Airlines are notorious for squeezing as much revenue out of every flight as possible, often at the expense of the passengers.
In-flight meals have disappeared from all but the longest international flights. Checking a suitcase now costs more than a semester of community college. Legroom in economy has been reduced to approximately 2.5 inches. Many airlines charge for advance seat assignment.
While most of these changes are maddening, one airline trend can actually work in the passenger’s favor.
As anyone who flies regularly (or who saw the video of the distraught United passenger being dragged off the plane) knows, airlines routinely oversell their flights in the assumption that some passengers won’t show up.
But sometimes, overselling flights backfires and planes end up with more passengers than seats.
In these situations, gate agents usually try to entice passengers to take a later flight in exchange for an airline voucher. If no one accepts the initial offer, they continue upping the value until someone does (this is in part because of the massive backlash United received on social media for removing a passenger quite obviously against his will).
If you have flexible travel plans, accepting one of these vouchers can be a great way to save money on future travel.
When we flew to Nicaragua over memorial weekend, we volunteered our seats and each got a $1,700 Delta voucher for future travel. We used our vouchers to book RT flights to Sri Lanka and we both still have $650 remaining.
Here is everything you need to consider before accepting an airline voucher:
What is an airline voucher?
Basically, an airline voucher is a certificate an airline gives you that can be redeemed for future purchases on that airline (or any of its partner airlines). But unlike cash or gift cards, certain restrictions often apply.
For example, these are the rules/restrictions for our Delta Airlines travel vouchers:
- All volunteers receive vouchers for the highest accepted value. On flights requiring multiple volunteers, some passengers may agree to take the voucher for $500, but others might wait to accept until the gate agent raises the voucher value to $700. In that case, all the volunteers receive the highest accepted value. So even if you volunteered for $500, you will receive a voucher worth $700 if that was the amount a later volunteer accepted.
- Non-transferable. Only the person whose name is printed on the voucher can redeem it. You cannot use them to buy plane tickets for friends or family, even if you are all flying on the same itinerary.
- Travel must be booked within one year. You have one year to book your flight, and another year to complete your travel. After that, the voucher expires.
- Cannot be combined. Only one voucher can be included per ticket. Even though we currently each have two travel vouchers, we can only use one at a time.
- Can be used for more than one itinerary. Though only one voucher can be applied per ticket, one voucher can be used for multiple tickets. For example, if the voucher is for $800, I could buy one ticket for $500 and then use the remaining balance to purchase a $300 ticket to somewhere else.
- Travel is eligible for skymiles/status miles. Unlike tickets booked using skymiles, flights purchased with a travel voucher are eligible for skymile and status mile accrual.
Note: Voucher rules and restrictions vary among airlines. Be sure to discuss all rules/regulations with a gate agent before accepting.
Is a travel voucher right for me?
Though accepting “free” airline credit seems like a no-brainer, here are some things to consider before you do:
How flexible are my travel plans?
Volunteering to take a later flight could mean arriving at your destination a couple hours later than planned. Or you could end up being delayed 24 hours or more. You should ask the gate agent how quickly an alternative itinerary could get you to your destination, and then make sure the change would work with your schedule.
What will it cost me?
Be sure to consider what changing plans last-minute will cost. If you are delayed on your outbound flight, you may have to pay for a night in a hotel room you won’t use or to reschedule a tour. If you are delayed on your return, you may end up having to take more time off work or pay for an extra day of pet/housesitting.
Will I use the voucher?
One of the reasons airlines offer travel vouchers rather than cash is because they assume many people won’t bother to use them. If you fly infrequently or only for business, a travel voucher might not be more valuable to you than a day at the beach or time at home with your family.
If you have a flexible schedule and purchase plane tickets regularly, accepting an airline voucher can be a relatively easy way to score a “free” flight.
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