My United Airlines tickets expired — can you make them unexpire?


When Susan Chibnall and her husband cancel their tickets to Switzerland, United Airlines promises them they can use their credit for a year. So why have their tickets expired?

Question: My husband and I paid $3,000 for round-trip tickets on United Airlines last year from Washington to Zurich, Switzerland. We also took out a travel insurance policy. Because of a post-surgical medical issue, my husband could not travel. At that time, we contacted United and were told we could reuse the tickets as long as we flew before Dec. 24, 2017.

We are now planning a trip abroad for this December. My husband called United to rebook our tickets. Much to our shock, the agent told my husband that we had to fly before Dec. 24, 2017, but we had to have booked our tickets by July 19, the one-year anniversary of our initial purchase date.

We were not told that at the time of this discussion, but the agent would not budge. Essentially, he said, “Too bad. It’s our policy.” We have both been frequent United flyers for more than 10 years; my husband for more than 15 years and has racked up approximately 500,000 miles over those years.

We have tried to resolve this by contacting United, including an email to the CEO, but to no avail. We can’t even get anyone to discuss the matter with us. It sickens me to think that we simply gave $3,000 to United and it sickens me even more that they won’t compromise on this. Even if the “one year from date of purchase applies” (which, again, we had no idea of this policy), we called less than two weeks after that; this, coupled with our frequent flyer status and the fact that the agent we discussed the rebooking policy with last December did not mention the one-year-from-date-of-purchase policy, creates a situation we feel United should at least compromise around (especially since they are currently rated the second worst airline in the country). Any help or advice you can give would be most appreciated. — Susan Chibnall, Fairfax, Va.


Answer: I’m sorry your tickets expired before you could use them. United should have told you about the deadline. Instead, the representative you spoke with either wasn’t clear or you didn’t understand what the employee said.

Related story:   Hey American Airlines, is a downgrade to economy class really only worth $100?

I’m a little bit surprised you weren’t aware of the policy, which is an industry standard. Both you and your husband are frequent United customers, and this can’t be your first canceled flight. Still, the burden was on the airline — not you — to be clear about any rules. If an employee told you that you had a full year, United should have been true to its word. You shouldn’t have to research an employee’s promise to ensure that it’s the truth.

You say you reached out to United’s CEO, and while that’s a good strategy, you might first try a few lower-level contacts who have more direct control of customer service issues. I list their names, numbers and email addresses on my consumer advocacy site.

After I furnished you with additional contact information, you got in touch with the right person at United. Not only did the airline allow you to use your tickets, but it also connected you with a ticket agent who helped you book your trip to Switzerland. The agent was “gracious, calm, polite, and reassuring,” you told me. “Truly excellent customer service.” That’s what I like to hear.


Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org.

  • Alan Gore

    The agent who didn’t tell LW about the actual start of the one-year window probably lied in hopes that LW would pay a change fee to preserve the tickets, rather than just letting them lapse without rebooking. And until Chris got involved, it worked.

  • Bruce Burger

    Two things are confusing about this post. First, the writer mentions insurance, but that apparently had nothing to do with the outcome. Why didn’t they make a claim? Second, while every airline has different policies, most require travel to be complete by 1 year after the original issue date — so the agent didn’t simply fail to state a deadline for rebooking, but rather stated the wrong deadline for traveling.

  • Lindabator

    I think the agent told them the rules (they are not only recorded, but FAA issues fines for incorrect info) – I think the client failed to pay attention

  • finance_tony

    “At that time, we contacted United and were told we could reuse the tickets as long as we flew before Dec. 24, 2017.”

    “If an employee told you that you had a full year, United should have been true to its word. ”

    This may be many things, but United not being true to its word is not one of them. Based on what’s written in the post, there was no promise made that was not kept.

  • Blamona

    Why wasn’t insurance used?

  • Mel65

    Why? How could that in any way benefit that agent to lie? Far more likely is a misunderstanding of terms than a blatant misrepresentation of them.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    Reading your comments over the years, you always assumed that employees of companies (or companies) are always lying to their customers and/or out to get their customers but customers never lied to these companies. Yes…there are employees that do give out ‘misinformation’ to customers due to poor training, ignorance, incompetency, greed, etc. I will argue that customers do lie to companies, leave facts out, slant their stories, etc.

