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United Airlines travel credit: How to make sure you don’t lose yours

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

United Airlines travel credit, like all airline credit, has a limited shelf life. Despite that fact, many passengers remain unaware of the expiration date of their future travel credit – and end up losing it all. Here’s one traveler’s unfortunate tale and what you need to know so this doesn’t happen to you.


The clock was ticking on Nathalie Frazier’s sizable United Airlines travel credit this spring, and she knew it. An unexpected medical crisis had forced her family to abort all of their summer vacation plans last year. The airline issued the group a $3,162 future flight credit, which she assumed would expire this July. So when Frazier’s doctor gave her the all-clear to travel last month, she headed straight to the United Airlines website. 

The family intended to make up for lost time. The past year had been tough, especially for Nathalie, who had been receiving radiation treatment for a brain tumor. A replacement trip to France would be just what the Fraziers needed. 

But when Frazier signed into the United Airlines website ready to book new flights, her travel credit was missing. Confused, she called the airline to ask where she could find it. 

That’s when a sympathetic but unbending United Airlines agent informed Frazier that her travel credit had expired. The airline had deleted the $3,162 credit the family had intended to use to take a celebratory vacation. 

Dazed by the turn of events, Frazier broke the news to her husband. He assured his wife he would find a more understanding person at United Airlines who would restore their travel credit. Their vacation would be saved.

However, that was weeks ago, and despite their efforts, the airline has remained firm: the travel credit expired. It’s not coming back — end of story.

Or is it? Frazier is now asking Consumer Rescue for help. Given the extenuating circumstances, she hopes we can convince United Airlines to reconsider. 

Frazier’s case presented a dilemma to our team. After all, we don’t mediate goodwill gesture requests. We receive far too many, and companies generally reject those cases anyway.  

But should we make an exception? And if we did, would United Airlines make an exception as well? Let’s find out.

Planning to fly to a family reunion but then, tragedy

Last April the Fraziers and their extended family decided to take a trip to France.

“We booked our flights on United Airlines,” Frazier recalled. “It would be a type of family reunion.”

But just days before the Fraziers’ flight, Nathalie suffered a sudden seizure. Rushed to the hospital, doctors soon diagnosed her with a brain tumor. Instead of going on a family vacation, Nathalie was going into surgery and scheduled for subsequent radiation treatment. 

The family had planned a second trip for the summer on United Airlines as well, which they also had to cancel. The Fraziers received a total of $3,162 in future flight credits from the airline.

“I was grateful that at least we wouldn’t lose the value of the tickets,” Frazier recalled.

She went about focusing on her health, comforted by the fact that the family would be able to travel again after she was well. 

Unfortunately, distracted by more important things, she failed to look closely at the email from United Airlines about the travel credits… until almost a year later. 

By then it was already too late. 

Ready to use the United Airlines travel credit after a tough year

In April, Frazier’s doctor told her that she could take that trip the family had tried to take the year before. 

“I was really happy that we would be able to go to France,” Frazier explained. “The tickets were more expensive now, but with the United Airlines flight credit balance we could make it work. It’s been a tough year and we could use a vacation.”

After Frazier picked flights for the family, she assumed the travel credit would be automatically applied at the end of the booking. But it wasn’t. Confused, she started looking through the United Airlines website and couldn’t find her travel credit balance anywhere. 

When she called the airline for assistance, the agent gave her the bad news. 

We didn’t know it (the travel credit) would expire a year after the purchase date of the original ticket. I thought it expired a year after we canceled the flight. I couldn’t believe $3k was just lost. We’ve had a rough year… medical treatment is expensive. I hoped United Airlines would make a special consideration and reinstate our credit so we could travel. But every agent we spoke to said “no.”  

Nathalie Frazier

Asking Consumer Rescue for help

Frazier and her husband tried repeatedly to reach someone at United Airlines who would sympathize with their plight. But based on the correspondence I reviewed, it didn’t seem that they had reached anyone who cared. 

I suspected the couple was reaching an A.I.-managed customer service department. How else could one explain this United Airlines agent’s complete lack of empathy for Frazier’s husband’s plea, which details that his wife’s breast cancer has spread to her brain?

United Airlines refuses to change the expiration date of the family's travel credit.
Frazier’s husband explains to the United Airlines agent that his wife’s breast cancer spread to her brain, leading to a seizure, and asks for a short extension of the travel credit. The response by the United Airlines “customer care” agent seems anything but caring.

Nathalie tried to plead their case as well and received similar robotic responses from multiple United Airlines customer care agents.

