The Weird and Confusing World of Ticket Validity


Chatter has been rising around what is going to happen to all those unused airline credits as more and more of them pile up. See, airlines have been issuing credits like the US government has been printing money, and though airlines have tried to make it easy to use them, some are beginning to expire. That is an interesting topic, but it’s not my focus today. I’m going to take a deeper dive into ticket validity in general. What are the airline rules when exceptions and extensions aren’t being made? You may be surprised to know that the airlines have rules that vary significantly.

Let’s take a look at the five biggest US airlines these days to explain how each handles ticket validity. Keep in mind, this is not talking about vouchers that are issued for a variety of reasons. These are tickets that are issued and then the flights aren’t taken, so the credit lives, awaiting another flight to be used on. Let’s start with a handy chart.

Confused? Good. Now let’s talk about each of these in more detail.

American’s One Year Rule

American’s rules are pretty close to the industry standard. The rules are uniform across all tickets, but it’s explained well in the international Contract of Carriage, if you speak legalese.

The period of validity for transportation will be one year from the date on which transportation commences at the point of origin designated on the original ticket, or if no portion of the ticket is used, from the date of issuance of the original ticket.

The expiration date of any new ticket issued for a change in routing, destination, carrier(s), class
of service, or validity will be limited to the expiration date that would have been applicable if the new ticket had been issued on the date of sale of the original ticket or miscellaneous charges order.

Would you like that in English? Let’s use an example. Say you bought a ticket on May 1 for travel from Los Angeles to Phoenix on July 1 with a return on July 7. Then let’s say you flew out on July 1 and decided you liked the brutal heat there so much that you weren’t going to return on the 7th. You canceled your return. The credit will stay valid for use until July 1 of next year. If you’ve already started flying on any ticket, the “one year rule” starts from the first date you actually traveled.

Now let’s say you had that same ticket, but on June 29 you checked the weather and realized it was going to be 119 degrees, so you decided not to travel at all. In that case, your ticket would have to be used for travel by May 1 of the following year. If you haven’t started to travel, you have one year from the date the ticket was issued to fly.

Keep in mind that this date is set in stone as far as American is concerned. Let’s say you rebooked that ticket on June 29 to fly in September instead when it would only be a balmy 109 degrees. That does not reset the one year clock to June 29. If you change your mind again and don’t fly in September, you still have to use that ticket by May 1 of the following year, one year from the date you first bought the ticket.

Like I said, this is kind of the standard. So, as we go through the others here, I’ll talk about what’s different. Or in the case of the next airline…. what’s not.

United’s Rules Are the Same

United has the exact same rules as American. According to the airline’s Contract of Carriage:

…any eligible Ticket issued by UA or its authorized agent on UA Ticket Stock must begin travel within one year from the date of issuance and will be valid for transportation for one year from the date on which transportation commences at the point of origin as designated on the original Ticket or, if no portion of the Ticket is used, one year from the date of issuance of the original Ticket. When an unused fare Ticket is completely exchanged, the original ticket validity applies.

I did reach out to United to confirm there weren’t any exceptions, but I never heard back. So I’ll assume that it has the same rules as American per the contract.

Delta’s Split Personality

Delta actually has more nuance to its policy, and it has a dedicated ticket validity page which more effectively explains in almost-English what the Contract of Carriage says about ticket validity.

For “travel within the 50 United States or for travel between the 50 United States, Canada, Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands,” the rules are MORE restrictive than American or United.

…ticket is valid for one year from the date of issue and all travel must be completed within the validity period.  If exchanged, whether travel has commenced or not, the ticket must be reissued and all travel completed within one year from the original date of issue.”

In other words, the ticket is only valid through the following May 1 no matter what, even if you started travel. That date is set in stone.

But when it comes to all other travel outside those geographies, Delta is LESS restrictive.

…ticket is valid for one year from the original date of issuance and travel must commence within this validity period. Once travel has commenced, then all travel must be completed within one year from the date on which travel commenced.  If a ticket is exchanged or reissued:

a) A wholly unused ticket must be exchanged within the original validity period of one year and will be given a new ticket issue date based on the date of exchange.

b) If travel has commenced, then the ticket must be reissued and all travel completed within one year from the date on which travel commenced.

What this means is that the original ticket rules are the same as American and United, but when we reissue the ticket on June 29, the clock restarts and you’ll now have another year to travel by the following June 29.

Now that change fees are gone in the US for Delta, that means you effectively have unlimited ticket validity. Just keep rolling the ticket into future travel and the clock will restart. I’m guessing this is something that Delta has simply overlooked, and now that change fees are gone it will have to think long and hard about whether to keep this policy in place.

Alaska is the Most Generous of All

Alaska’s Contract of Carriage — confirmed with Alaska directly — is the most generous of them all.

…any Ticket issued by Alaska on Alaska Ticket stock will be valid for transportation for one (1) year from the date on which transportation commences at the point of origin as designated on the original Ticket or, if no portion of the Ticket is used, one (1) year from the date of issuance of the original or reissued ticket, whichever is later. When an unused published fare Ticket is reissued, the new Ticket validity on the reissued ticket will be determined from the date the Ticket was reissued.