    Based upon my life experiences, people only want to hear what they want to hear. For over 10 years, I was a senior compliance officer in the investment industry. I have been in client meetings where the brokers fully disclosed the risks and the fees (verbally as well as the clients signing a document acknowledging the risks and fees) yet there were clients that claimed that risks and/or fees were not disclosed to them. There were a few cases where I was there in the meetings and these clients not only stated that the risks, fees or etc. were not disclosed but I wasn’t there or don’t even remember me being there. These clients only heard the potential returns not totally forgot that investing is long term; the risks and the fees.

    At another company in a different industry, we listened and recorded our sales calls. As the Director of Sales, one of my responsibilities was to listen to the calls to insure that our sales teams wasn’t making erroneous statements, guaranteeing results, etc. I received complaints from clients stating that one of our sales reps ‘lied’ to them and these clients went on with their laundry list of lies, statements, etc. I sent the clients the recordings and never heard back from them…two times, the client called to apologize for lying in an attempt to break their contracts.

    In two years, I received 10 phone calls or e-mails from clients that one of our sales reps told them IN WRITING (i.e. e-mail) that they could cancel their contract before it expired or a discount was promised or etc. I told these 10 clients that we will honor whatever our sales reps told them IF they forward me the e-mails stating these promises…half of them never sent me these e-mails and the other half sent fake e-mails (none of the them had e-mail headers). I had our internal IT department to check our e-mail servers as well as our external IT department to check…in all ten cases, there were no e-mails sent from the sales reps to these clients. In other words, these clients were lying.

    In my current position, I work with companies with their overstock, excess inventory, close-outs and customer returns. In regards to customer returns, there are defective products but majority of the time especially in the hardware/tools segment, it is basically a free rental…a trades guy or a contractor will buy an item for a project and return it to the store after the project is completed claiming that the item is defective and get a full refund.

    My point is that customers do lie, they have selective memories, etc. just like companies can lie as well.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    I agree with you…either the OP only heard or remembered what they wanted to hearremember or the CSR gave inaccurate information.

    Like it was mentioned in the article, they should have previous cancellations given their patronage with UA over the years and they should have know about the one year rule.

    Over the years, I have had several cancellations with America WestUS AirwaysAA and the response from the CSRs has always been the same: “Need to rebook one year from the original date of purchase and must start flying within one year from the original date of departure.” I have only one cancellation with United Airlines but the CSR told me the same about the 1 year – purchase and 1 year travel requirement.

  • cscasi

    Interesting that Chris and company did not ask the Chibnalls why they did not file a travel insurance claim. Usually, if you do not fly as originally ticketed, the airline allow you a one year credit (from the date of original purchase) to use the credit(s), but a change fee has to be paid; something like $150-$250 a ticket (in this case, depending on their status in United’s frequent flyer program).
    Having said that, depending on the type of travel insurance they purchased and whether or not it would have covered the medical issue, the insurance company would have asked them if they planned to fly within the year timeframe allowed by United. If they said yes, they could have filed a preliminary claim stating that they were planning t use the credits and if they did, they could file a claim for the change fees when United actually charged them the fees.
    Or, it looks like they managed to get United to extend the one year validity for the changes and even got it to waive the change fees. Perhaps they were satisfied with that.
    But, there is no mention of what they did or did not do with their travel insurance, so what I have said is just conjecture on my part.
    Glad they managed to get United to come through for them; with the help of Chris and company.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    The agent could have failed to disclose the deadline for booking or the OP could have failed to remember the booking deadline and only remember travel deadline. Without a recording of the call, we don’t know if the CSR failed to do hisher job or if the OP failed to remember the full terms; therefore, we should withhold judgment and NOT accuse the CSR of not doing hisher job.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    You got it…the OP was told that they had to fly before December 24 thus United was true to its word.

    The question is or was…did the United CSR told the OP about the rebooking deadline or did the OP forgot about the rebooking deadline. Unlike other readers who can pass judgement, assign blame, come up with conspiracy theories, etc., I can’t without hearing the recording of the call.

  • Bruce Burger

    But most airlines have just a travel deadline (1 year from original purchase), not a booking deadline, for credits. So it’s not a question of whether the booking deadline went unstated or unheard. Rather, the question is whether the travel deadline was misstated or misheard. Of course we have no way of knowing.

  • Noah Kimmel

    I am a frequent flier, so when I cancel a ticket, I usually use it quickly and have never had to worry about the 1 year booked/flown difference.

    I do agree, I can’t imagine an agent (not commissioned on change fees) intentionally trying to lie to a customer to somehow screw them out of money. It only leads to angry / frustrated calls later and most phone agents prefer friendly calls and happy customers to angry fights.

