Forget free champagne in first class.
Starting in spring 2020, the most coveted amenities for air travelers became a flexible cancellation policy and flight credits that could be used well into the future.
At the height of pandemic lockdowns, nobody knew when normal-ish air travel would resume. In order to get would-be passengers to plunk down money for a ticket, the airlines needed to show that refunds would be easy to get. For passengers who opted for flight credits instead, airlines understood that many travelers wouldn't be ready to use the credits received for postponed flights for a good long while, and so deadlines were extended—and then extended again.
But now, despite rising case numbers in some parts of the world (Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Germany, the Netherlands, Romania) and even a few renewed lockdowns, it looks like many passengers will soon be in a use-'em-or-lose-'em situation with flight credits.
Some airlines have alerted customers that unless credits are used in the coming weeks and months, they're going to expire.
Here are the curent policies for the major U.S. airlines.
• Alaska Airlines: Credits for tickets that were purchased in 2020 and went unused will expire December 31. Credits for tickets purchased in 2021 will expire a year from the date of issue.
• American Airlines: Customers holding unused flight credits for travel between March 2020 and March 2021 have until March 31, 2022, to book a new flight. Thanks to a limited promotion, flight credit holders may transfer the value of the credit to other American Airlines loyalty members, though only over the phone, as I discovered when I used my credit to buy a ticket for my daughter. They must do so by the end of this year, for travel by the end of March of 2022. (I should note that "Trip Credits", another type of credit that didn't come into play because of Covid are fully transferable online.)
• Delta Air Lines: Credits for flights purchased prior to April 17, 2020, can be used until December 31, 2022. In addition, those who fly any class except Basic Economy can get credit for unused flights through the end of 2022 without incurring change fees.
• JetBlue: Unused tickets that were purchased before June 1, 2020, for travel between February 27 and June 30, 2020, are valid for exchange until December 31, 2021. But travel must be completed by June 30, 2022. Tickets issued after June 1, 2020, will expire 12 months from the date of issue. The exception to these rules are for Blue Basic fares purchased after June 8, 2021; those carry a $100 change fee.
• Spirit Airlines: To use reservation credits issued between March 2020 and July 27, 2021, tickets must be booked by the end of the day on December 31, 2021.
• Southwest Airlines: As part of a longstanding policy of not charging change fees, Southwest issues credits—or "travel funds" in Southwest parlance—valid for rebooking for up to a year. But with some passengers doing multiple rebookings and cancellations, things got complicated.
Here's how Southwest explains the policy now: "The travel fund will keep the expiration date of the original travel fund used to book the ticket. For example, on March 1, you use a travel fund that expires May 20 to book a ticket. Later, you cancel that ticket. The expiration date for these funds is still May 20." In other words, you have one year from the date the original credit was issued—the clock doesn't reset each time you make a booking.
• United Airlines: Like Delta, United is taking a generous approach. Credits for unused travel from spring 2020 through the end of this year don't have to be used until the end of 2022. Customers who buy tickets after January 1, 2022, will have only 12 months to redeem credits.