The clock is ticking on Bernadine Fong’s sizable United Airlines flight credit, which she acquired during the pandemic. Around this time last year, she booked two business class tickets to Europe for a dream vacation. But that was before the coronavirus ruined everyone’s summer plans for 2020.
With the pandemic entering year two, Fong worries her nearly $11,000 flight credit with United Airlines is in jeopardy. Now she wants to know what to do to make sure to make the most of it before it expires. (Last updated Sept. 10, 2021)
Since COVID-19 brought the leisure travel industry to an abrupt halt last spring, we’ve received hundreds of similar emails. Would-be passengers want to know how to protect their flight credits when it’s still not safe to travel. And sadly, some of them are elderly and/or immunocompromised and fear they’ll never be cleared for air travel again.
Fortunately, most airlines have adopted new, flexible future flight credit policies to address the massive number of pandemic-inspired cancellations.
If United Airlines issued you a flight credit during the pandemic, here’s everything you need to know about spending it.
United Airlines: You can cancel your flight without penalty
As the spread of the coronavirus crisis continued last spring, Fong realized her summer trip likely wasn’t going to happen. She knew, though, that her international flight had some hefty cancellation fees associated with it. But then Fong received what she believed to be a friendly overture from United Airlines.
“United Airlines sent me an email and asked if my plans had changed and if I would like to cancel my flight without penalty,” Fong recalled. “It sounded like the airline was doing us a favor, so I agreed.”
Fong didn’t know it, but United Airlines wasn’t doing her a favor at all.
The Department of Transportation requires airlines to refund passengers if the carrier cancels the flight. If the traveler cancels the flight first, then the airline is off the hook.
United Airlines sent this email to droves of passengers last spring. It appears to have been a scheme to encourage travelers to preemptively cancel their flights — before the pandemic forced the airline to do it.
But Fong, like many other travelers, accepted the faux goodwill gesture and canceled her trip.
Mission accomplished — from the airline’s point of view, that is.
Now United Airlines was legally allowed to keep Fong’s cash, and it issued her an $11,000 future flight credit. The kicker? Soon afterward, the airline officially canceled the flight. Had Fong waited it out, the $11,000 would have been in her own bank account and not in the airline’s pocket.
But Fong definitely wasn’t alone.
Canceling travel plans too soon was one of our top complaints of 2020 and something we frequently warned readers about.
How will I ever spend all of this future flight credit before it expires?
Fong says that at first, she didn’t really mind accepting a future flight credit. In fact, regular readers might remember Fong. Several years ago, she gladly accepted a voucher to resolve a case in which United Airlines marked her as a no-show — on a flight she took.
“I frequently fly on United Airlines, so future flight credit is fine with me,” Fong said at the time.
But flash forward to a new world — one in which a global pandemic has settled in for 13 months and counting. Things look very different now.
Is it possible to extend the expiration date on these airline vouchers?
Fong decided to contact the Elliott Advocacy team again to see if we could ease her fears.
As you know, I’m familiar with the terms of United Airlines flight credit. I travel a lot on the airline, so I was fine with taking the voucher. But since it must be spent within the next year and things aren’t looking much better, I’m worried. I want to know if you think that the airline would extend the expiration date on my vouchers now?
The short-term answer to Fong’s question is “no.” But the long-range answer will likely be “yes.” We know that the airlines frequently update their policies as we continue on this journey through uncharted territory. In fact, I’ve updated the article that we first published in March about coronavirus cancellation policies dozens of times.
Undoubtedly, we will need to continue to update the article as the policies evolve further.
But Fong’s concern was not misplaced. The terms of United Airlines flight credit do not allow its owner to transfer it or use it across multiple reservations. Fong and her traveling companion each had about $5,500 to spend. Things were looking a bit precarious.
Problem solved: Convert your flight credit into a travel certificate
But then Fong stumbled on to something she didn’t know was possible. As she tried to find the best way to spend her credit, she asked an agent for a recommendation.
The United Airlines agent told me to convert my flight credit into a travel certificate. After I did that, United Airlines turned the entire $11,000 into a lump sum credit that I could spend on myself, friends or family. Even better, on the day that I converted the credit to a certificate, the expiration date changed. Now I have two years from the date of conversion to spend it all. I’m very relieved. I want all your readers to know this is possible!
