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Travelers are sitting on a mountain of travel credits from cancelled flights last year. They're already starting to expire.

Business Insider logo Business Insider 2/24/2021 tpallini@businessinsider.com (Thomas Pallini)
a blue chair: Flying on Southwest Airlines during the pandemic. Thomas Pallini/Insider © Provided by Business Insider Flying on Southwest Airlines during the pandemic. Thomas Pallini/Insider
  • Travel credits issued to flyers that canceled flights during the pandemic may soon be expiring.
  • Flyers that don't use their credits risk losing it as airlines may not extend the expiration dates again.
  • Credits can be used towards new flight bookings and may be used for extras like a checked bag.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Flights were cancelled en masse last March as travelers were forced to stay home in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

But most flyers that canceled their flights likely didn't receive a cash refund and instead were issued a travel credit with an expiration date. The aviation version of store credit, travel credits during the pandemic allowed airlines to keep the funds paid for a given flight longer and maintain cash reserves to help weather the pandemic. 

While at the time the expiration dates seemed like a lifetime away, next month will mark the first anniversary of the pandemic in the US, and travel credits are coming due.

TripActions, a travel management company that tracks its users credits for cancelled or changed bookings to apply them to future trips, says a majority of the credits tracked in its systems are due to expire in 2021, with 28% expiring in the first quarter of the year alone.

"The bulk (57%) of unused credits with a 2021 expiration date won't expire until the end of the year; however, 28% of the credits that expire this year do by the end of Q1," Kelly Soderlund, TripActions' senior director of communications, told Insider. 

Airlines seldom notify travelers that a travel credit is expiring soon and it's up to the credit holder to monitor the expiration for each, which might be difficult if multiple flights were canceled.  And once credits are expired gone, they're often gone for good.

TripActions says 5% of travel credits held by its customers have already expired this year.

Some airlines like Delta Air Lines, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, and Southwest Airlines had initially extended the expiration dates of their credits. But there's been no indication that airlines will do so again with the industry's recovery entering full swing. 

"There may be exceptions on a case-by-case basis depending on the carrier, but we wouldn't expect pervasive policy changes anywhere near what we saw last year," Soderlund said. 

Each airline has a different method for applying travel credits to a reservation but the process has become simpler during the pandemic since more travelers are using them to make bookings. Insider compiled a step-by-step rundown on how to use travel credits on all 11 major US airlines

Flyers can get flexible if they don't want to go on a trip just because they have a travel credit that's expiring. Most of the major full-service airlines now have flexible change policies where travelers can make a booking and push it back as they desire, although a fare difference may apply. 

Customers should also check if any residual balance leftover on a credit can be used to buy extra amenities including a seat assignment, checked baggage allowance, or upgrade. A leftover balance also may be applied to another flight booking, though each airline's policy towards credit is different.

Those with expiring credits may want to act quickly. Airlines are gearing up for recovery and may be less generous with extending the expiration dates of credits. 

"It is likely that with vaccine rollouts, most airlines will not be looking to push expiry dates further or reinstate credit for travelers," Soderlund said. 

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