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|
|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|
|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|
|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.