Early in the pandemic, United Airlines started offering this option to its passengers to entice cancellation. In fact, I was a recipient of a “Would you like to cancel your plans?” email last April. I was scheduled to go to the Cayman Islands with my best friend. When I received the email, I already knew that the trip wasn’t possible — the Cayman Islands had closed its international airport.
But United Airlines was pretending that it could still take us there. The email didn’t fool me. But I decided to accept the flight credit since I hoped to be able to reschedule quickly. (Of course, a year later, I’m still hoping.)
After I agreed to cancel, United Airlines offered to convert the flight credit for both tickets into a travel certificate. I have to admit, at the time, I didn’t really know the difference, but why not? I clicked “convert.”
Soon, I had a travel certificate for the full value of both tickets that I could spend on myself or anyone else.
United Airlines flight credit vs. United Airlines Travel Certificate, which is better?
Hands down, a travel certificate is more consumer-friendly than a flight credit on United Airlines.
You would be hard-pressed to find the downside of converting your United Airlines flight credit to a travel certificate. And there are many benefits.
Note: You can’t use a United Airlines travel certificate on a partner airline. So if that’s important to you, you’ll need to keep your flight credit.
To make it easier to understand the differences between flight credit and a travel certificate, United Airlines created this chart.
*Note: Flight credit issued prior to Dec. 2020 has an extended expiration date. Rebooked travel must begin by Dec.31, 2022. After that date, unused future flight credit will have no value.
If you’ve got some flight credit on United Airlines that you’re worried you personally won’t be able to use, converting it to a travel certificate could be the answer to your problem.
Yes, you can spend your United Airlines flight credit on someone else. Here’s how to do it.
If you hope to spend your flight credit with someone else, you’ll need to first convert it to a travel certificate. Here are some tips so you can make the most of the flight credits issued to you by United Airlines during the pandemic.
- Convert United Airlines flight credit to a travel certificate (sooner rather than later)
When you sign into your account, go to My Trips. You should see a list of all of your current and recently canceled itineraries. Click on the canceled trip, and you’ll see the value of your flight credit with United Airlines. If you don’t intend to spend your flight credit right away, you’ll likely want to convert it to an electronic travel certificate, which, as mentioned, has much greater flexibility. Click on that option, and your flight credit will automatically become a travel certificate. *Update: Since we first published this article, we’ve heard from several UA passengers who reported that they didn’t have a button in their account to convert their flight credits to a travel certificate. Calling the airline directly allowed these travelers to change their flight credits into electronic travel certificates. But the omission of this button could be a sign that this option will be going away soon. So if you have flight credits you would like to convert, you should consider doing it sooner rather than later.
- Note the expiration date
If you have United Airlines flight credit issued for canceled flights issued prior to Dec. 2021, you must redeem the credit and begin travel on or before Dec. 31, 2022. The current policy does not allow travelers to book and travel beyond Dec. 31, 2022. Passengers must spend the value of a travel certificate within 24 months of the date of issue. Remember this is the current policy, which of course, is always subject to change (last updated Sept. 2021). So…
- Recheck the expiration date and terms of your flight credit/travel certificates
It’s important to keep in mind that as the pandemic continues to drag on, the airlines frequently update their policies. Checking the terms of your United Airlines flight credit or travel certificate should not be viewed as a one-time thing. Although it isn’t likely that the airline will make its policies more restrictive, you might discover extended expiration dates in the future. It’s wise to periodically check the United Airlines website (and this article) for the updates that will most certainly continue.
- Spend your travel credit/certificate on new flights for yourself, friends and/or family
Remember, if you’ve converted your United Airlines flight credit to a travel certificate, you can use its value not just for yourself but for your friends and family. So when you’re ready and when the CDC indicates it’s safe to travel, spend it all as soon as you can. The airlines know that, in the end, a significant percentage of passengers with flight credit never spend it before it expires. Travelers who allow their flight credit to gather virtual dust and expire provide a great revenue windfall for the carriers. And during the pandemic, airlines have issued more flight credit than ever. The sooner you spend yours, the less likely you’ll end up on the losing end of the deal. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Elliott Advocacy)
*If you’ve got a flight credit on American Airlines, here’s what you need to know.