Airline travel vouchers are not created equally

November 30, 2010
Fares from Washington DC:

    Sometimes, it does pay to fly. But rarely before the airlines have exhausted all other options. When they get to the end of their rope, that's when you, the customer, get what's known as a voucher. It's also known as credit, but this is the airline industry, and in many ways, the airline industry is stuck in the past, a sepia-toned time, when we had things like mimeograph machines and automat diners. 

    Has your airline issued you a travel voucher, or ever been tempted to accept one? This is something that's issued in cases of extreme delay, in cases of mechanical failure; sometimes you'll get it because they really are so very sorry that they totally ruined your day with awful service (in those cases, you have to beg, and you have to beg a lot, and you have to be ready to prove that their behavior was as bad as you say it was.)

    Sometimes vouchers come easier; you cancelled your trip before the date of travel, for instance. Maybe the fare goes down after you buy, and the airline has a lowest fare guarantee policy. Maybe you were one of those good guys who took the buyout when the gate agent asked for volunteers to switch from an oversold flight.

    No matter for what reason you get the credit, or the voucher – and most of them come due to some inconvenience of some sort – you can expect even more inconvenience when you try to actually use the thing. After all, it's free travel. People with crazy airline miles can't even get seats on planes anymore. You think an airline wants to make it easy for someone to fly for free? Think again.

    Well, not always – it depends on the airline, quite honestly. Some, like JetBlue, automatically credit you online; when you go to book your next ticket with them, it'll show up and be deducted from your bill. Revolutionary, right? Delta lets you spend the voucher (aka, Delta Dollars) online, and you can easily transfer it to another person.

    Contrast that with airlines such as the dinosaur-like US Airways, which issues various types of vouchers and offers virtually no easy way to get reimbursed. Passengers must call in their orders like they're doing Chinese delivery, except in this scenario, there's no guy on a bicycle; in this case, you've got to go down to the restaurant anyway, to pay, and pick up. (In this scenario, obviously, the restaurant is an airline ticket counter, either downtown or at your nearest airport.) 

    Most importantly, perhaps, some airlines require that you complete all travel issued with the voucher within a year of the voucher's issuance; others require that you book all travel within a year; and others that you begin travel within a year, although, typically, most airline tickets bought with vouchers must be used within a year of issuance (unless they're fully refundable fares, which themselves can be reissued or refunded in full).

    Confused? Don't be. We've got a handy chart showing you how it all works on most major airlines; good stuff to know next time someone offers you a cash award and free travel to give up your seat. Some airlines, the hassle you'll deal with to get your money's worth out of the deal may just not be worth it.