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Need more time to use an airline ticket credit? Here’s how to get it.

In a typical year, 5 to 10 percent of airline ticket credits go unredeemed. That number may be much higher this year.
In a typical year, 5 to 10 percent of airline ticket credits go unredeemed. That number may be much higher this year. (iStock)

Don’t look now, but your airline ticket credits are about to expire.

That’s the conclusion of a study by the travel-management company TripActions, which estimates that more than half of outstanding airline vouchers will vanish by the end of this year.

And it’s not just airline vouchers. After the pandemic started, cruise lines and tour operators also issued credits to customers who couldn’t travel because of the outbreak. Those vouchers typically expire 12 to 24 months from the time services were booked.

There’s more than one way to avoid losing your money. You can ask for a credit extension, and if the answer is no, you can try to negotiate a refund. If that doesn’t work, I have other ideas.

But first things first. Once your credit expires, it is almost impossible to get it back. So look at your ticket or contract, and if the credit is close to expiring, act now.

That’s what Peggy Kite did when she noticed that her $750 ticket credit from United Airlines was about to expire.

“I asked for an extension of one more year to make another reservation,” says Kite, a retired office manager from Palmyra, Va. “The agent I spoke with complied with no problem at all. I have another year to use my credit.”

I have spoken with hundreds of travelers who say it’s usually that simple. No travel company wants to say no to customers and pocket their money — at least not in the glare of the public spotlight.

Some companies have tried to make ticket credits less perishable. Last year, Southwest Airlines allowed customers to convert credits into points, which will not expire. Although that offer expired at the end of the year, there may be opportunities like it in the future, particularly if more credits go unused.

Sometimes you have to get creative with an extension request. For instance, what if you’re no longer able to travel? Many people have faced that problem during the pandemic because they are in a high-risk group or they cannot afford a vacation.

Consider Betty Barrett’s situation. Barrett, a retired office manager from Huntington, W.Va., canceled flights to New York and back last year after the relative she wanted to visit became ill. American Airlines offered her a ticket credit, but, at 86, she thought she couldn’t use it safely.

“I’m in the most vulnerable age group,” she says. “I am not going anywhere and am unlikely to travel for a long time, if at all.”

Barrett asked the airline to transfer the credit to her nephew so he could visit her. It seemed like a reasonable request, but American Airlines wasn’t answering her emails — most likely because of a deluge of customer service requests.

I recommended that she escalate her request by directing it to a manager at American. A representative replied almost immediately: “Considering the circumstances you’ve described, I’m happy to make an exception and provide an eVoucher for the value of your ticket.”

Barrett’s case is instructive. You may need to be flexible when claiming your credits.

“Keep in mind you are not the only one experiencing the expiration of credits,” says Michael Foguth, a financial strategist in Brighton, Mich. “Should the location or destination not extend your credits, you could try to work around it by booking the travel within the original extension period and ask what their change or cancellation policy would be.”

If travel is out of the question, appeal to someone at the company who can help. I have seen several such cases during the pandemic. Usually, a brief, polite email to a manager explaining your circumstances can help convert a credit into a cash refund.

Refunds are usually granted to people who are elderly or in poor health and can document their condition. On the other hand, a person who accepted a cruise line’s 125 percent credit last year would have a difficult time negotiating a refund now.

You are more likely to get your money back if you can prove that a travel company offered a refund in writing and later reneged. Then you might have a federal law — the Fair Credit Billing Act — on your side. The law protects consumers who paid for services not received. Contact your credit card issuer to file a chargeback.

Is there a secret strategy for negotiating a refund or extension? Maybe.

“Be nice,” says Tom Manchester, a manager at the tour operator SouthAmerica.travel. Manchester deals with credit extensions every day. He says that for package tours, he has to renegotiate credits with hotels and airlines, which can be a time-consuming process. He says many tour operators are willing to ask for a credit on their customers’ behalf, but it takes time. Customers who are polite and patient will often get what they want.

Of course, travelers shouldn’t have to beg an airline, cruise line or tour operator for a credit extension or a refund. Credits shouldn’t expire. If you accept a credit, you should be able to convert it to points, or a full refund, at any time.

Travelers stand to lose a lot. In a typical year, from 5 to 10 percent of airline ticket credits go unredeemed. This year, it may be more like 50 percent. That means air travelers collectively could leave $13 billion in ticket credits on the counter.

That may be the pandemic’s biggest takeaway for travelers. The current system, which grants credits that must be used within a limited time frame, is profoundly unfair. Unused credits will cost travelers dearly this year — unless regulators step in to help.

Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at chris@elliott.org.

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