbean destination won’t work out because your hotel was destroyed by a hurricane, you can wait until the last minute to see if the airline does a schedule change which will give you the opportunity to cancel for a full refund. The only downside to this last minute cancellation that I know of is that the schedule may not change and then your new booking, if close in time to the flight, may be more expensive.

  6. If I cancel a Delta international flight and use the credit to book a domestic flight, which rule applies? And vice versa?

    (Partially a facetious question to show how complex these things get, but also a serious question because I cancelled an international flight last year and was later told I had to fly the replacement domestic flight by the original expiry of the ticket. But agents don’t always get the rules right.)

    1. Bgriff – Well, if the original ticket is international, then the international rules apply when you try to change it. So I’d say the agent got the rules wrong. Now, if you exchanged it into a domestic ticket and then wanted to change again, then I would expect domestic rules would apply.

    2. The international rules would apply when you book the domestic flight but if you then cancel the domestic fight then the domestic rules would apply

  7. One trap for Southwest: if you combine 2 credits to buy a new ticket and then cancel, the new credit will expire at the earlier date of the 2 original ones. I wound up not applying a soon to be expired $20 credit since it would have jeopardized a $100 credit if I wound cancelling. I love the no change fee policy otherwise.

  8. Actually, last I heard, gift cards can expire. But the caveat is that in some states, like California, they can’t. So it may be simpler for many multi-state organizations simply to make their cards never expire.

    http://www.ncsl.org/research/financial-services-and-commerce/gift-cards-and-certificates-statutes-and-legis.aspx

    Discount vouchers/coupons can expire. That’s how you wind up with interesting situations like Groupon vouchers where the face value expires, but past the printed expiration date, the voucher acts like a gift card for the amount paid for the Groupon.

  9. Also, concern about potentially needing to cancel a ticket without the having a chance to reuse it within a year drove me to flying Frontier on a trip last year. Instead of having to mess with travel credits or medical claims for refunds, I just bought a ticket with their “The Works” package, which made the ticket fully refundable and also included carry on and checked bags and advance seat selection (including Stretch seats). And it was still cheaper than a Southwest Wanna Get Away fare.

  10. FYI United Airlines last 747 400 aircraft number and 118 UA arrived in Tupelo Mississippi today Landing at approximately 118 upon parking and blocking the engines were being removed and being shipped out to fit 737 so the end of United 747 this was the aircraft that flew last flight San Francisco to Hawaii

  11. canuck_in_ca – that’s also true when you buy a Southwest ticket using travel funds and new money. For example, suppose you have $20 in travel funds credit that expires on March 1. On February 1, you use the $20 credit plus $180 in new green money to buy a $200 ticket. The whole $200 expires on March 1. Bottom line – it may be better to forfeit credits that are close to expiration.

  12. CF – United’s policy allows you to “roll over” ticket value indefinitely. For example, suppose you have a ticket that expires on 1-Feb-18, and you’re not sure how you want to use the funds. In late January, you can exchange the ticket for another ticket, extending the validity to late January 2019. To avoid additional change fees, the trick is to find a fare basis with no change fee (with United, look for a fare basis that ends in “Y” – for example, EAA0AFEY has no change fee; EAA0AFEN or EAA0AFES do have change fees. These would be refundable fares if purchased with cash, but remain non-refundable on an exchange of a non-refundable ticket. Some United Web-only fares may also have no change fee). Then, any time before late January 2019, you can use the ticket value to purchase another ticket. You can keep doing this over and over until you are able to use the funds for travel.

    If the new ticket price is less than the exchanged ticket residual value, United issues an Electronic Travel Certificate (ECT) for the difference. The ECT is good for a year, and can be used to purchase a ticket for anyone (such as a traveling companion). But there is a gotcha – if you buy a ticket with an ECT, then exchange the new ticket for a lower priced ticket, the difference is refunded to the original ECT, which retains its original expiration date.

    1. More corporate crap from UA. You have to pay substantially more for a refundable ticket which makes it better to pay the change fee, unless there is a chance you are going to have to cancel more than once.

    2. UAPhil – Most airlines allow that (not Southwest), but I didn’t want to get into that whole circle of hell in the post to try to keep it somewhat (but not really) simple. There a couple good strategies on that one. Let’s say you have a $1,000 credit. You could just buy some really cheap fare ($30 Basic Economy fare), pay the $200 change fee (United requires paying it, but American and Delta let you just deduct it from the credit amount) and then you’ll have the remainder good to use in the next year. If you book through a travel agent, that’ll come in the form of an MCO, and with United, those are transferable with a notarized form. Alternatively, you could roll it into a $1,000 refundable fare in a short haul market (if you can find one), as you said, and then just have another year to use it.
      That won’t allow for name change though.

      Overall, I agree that these are much more flexible and there are ways to extend their lives.

  13. Jeremy, Kilroy – I had a very good experience with CSR trip cancellation coverage. A few months ago, I had to cancel two trips due to a medical issue. I expected to forfeit $6,000 I had paid to the outfitter because the cancellation was less than 60 days prior to the trips. Then a blog reminded me CSR includes trip cancellation coverage. Submitting the claims was straightforward, with reasonable documentation requirements, and Chase’s insurance carrier reimbursed me for the full $6,000 within a few weeks.

    (Some others have reported negative experiences. Fortunately I had all required documentation available, and clearly met all the requirements for cancellation coverage. Bottom line – your mileage may vary, as with any travel insurance.)

    (Note, also, that purchased travel insurance often includes broader coverage than credit card insurance – for example, medical evacuation is included in many purchased policies, but not in credit card coverage.)

    (My trip cancellation claim did not include airfare, since I used miles to pay for the tickets, and was able to cancel/redeposit them with minimal fees. Not sure how the coverage would apply to revenue tickets.)

  14. All Delta tickets including domestic have to be used within one year of the date of issue, however what you are missing is that all travel has to be completed by that date. The same with southwest

    AA and UA the new tickets just have to be purchased by the expiration date

    1. Mark – That is no correct with Delta. Click the link in the post on Delta and you’ll see it’s different for international.

  15. From my experience of flying to/from New Zealand and around New Zealand, and buying lots of ‘sale’ fares, the cheaper fares are almost always non-refundable. The tickets often say ‘Not valid before (travel date)/not valid after (travel date). Are those sort of tickets not common in the US?

    1. Adrian – That’s the same, but most of those have change fees. And you can make a change as long as you do it within the validity period, which is usually one year.

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