So where’s my credit from Southwest — and is it enough?

In May, M. Geraldine Williams had to cancel an upcoming trip from Tucson to Chicago because of illness. When she canceled her Southwest Airlines flights, she was told if she rebooked them before Aug. 1, she wouldn’t lose any of her travel funds.

So Williams recently tried to rebook her trip, departing July 20 and returning Aug. 17. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to apply the credit for the canceled flights.

This one’s a can of worms. If nothing else, it shows how tricky even straight shooters like Southwest can be with their terms and conditions, and how you really have to pay attention to the fine print in their contracts, as opposed to what they might tell you.

A quick call by Williams to Southwest revealed that she actually needed to complete her travel before Aug. 1, not book before Aug. 1. That’s a big difference in policy — and a huge mistake for a customer service person to make.

The reservations agent who assisted Williams indicated the credit could be used for her outbound flight to Chicago, but not for the return flight on Aug. 17. This agent apparently created a new, one-way booking. The agent applied a credit to cover the cost of this flight. Unfortunately, this left Williams with two flights to Chicago on July 20, one flight returning to Tucson on Aug. 17, and another call to make — to Southwest’s customer service.

Williams learned that Southwest’s customer service wasn’t as helpful as she would have hoped, either. They offered to allow her to use the credit toward her return flight, but only after paying a $100 fee. Southwest also told her it wouldn’t refund the original flight she booked until after she took her flight on July 20, which means she will also be subject to interest on her credit card balance for money she shouldn’t have needed to spend.

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If this had been an unrestricted, refundable ticket, Southwest would have been required to refund Williams’ ticket to her original form of payment. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case, and Williams is stuck with the terms that apply to a nonrefundable ticket, which aren’t quite as clear as I would hope.

In its Contract of Carriage, Southwest includes the following information about travel credits:

Unless otherwise stated by Carrier, the fare paid for unused nonrefundable Tickets, including taxes, security fees, and Passenger Facility Charges, may be applied toward the purchase of future travel on Carrier for the originally ticketed Passenger only. The new Ticket may be more or less expensive or subject to different terms, conditions, or restrictions from the original Ticket. If the fare is lower, travel credit will be issued for the difference. No cash refund or credit card adjustments will be made for nonrefundable Tickets.

I’m particularly interested in this phrase: “The new Ticket may be … subject to different terms, conditions, or restrictions from the original Ticket,” because it seems to indicate that Southwest has the power to issue a ticket with different terms than the original ticket.

In the next paragraph, however, Southwest indicates, “The expiration date of any travel credit will apply to any Tickets purchased with these funds.”

Returning to Williams’ story, she was seemingly stuck with two tickets to Chicago, one ticket back to Tucson, a credit card balance, interest charges, and an unhelpful airline. She could have escalated her case to the Southwest Airlines contacts we list on our website. She should have collected her medical reports supporting her claim that her original cancellation was for medical reasons and sent it to our contacts with a polite letter asking for a simple rebooking.

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Instead, she contacted us and asked that we advocate on her behalf, which we were happy to do. We don’t receive many complaints about Southwest, so we hoped they would do the right thing. I would have expected that they would have taken the phrase I referenced above about the new ticket possibly being subject to different terms, and simply issued a new ticket. The least they should have done was issue the refund for the outbound ticket they double-booked.

Unfortunately, that’s not what they did. They held firm to the customer service offer of booking the tickets with a $100 penalty — and a waiting period to receive the credit she is due.

I expected better of Southwest. What say you, readers?

Michelle Bell

Michelle worked in the travel and hospitality industry for almost two decades. Born in Germany, she has lived in 15 states and two foreign countries, and traveled to more than 35 countries. After living and working in Southeast Asia for several years, she now resides in New Orleans.

  • AJPeabody

    Southwest has such beneficial rules that if they said OK to this they would have no rules at all. “You can’t always get what you want.”

    On the other hand, the OP relied on an assertion from one of their agents. Did they listen to the tapes? Do they back up their employees? Did the OP “misremember” the conversation?

