Unless you’re really lucky, sometime during your travels you will find yourself in a situation where an airline owes you something. Maybe it’s because of a delay, lost baggage, a rescheduled flight, whatever. When that day comes, the airline will almost surely try to settle by issuing you airline vouchers for future travel rather than cutting you a check. At worst, the airline loses the cost of the seat rather than the posted fare; at best, you’ll somehow not get around to using the airline voucher, and the carrier will face no cost at all.
To decrease their risk, airlines incorporate gotchas into vouchers to increase the chances that you won’t be able to use them. So before you accept any airline vouchers, you need to ask seven questions.
How Long Are Airline Vouchers Valid?
A tight validity limit is one of the oldest voucher gotchas in the book. An airline offers a generous voucher, but you have to use it within six months. Clearly, many travelers are uninterested in or unable to schedule another flight within that short a time. This ploy is more prevalent with cruise lines than with airlines, but you still have to be careful.
Who Can Use It?
Is the value of the travel voucher limited to you, or can you use it to buy a ticket for someone else? Many airline vouchers may be used only by the person who initially received it for his or her own travel. Depending on your flexibility, that might or might not be a deal-breaker.
Does It Cover the Whole Price?
Airline vouchers seldom include the full cost of a future trip; often, you must pay the government taxes and fees separately. But I’ve heard reports of a much worse limitation: an airline voucher covering only the “base” fare and not the very stiff “carrier-imposed fee,” essentially a renamed fuel surcharge, which on some airlines can be more than the base fare.
Do You Get Just One Bite?
Some vouchers are valid for only a single transaction, even when the value of that transaction is less than the face value of the voucher. For example, if you use a $500 airline voucher to buy a $400 ticket, you might not be able to use the remaining $100 for second ticket. Instead, you lose that value outright.
Are There Any Fare Limitations?
I haven’t seen much of this one, but an airline could place some fare buckets off-limits to voucher-based tickets—not applicable to “flash sale” prices, for example, or for business class.
How Much Are Vouchers Worth to You?
Given the limitations on how you can use it, a voucher is effectively worth a lot less to you than its face cash value. Many experts estimate that a voucher is worth somewhere between a third and a half of its face value. If you ask for cash but an airline offers a voucher, take the voucher only if the face value is at least double the cash offer. When cash isn’t an option, if the voucher value seems to be inadequate, bargain for more or consider your alternatives.
Can You Get Cash Instead?
When a flight is oversold, an airline almost always resorts to offering travel vouchers to passengers who agree to get off and take a later flight. Usually, that works, and someone takes the offer. But if nobody bites, and the airline has to select someone to get off, government regulations specify cash payments, not vouchers, for “involuntary” bumping. You can get up to $675 in the U.S., depending on the circumstance, but only in the case of overbooking. European rules call for higher payments as well as payments for delays. Take the voucher only if its worth to you is a lot more than the cash.