Airlines issued billions in credits during the pandemic. Here's why travelers need to use them ASAP

·7 min read

In the spring of 2020, Aaron Hurd figured he had a summer of cheap travel in store.

"I was seeing tickets from Minneapolis to the coasts at $80 round trip," the writer and strategy consultant from Minneapolis told USA TODAY. "I thought: we're all going to stay home, we're going to solve this COVID thing. It'll take a few months and by June of 2020, we'll all be traveling again. I'm going to book tickets for every weekend from June 2020 through the rest of the year."

Obviously, things didn't quite pan out that way.

"COVID lasted much longer than we expected," Hurd said, and he was left with a digital wallet loaded with travel credits from canceled trips.

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Hurd is hardly alone. Since the onset of the pandemic, airlines have issued a tremendous number of credits, according to Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research, a travel industry strategic research firm. He estimates that the largest airlines in the U.S. collectively have unused travel credits worth "several billion" dollars on their books.

Travelers who intended to go somewhere early in the pandemic may still have funds ready to use on airfare this summer. But (as with many things in air travel) those credits come with terms and conditions that can be confusing.

What is a travel credit?

Airlines were issuing travel credits well before the COVID-19 outbreak, but they became much more common in the past two years as carriers tweaked their cancellation and rebooking policies to be more consumer-friendly – and to encourage prospective travelers to book through a changing environment.

A travel credit allows a flyer to retain the value of their ticket and use it toward a future booking if they have to cancel or reschedule the original trip. Typically the value of the flight credit will include any taxes and government-imposed fees, but will not include airline-related fees like those for bags or assigned seats. Those are generally handled separately, either through a cash refund or individual credit.

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"Even I have received flight credits, especially at the beginning of the pandemic. They were given way more easily than I have ever seen," said Danny Rivers Mitchell, founder of Black Girls Travel Too, a global boutique tour operator that curates immersive and cultural experiences for Black women. "Now the challenge with those flight credits is they have an expiration date."

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Check your airline's fine print

Each carrier has its own policies for how credits can be used and how long they will remain valid. It's important to check those terms when the credit is issued.

For example, Hurd said he had an easier time combining and applying his credits on Delta than he did on Southwest, and Rivers Mitchell said she had trouble using credits issued from international flights on new domestic itineraries with American.

Andrea Koos, a spokesperson for American Airlines, acknowledged that international tickets often have more complicated tax and tariff structures, which can make them harder to use for domestic itineraries. But, she said, the airline's agents can generally help get them applied to new bookings.

Here's what the four biggest U.S. carriers say are their policies around travel credits:

► American Airlines 'trip credits'

American switched from issuing flight credits to trip credits in August 2020, and the two have slightly different terms of use. Broadly, trip credits are more flexible and can be combined more easily. They must be spent within a year of when they were issued, but travel can occur at any time.

American no longer charges change fees on domestic or short-haul international flights, and some long-haul international flights are covered as well. If a passenger changes an itinerary, the value of their original ticket will be issued as a trip credit, so long as they didn't purchase a basic economy fare. Passengers can also get trip credits if the airline cancels the flight, though the DOT requires airlines to provide a cash refund in that case if the traveler prefers. Credits for bag and seat fees are issued separately.

Flight credits are essentially unused or canceled tickets, and the travel they are spent on must begin by one year from the date of issue.

► Delta credits extended to 2023

All credits expiring in 2022 will be extended for booking through the end of 2023 (including for flights that operate in 2024). New tickets purchased this year will also be eligible to become credits that will be valid for bookings through 2023 and travel into 2024. Delta also got rid of change fees during the pandemic for all tickets that originate in North America, aside from basic economy.

► It depends on the ticket type for Southwest

Passengers with nonrefundable tickets must apply credits to travel that is completed within a year of the date of purchase. Those with refundable tickets can receive the full value of their purchase back in cash including taxes and fees. Credits on "Wanna Get Away Plus" fares are transferable to other Rapid Rewards members.

► United's credit will last a year

Credits issued on or before Dec. 31 must be used for flights operated by Dec. 31, 2023. The airline's credits include the value of taxes. Fees associated with the original ticket, like the cost of baggage or an Economy Plus seat, are refunded to the passenger's form of payment after the original flight departs.

If you're having trouble using your credits, or they're about to expire, Harteveldt said, it's a good idea to reach out to the airline directly.

"You may have people sitting on a lot of unused travel credits, and the last thing airlines want to do is have consumers write into the Department of Transportation to say the airline stole my money. That's not a good look for airlines," he said. "Call the airline at an off-peak time so you're not waiting on hold for too long, and see if it's possible to get the expiration date extended."

Airlines are incentivized to help travelers use those credits because they can't count the revenue until they are spent. Airlines can claim the remaining value as revenue when credits expire, but doing so often comes across as poor customer service.

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Tips to keep track of your credits

Even for travelers who understand the terms of their credits, it can sometimes be easy to forget to use them.

"That's the conversation: I lost my status or I didn't use my credit in time, so I lost my credit," Rivers Mitchell said. She advises her clients to make an event on their calendars to mark when their credits are due to expire.

Hurd agreed and said organization has been the key to keeping track of his outstanding credits.

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"Have a system to organize and track your travel credits. That can be as simple as a spreadsheet," he said. "The things you need to know are the amount of the credit, when it expires and if it is connected to your name or not. Some travel credits can be used only for the person who is named on the credit, some are transferrable."

It's a good idea to prioritize spending credits while they're valid, Hurd added.

"If you have an option between credits, cash and miles, use the credits first because those will expire," he said. "If you get a really good deal on miles, but at the end of the year you're throwing away hundreds of dollars in credits, you didn't really get as good a deal as you thought you did."

He noted that on many airlines, miles don't expire.

Credits and the summer travel boom

Unused travel credits are also making this summer's high airfares a little more palatable for some.

"In talking with one airline executive about this, he said that absolutely the travel credits are helping to cushion the blow against the higher airfares," Harteveldt said.

"It would be wrong to say that the travel credits are making people less price-sensitive to the higher airfare costs they're seeing," but, he added, "these travel credits do help cushion the blow."

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For frequent travelers like Hurd, soon-to-expire credits can even prompt spur-of-the-moment adventures.

"I did take one trip that I otherwise would not have taken to use my Southwest credits. I went to Chicago for a day to have coffee with four friends."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How you can use your airline credits before they expire