  • Mel65

    I suspect the agent said something like, “ long as you use it before August 1…” and she interpreted that as applying the credit and not taking the flight, which would be an understandable mistake. Pure speculation, of course.

  • AAGK

    Southwest is completely wrong. The agent screwed up and applied the credit to a ticket she no longer needed. Mistakes happen but since SW is going to be a stickler, then so should this passenger. The credit should still be available to her for whatever she wants until its expiration. However, since SW tied it up unnecessarily, it didn’t uphold its end of the deal. The above rule no longer applies to the credit and it needs to issue a refund Of that amount to the original form of payment. She will then travel on her newly purchased Roundtrip tickets and won’t have to take a loss.

  • cscasi

    I see nothing wrong with Southwest’s Contract of Carriage. Of course, if one exchanges their credit for a ticket that costs more, he/she pays the difference. If the fare of the new ticket is less than the original, he/she retains a credit for the unused portion. Also, terms, conditions and restrictions can change because one is purchasing a new ticket at a later time. Examples: The ticket could come with a restriction that it has to be purchased X days in advance. One could use his/her credit toward a ticket that is refundable (albeit more expensive).
    As for Ms. Williams ticket issue, I can only say that it is a shame that she couldn’t use the full value of her credit because of the expiration date on the credit issued. I am not sure if she misunderstood the agent’s explanation of the terms of her credit or if the agent misspoke (as mentioned by AJPeabody below.

  • One year use of store credit is an air industry standard, but as I have pointed out before it’s not enough time for people who plan vacations on an annual cycle. If you book a summer trip by early spring as we’re all supposed to do, a cancellation would result in credit that is not usable next year. The time limit should be made at least three years.

  • Southwest patron

    As you can see from my moniker, I am pretty much versed in Southwest policies.

    I don’t see any mention when the OP purchased the tickets. It is pretty much known that SWA’s policy dictates that the ticket is good for the original flight or any flight(s) in the future up to one year from the date the tickets were purchased. I get the gist that the OP purchased the tickets on August 1, 2015 (unless I’m pointed out).

    SWA is an industry leader in ticket re-issuances with no restrictions – and for one year. Show me another airline who does it equally or better.

    Given this flexibility, SWA is fair in this instance – and the $100.00 fee is more than generous (and I did have to do this once).

  • Annie M

    She had another option – she could have bought travel insurance that would in moist cases would have refunded her original flight for medical reasons.

  • pauletteb

    I used to pay up to $100 each way to avoid Southwest. Now I don’t have to. Even paying $25 each way for a checked bag, I can now fly cheaper on other carriers AND have an assigned seat.

  • Inquirer1111

    I’ve always known that Southwest tickets are refundable up to 1 year from the date of purchase. So sorry to the lady that she didn’t know. I booked some tickets in April 2016 for flights in Sep 2016. Prices went down and I was able to get a credit for about $20. I know that I have to use them on a flight before April 2017 or I lose them. I fly Southwest as much as possible because for the routes I take, they have good prices and can change.

  • joycexyz

    “The agent said….” Get it in writing.The agent represents the company, and his/her word should be honored. The problem is proving it.

  • MarkKelling

    Yes, “Use” the credit does not mean book another flight, it means complete another flight. We don’t have the original conversation so we don’t know exactly what was said, but I believe it was not “book another flight” it was “book and take another flight”.

  • MarkKelling

    I really don’t see the problem here other than the OP doesn’t fully understand Southwests’s rules for funds expiration and probably did not hear exactly what the agent said and understand it correctly.

    She booked a flight and didn’t take it. All of the funds for that flight were available for her to use. She just didn’t get to use them before the year ran out. She then booked new flights before talking with Southwest and paid for them with new funds. After talking with Southwest, they booked a new flight one way using the unexpired funds from the previous flight and offered to refund the new flight she paid for after she takes this one way flight. I don’t know of any other airline that would offer this option which sounds very fair to me since they could just keep the funds from the new flight and tell her she would need to use those funds on a future SW flight.