    More than likely there was a miscommunication. Maybe the agent was not clear about the 1 year term being from booked vs. planned flown date, or maybe after 8+ months, the OP didn’t remember the conversation. Remember Hanlon’s razor – “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”. Definitely feel bad and glad the OP got positive resolution.

  • Noah Kimmel

    exactly! I have sympathy for customers. But in my experience, it is more likely customers mis-hear or exaggerate to reach a desired outcome than employees maliciously conspiring against customers. If they were, then there would be far more complaints than we hear.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    You are correct…without a recording, we don’t what was said, what was misstated or what was misheard.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    totally agreed!!!

  • Alan Gore

    Because agents are probably evaluated at least in part on sales, and a fee is just as much a sale as a ticket is. Since the year from purchase requirement is fairly standard, United would not have folded unless there was either specific logging of the agent telling LW that he had until December to rebook, or some ongoing problem with vague explanation of the policy.

  • Alan Gore

    Let’s put an end to the uncertainty. Instead of “This call May be recorded..” why not take recording mandatory – and discoverable, in the legal sense.

  • UAPhil

    Actually, United’s policy is more generous than many other airlines. If you are approaching one year from ticket issuance, and don’t yet know how you want to use the funds, you can use the value to book any itinerary up to one additional year out. (For example, if the tickets were issued on January 1, 2017, and it is now December 15, 2017, you can “roll the value over” of the tickets by booking flights any time up to December 15, 2018.) You can “roll the value over” as many times as you want.

    To avoid paying change fees when you reuse the “rolled over” tickets issued December 15, 2, you can book a “no change fee” fare basis itinerary. (Normally these tickets would also be refundable, but since the original tickets were non-refundable, the exchanged tickets remain non-refundable.)

  • y_p_w

    I’ve canceled on United. The change fee was only assessed on rebooking using the credit. The new flight was actually cheaper than the credit, but I had to pay the entire change fee.

    That was different than Delta, where the change fee was taken from the credit. I could have booked another flight by using the credit alone if it was less than what I had. I think I could have also had credit left over.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    “Because agents are probably evaluated at least in part on sales.”

    Do you have a copy of the 2016 or 2017 compensation plan for a CSR working for United that can collaborate your statement? Do you have a friend that works for United as a CSR that can collaborate your statement? Without collaboration, your statement is like fake news!

    I must disagree with your statement because only 10% of airline tickets (129 airlines around the world that responded to a survey) are sold by airline’s call center according to the 12th annual SITA/Airline Business IT Trends Survey (129 airlines responded to this survey) in 2010. In 2010, 60% of the tickets for these 129 airlines were sold indirectly (i.e. travel agents, OTA, etc.). From the remaining 40%…25% were sold on the airline websites; 10% sold by their call center and 5% was interline sales.

    In other words, the airline’s website is the main source of ticket sales. Given that this survey was done in 2010, I am confident that ticket sales from an airline website has remain same or has grown since given the overall growth of eCommerce.

    By the way, I had a cancellation with a ticket on United and the CSR told me that I had one year to rebook from the date of the original booking and one year to travel from the original departure date.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    There are two ways to do it. One way is market forces. Another way is government. By the way, there are companies that do record every call and make the calls available to their customers. One company was U-Haul which was reported on this blog. I have received recordings of my calls from three different companies.

    How about putting an end to your belief that all companies are liars AND every customer is honest, telling the whole truth, etc?

  • KanExplore

    Are you saying agents get a commission or other reward for duping people into paying unneeded change fees? Otherwise, it seems illogical why the agent would go out of his or her way to actually lie about company policies. I have no trouble believing that people in the executive suites scheme to develop anti-consumer procedures. I have a little more trouble believing that’s the likeliest explanation for an action by the lowest level of consumer facing personnel. Incompetence or genuine misunderstanding seem more probable.

  • Kevin Nash

    Totally agree with you. Some low level customer service rep does got care one iota about United’s bottom line. In fact, nearly all low level employees don’t care about their employer’s money because it doesn’t belong to them.

    The fact that some people think CS agents lie to customers to help save their company money is ludicrous.

  • IGoEverywhere

    It is very nice of United to have assisted Elliott. They usually do not do that. 1 year is 1 year. Congrats to the advocates.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    If agents was getting commissions or other rewards for duping people then it would be discovered by the independent auditors who audits United’s books every year since they are a public-traded company. I am sure that the commenter will probably state that United is bribing the independent auditors.

    How about a CSR reporting this practice? There is a big money for a whistle blower. Again, the commenter will probably state that United is promoting these CSRs to management as a bribe.

