How To Use Your Travel Credits
Over the past several years—full of Covid travel and delayed flights—travel credits have felt more and more common. Whether you've needed to cancel a flight due to unforeseen circumstances or the airline has delayed your flight for a reason that's not super clear, it's possible your travel credits have begun to stack up.
Here's what you need to know about travel credits: where to find them (so you don't forget they exist!), how to use them, and some tips for extending their shelf life.
What are travel credits?
Airlines issue travel credits for a few different reasons. You can get one when you cancel a ticket or change to one that costs less than the original ticket. (Note: You’ll only get a credit on applicable tickets. For instance, basic economy is typically non-refundable and not eligible for credit, so if you cancel, you forfeit the value of the ticket. Some basic economy tickets may be eligible for partial credit, so contact the airline to find out what you qualify for.)
An airline may also issue a travel credit if there is an operational issue with the aircraft prior to your departure.
Travel credits vary from airline to airline, and there may even be different types of credits (with different names) within a single airline. For example, American Airlines offers trip credits, flight credits, and travel vouchers, all of which vary slightly in when they’re issued, how long and what they’re valid for, and who can use them. While trip credits and flight credits have slightly more rigid terms and conditions, travel vouchers—which you might get if you get involuntarily bumped from an overbooked flight—can typically be used by anyone, regardless of whether their name was on the original ticket.
Make sure you check the individual airline’s travel credit structure so you know what you’re eligible for.
Where to find your travel credits
Travel credits often appear in the loyalty account that you have with the airline. That’s your MileagePlus account with United, SkyMiles account with Delta, and so on. Each credit comes with a reference number, credit amount, and expiration date; the credit is usually attached to the original ticket number so you know for which flight the credit applies.
Some airlines also have a travel credit finder, where you can surface your credits using the confirmation number or PIN on your original booking, as well as the travelers’ last name; United offers one of these finders.
How to use your travel credits
Shop for your flight like you ordinarily would. For instance, if you have an American Airlines travel credit, you can go right to aa.com to book, or you can go to Google Flights and limit your search results to American Airlines flights.
When you’ve decided which flight to purchase, proceed to the checkout screen. Where there is the option to pay by credit card, all of your unused travel credits will appear (as long as you are signed into your loyalty account). Choose to pay by travel credit; if the credit is not enough for the whole flight, you can add a credit card or other payment method to cover the remaining balance.
If you’re not signed in or you don’t have a loyalty account, you can also pay by adding the travel credit manually using the reference number.
With most airlines, if you don’t use the full credit on a single ticket, you get the remainder back; the balance either stays in your account with the same reference number, or the airline reissues the credit—new reference number, new credit amount, new expiration date.
Important things to know about travel credits
Travel credits aren’t so cut and dried. They vary from airline to airline, and sometimes you can even bend the rules if you call the airline and speak with a customer service representative (but don’t tell them we told you that, and don’t bank on it working every time).
You can’t usually transfer travel credits to another person.
Unfortunately, travel credits can typically only be used by the person whose name was on the original ticket. You may be able to get around this if the credit holder uses the credit to book the flight for another person; you may need to get in touch with customer service to make this happen, though. Remember: Travel vouchers (not credits), like ones that the airline issues for bumping you from an overbooked flight, can typically be transferred to another person.
Not all credits can be used for upgrades.
If you’re thinking, “I’ll use my credits to treat myself to a better seat next time I fly,” think again. Some airlines restrict credit usage to only the fare price and any applicable taxes and fees. In other words, you might not be able to use credits on upgrades like bags, priority boarding, and better seats if you paid for a basic economy ticket. You’d need to use your travel credits toward a higher fare class (like economy or business) that includes the add-ons that you’re looking for.
You can usually use credits for flights on different airlines within the same alliance.
If you got credits through United, which is part of Star Alliance, then you should be able to apply your credits to trips through other partner airlines, like Lufthansa, Air Canada, and SAS. Note that you’ll probably need to book the flight through the airline offering your credit. In this case, you’d need to buy your flight on the United website.
Don’t forget the expiration date!
It’s easy to cancel the trip, get the credit, and then forget it ever existed…until 18 months later when it’s too late to redeem the credit. You can certainly try contacting the airlines’ customer support; if you’re lucky, the agent will reissue the credit, but that’s not guaranteed.
Most credits expire within a year, but the expiration date can take one of two forms: It could be a travel-by date (you must take the first flight in your trip by that date) or a book-by date (you just need to book your ticket by that date). Know which expiration date you’re working with so you don’t throw away that credit.
If the expiration date is drawing nearer, first try giving the airline’s customer service line a call and asking nicely if they’ll extend your credit. While some airlines take a strict approach to their terms of service, it’s always worth trying for an extension.
If that doesn’t work, there may be another workaround: You can book a refundable flight, and then cancel the flight. You’ll receive a new credit with a new expiration date, usually a year from the date you canceled. This tactic can vary from airline to airline, but if you’re nearing your expiration date and running out of options, you don’t have much to lose.
Published November 6, 2023
Last updated December 19, 2023
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