    Southwest allows an additional year extension for flight credit if you pay a fee, $100 it appears in this case, so you don’t lose your credit if you don’t get to fly in time. Don’t know how much the original ticket cost, but I’m sure it was enough that paying the extra $100 made economic sense. Did she pay the $100 to get to use the remaining credit on the return flight? From the article, it appears not.

    This is an example of an airline working with the customer to help them not lose their flight credits. When have you even had a phone agent of any airline tell you “Hey, I can book a one way ticket for you to use some of your remaining credit before it expires”? Most would simply say “Your new flight request is beyond the one year expiration of the flight credit” and leave you losing it all. Also, the offer to refund the extra purchased flight when it is a non refundable ticket goes beyond the expected.

  • MarkKelling

    I really don’t see where Southwest tied anything up unnecessarily. OP booked a flight and did’t take it, the credit is expiring after 1 year. Southwest tried to work out a way for her to use some or even all of the credit.

  • Kerr

    Three years? That would significantly increase the liabilities (unused credits) airlines would have to carry on their books.

  • AAGK

    I understood it that she booked a 2nd trip and was unable to use the credit bc of the return date and when she called, the agent, instead of applying the credit to the outbound flight of trip 2, made another one way booking she doesn’t need. Let’s say she decided since she was stuck with the credit, she was use it for a weekend in Florida, seperate from paid trip 2. Now she can’t bc it was needlessly applied to a useless ticket. Since SW can’t honor it, I would insist on a real refund for its value. The agent rendered it invalid.

  • MarkKelling

    Couldn’t apply the funds to the booked trip because part of the trip is past the one year expiration of the funds. Had to do it as a one way that completed before the expiration in order for the computer to accept it. Since Southwest flights are billed by their individual one way prices, this does not cost more than that portion would by booking the complete round trip.

    The agent also offered to extend the credit for an additional year for $100. (No other airline does anything close to that.) If the OP would have accepted, she could have applied all of the funds to the round trip in question.

    Remember that you can cancel any Southwest ticket at any time and reuse the funds for a different ticket immediately. This is what is most confusing to travelers that use other airlines and have to be so careful about fees and rescheduling flights so as not to lose their flight credits. If she didn’t want to use the one way trip to consume part of her existing credit, she could have canceled that and used the funds for her hypothetical Florida vacation. Nothing tied up that can’t be easily untied.

  • AAGK

    I think I said the same thing:) I just would’ve resolved it differently. Maybe I misread but didn’t she end up with a one way ticket for trip 2 after she had already paid for trip 2 upon realizing the return date precluded use of the credit? So she had Roundtrip trip 2 paid for and an extra ticket paid for with the credit outbound for trip 2 as well. The agent created a second booking on the 2nd trip rather than incorporate the credit. That’s probably bc that was not possible. Unfortunately/fortunately for consumer, the agent tried to fix it and made it worse. now they have to refund (don’t have to but I would insist at that point.)

  • MarkKelling

    And they will refund — but only AFTER she actually flys somewhere with them.

  • AAGK

    I get what you are saying. I understand what they want do and plan to do. I’m not confused about the rules, etc. Im just saying what I would do if this happened to me.
    Actually, maybe I am confused now. What do you mean?

  • AAGK

    If they can just refund the cash she paid for the outbound of trip 2 and apply the credit to that portion and she will be out of pocket for return of trip 2- then that is the fair resolution. I agree with you. I think I read this as that wasn’t possible.
    Plane tickets are too confusing.

  • MarkKelling

    According to the article, Southwest told the OP they would *refund* the double booked flight back to her but only after she flys the one way ticket that was purchased with the expiring flight credit. The return portion of the ticket she bought will be usable when she is ready to return home (I hope, it wasn’t explicitly mentioned and would really suck if they canceled that because she didn’t fly the outbound segments!).

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