Alaska has the same rules as Delta does internationally, but on Alaska it applies to the entire network. Again, I have to wonder if this will be revisited now that change fees are gone.

Southwest Confuses Everyone With Its Simplicity

Unsurprisingly, Southwest has a different, simpler way of handling things. For Southwest, the value doesn’t stay with the ticket itself but rather with the confirmation number. They call any unused funds “Travel Funds,” and all money is good for one year from the date the funds were originally paid to buy a ticket. So if you bought that ticket on May 1, you have to use your funds for travel by the following May 1 or they disappear. Here’s the Travel Fund FAQ.

But let’s say when you changed your ticket on June 29 that the new fare was higher and you had to pay more money. Even though they’re on the same confirmation number, the original amount will expire on May 1 while the new amount will expire on June 29. You can always look up your funds on to try to keep it straight.

Keep in mind that during COVID times, this gets even more confusing. I know this post isn’t about COVID, but this is still worth pointing out. Southwest has extended all travel funds to be valid until September 7, 2022, but there are caveats.

Any travel fund with an expiration date beyond one year (i.e., any funds that were extended to September 7, 2022, as a part of our Southwest Promise exception during the height of the pandemic) that is applied to a new ticket and then canceled will have an expiration date 12 months from the date of purchase of the new ticket; however, if additional travel funds or a Southwest LUV Voucher is applied to the new ticket, the earliest expiration date of all forms of payment applies to the expiration date of the new travel fund.

So the funds are available for travel through September 7, 2022, but let’s say on August 1, 2021 you rebooked using those funds. The expiration will move up to August 1, 2022. Let’s say you also used some funds that you had already rebooked on July 1, 2021 and are changing again. All of the funds will now expire on July 1, 2022… I think. This is very confusing, so just be careful.

Everything clear as mud? I thought so. Unless you’re mingling funds with Southwest, t’s safe to just assume that you have one year from the date your ticket was purchased to use the credit or you lose it. This only applies to these airlines, however. Every airline may have its own rules, so you always want to look and be careful.

With uncertainty where it is these days, it is to the benefit of travelers to book closer to departure so they have more time on the clock if they have to make a change. That’s something airlines may want to consider as a future improvement if they really want people to start booking earlier.

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10 comments on “The Weird and Confusing World of Ticket Validity

  1. Cranky,What about JetBlue… are they similar to Alaska, Southwest or the legacies?

    Also thanks to CV as you note indirectly, the old wisdom of buying tickets early to pay a lower fare has been turned on it’s head. Since the closer your booking date is closer to your travel date, the greater the benefit is on any tickets purchased if the travel plans change suddenly. Sorry if my words were a bit mangled this morning.

    1. SEAN – Well, the rules say that tickets are valid for travel for one year from date of issue, but I can’t find details on what happens when you make a change. I don’t know if it keeps the original date or the new one. But often with JetBlue you will end up getting a Travel Bank credit, and those are good for one year from when they’re issued. I believe they just have to be used in that time but travel can be beyond that time. That’s fairly common for low cost airlines.

  2. Could a travel agent exchange a ticket for an MCO to get extended validity of the original funds?

    1. GringoLoco – I’ve never seen the ability to flip a credit into an MCO.
      What can be done to get around it, however, is find a super cheap ticket somewhere. Then you can use the credit for that cheap ticket and put the residual amount into an MCO. That works for American and Delta at least.
      United doesn’t allow you to keep residual value any longer while Alaska doesn’t allow MCOs at all.

      For those who don’t know what this means, an MCO is a Miscellaneous Charge Order. It’s an archaic document that is used to store future value for travel agents to use. Here’s an example. Let’s say you have a $500 credit with an airline from a flight you didn’t use. Then you want to use that credit for a $50 ticket. With American and Delta (and others not mentioned in this article) but not United or Alaska, a travel agent can issue that ticket and then put the remaining $450 into an MCO. The MCO can then be used within a year of it being issued.

  3. I have long been confused what happens if you buy a Delta international ticket, cancel, and use the funds to rebook a domestic flight, or vice-versa. Any idea? Now that such things will probably be happening more often, yet one more reason they’ll probably need to rethink this.

    1. Bgriff – The rules should follow the most recent ticket. So, if you have a $1000 Delta ticket and then buy a $200 domestic ticket, you will have $800 that goes into a credit which has its own rules. The $200 will now be a domestic ticket so I would assume that the clock will start from when the domestic ticket is first issued, not when the international one was. But it’s a good question, and I’m not 100%.

      1. And I guess more importantly the question is, if you have an expiring domestic credit, can you extend it by buying an international flight and then cancelling that. I guess that often might be a bad idea because you may have to put more money in to have enough funds to buy an international flight, but if you could find something that works it could be a loophole of sorts.

        1. Bgriff – I assume you can’t do that, but it’s all so fuzzy. Usually if things get more restrictive, then that carries forward, but if they get less restrictive, it isn’t allowed.

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