    I agree with you…it is either incompetence from the CSR or misunderstanding of the OP…NOT a conspiracy.

  • Michael__K

    Last time I received a flight credit (different airline), the call center agent (offshore based on their accent) told me I had to “use it within one year.” They said absolutely nothing to indicate that this meant one year from the *purchase* date, and not that day’s date, which is what most people would naturally assume. And the email confirmation of the credit (which I just double-checked) has about 150 lines of fine print, but nothing whatseover to indicate the re-booking or travel deadline.
    I happen to know the policy, in part because I follow websites like this one. But I received no direct notice.

  • Michael__K

    Not intentionally lie, but agents are under pressure to take as many calls as possible as quickly as possible.

  • Michael__K

    The US Department of Transportation has repeatedly fined United, among other airlines, for failure to comply with mandatory disclosures, including failure to quote Full Fares and failure to provide passengers’ proper notice of their Denied Boarding rights.
    Unlike explanations of ticket credit terms, these are clear legal mandates which the DOT has jurisdiction over, and it takes more than a couple of isolated failures before the DOT moves forward to pursue a public consent decree.
    So if you assume every customer or most customers misheard or are lying, then chances are you will be falsely accusing lots of customers.

  • Alan Gore

    It’s not that I believe that “all companies are lying to us.” In general, I don’t see most companies mistreating their clientele, because competition on the part of the businesses we interact with every day, be they retailers, banks, restaurants, hotels, or local service operations like the one I run myself, valorizes an amicable relationship with the customer. That is how our system is supposed to work.

    But as a business reaches a certain size there is an increasing temptation to cut corners on customer relations, so long as you enjoy some form of exclusive control over your area of business. Walmart can’t mistreat its customers because there are other places in town where they can shop, but I know people who will not buy a house in a neighborhood where Comcast is the cable carrier.

    Though Chris is trying to spread himself thinner of late, the heart of discussion in this forum is still travel. And what’s unique about travel as a business is that a large percentage of your customers are non-local, often foreign, and often not speaking your language. This applies to visitors here, and to ourselves when we head elsewhere. This increases the market exclusivity of travel companies, because when you’re away from your local culture you are subject to policies you don’t understand, in terms of a legal system that is not yours, dealing with agents who may be a continent away from both your home and your destination. You are at their mercy, and all too often and increasingly these days, it shows.

    I’m the kind of person who seeks adventure, and can tolerate a reasonable amount of imprecision. I understand that delays can happen and allow for unexpected problems by planning ahead, and I have actually been criticized here for advocating flexibility (“Whaddaya mean, arrive a day ahead!”). It also helps that I used to travel even more than now, including long periods of cross-country commuting and several years overseas.

    Today’s case is a classic I-said, they-said situation. If we save a mandatory recording of each agent call, which is much easier than it used to be given today’s digital methods, we can determine which side was telling the truth about a phone agent’s interpretation of an airline policy that is user-hostile to begin with and counterintuitive for customers. When we have to cancel a midsummer booking because something came up and are told we have a year to reschedule, customers who are doing this for the first time naturally think in terms of booking next summer in the same season. That your one-year window started that day last February when you clicked on the airline website has to be made plain, and perhaps that was not done. As an IT guy I was suggested an engineering solution to the problem, not advocating Marxism.

  • C Schwartz

    Although hard to find, the information is available on the United website:

    “In all other cases, a refund may be requested for any fare that allows
    refunds. Depending on the rules of the fare purchased, a cancellation
    fee may apply. Most fares are nonrefundable, and are not eligible for
    voluntary refunds. However, the value of your ticket may be eligible to
    be applied toward the price of a new ticket for a fee. Tickets are valid
    one year from the date of ticket issuance.”

    https://www.united.com/web/en-us/content/reservations/refunds/refund.aspx

  • pauletteb

    “Probably”? Where’s the proof of your allegations? How many times have Chris and crew discovered that an OP misheard or misinterpreted (sometimes intentionally) what an airline rep said?

  • Annie M

    Why would you assume that? Many simply don’t think to say it must be rebooked by the 1 year date they were purchased and flown by the anniversary date or the consumer doesn’t hear that.

    I sincerely doubt the agent lied.

  • Annie M

    I agree that they do this. Half the time their English is so poor I think they may not even know what they are really supposed to be telling people.

  • Annie M

    I totally disagree with you on this. You know what assumptions do, right?

Get smart. Sign up for the newsletter.