Hi Nathalie,

We’re sorry you were unable to use your travel credit due to medical reasons.

I understand it wasn’t your intention to let it expire, but unfortunately, we’re unable to extend or reissue a travel credit. I’ll share your feedback with the appropriate internal teams. We apologize for the inconvenience and appreciate your understanding. We thank you for your continued loyalty.

Regards,

Elma, United Airlines Customer Care. 

Next, the troubled travelers decided to try one more thing: Ask Consumer Rescue for help

Will United Airlines reconsider reinstating this travel credit?

When Frazier’s request for help landed on my desk, of course I had compassion for her situation. But we receive many requests for assistance from travelers who overlook the expiration date stamped on their travel credits. 

In fact, the same week I had fielded a case from an American Airlines customer. That traveler also claimed he didn’t know his travel credit had any expiration date… even though in his own paper trail the expiration date was clearly marked.  We turn down nearly every case that involves a request for a goodwill gesture from a company, preferring to reserve our advocacy power for cases in which the company has made an error. 

But Frazier’s request struck me in a different way. She had been through the wringer this year with radiation treatments, surgeries and doctor appointments. Nathalie just wanted to take the vacation the family had expected to take before her seizure resulted in the cancellation of those plans. 

I decided to send her case over to our executive contact at United Airlines for review. I still suspected A.I. bots had been answering the couple’s pleas for help and that a real person at the airline would not reject their request.

My suspicions were correct. 

The good news: Your United Airlines travel credit is restored

I know the team at United Airlines to be helpful and responsive to the customer complaints our team receives. So even though we don’t typically send such goodwill gestures their way, I was fairly confident that when their team saw all the details of this request, the Fraziers would soon be on their way to France. 

But I wasn’t sure. 

…The only reason I’m bringing this to you is that it sounds like although Nathalie is cleared for travel today, she still has significant health problems associated with breast cancer and her story just pulled at my heartstrings. In this case the oversight of the expiration date of the credits likely can be attributed to her ongoing health issues. 

I completely understand if the answer is no, but would United consider reissuing these credits so this family can take the family trip they intended to take last year? 

Thank you for having a look!😊✈️ 

Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer advocate

And soon came the good news. 

Hi Michelle – good news. We’ve issued an ETC (Electronic Travel Certificate) in the amount of $3162 (which is the total of Nathalie and her husband’s tickets). The expiration date is July 31, 2024, so they have about 2 months to book something. Important to note that they do not have to travel by then, just book a trip. 

Thanks for reaching out.  😊

United Airlines spokesperson

In the end, United Airlines kindly provided the goodwill gesture and restored the Fraziers’ full travel credit so that they can book that long-hoped-for trip.

We wish the family a safe and enjoyable vacation and hope Nathalie’s health continues to improve.

United Airlines travel credit facts (expiration dates and more)

Without fail, each week we receive pleas for help from airline passengers who neglected to read the terms and conditions of future credit issued to them. That oversight has invariably led them to lose hundreds and even thousands of dollars in travel credits. (See: My $7,762 American Airlines flight credit expired! Can I get it back?)

Unfortunately, for most of these travelers, there is no way to get those travel credits back. Claiming ignorance of the expiration date on your balance when that information is clearly visible on the travel credit will not cause an airline to reinstate your credit. It’s an explanation the airlines (and consumer advocates) have heard hundreds of times. It’s just not a compelling defense. 

That means you need to make certain that you understand and heed the rules. Here’s what you need to know about the two types of United Airlines travel credit. 

What is United Airlines flight credit?

Back in the dark days of the pandemic, most airlines eliminated flight cancellation fees and penalties. United was one of those airlines. That was good news for passengers who could now cancel a flight and not be charged a hefty fee for doing so. The traveler would be issued a flight credit for the value of the canceled flight. 

Note: Travelers who buy basic economy fares do not enjoy the same benefits of penalty-free flight cancellations. Basic economy tickets are still, for the most part, use-it or lose-it tickets with a 100 percent cancellation fee. So before deciding to save a few bucks by booking basic economy, consider the risks.

Passengers who cancel a flight prior to departure will receive United Airlines flight credit.

  • Flight credit expires one year from the date of the original ticket purchase. In today’s case, the Fraziers made their reservation in April 2023, so the flight credit expired in April 2024. 
  • Flight credit has a fly-by expiration. That means if you purchased the original ticket on April 12, you must redeem the credit and begin travel by April 12 of the following year.
  • Only you can use your flight credit. It is not transferable.

What is a travel certificate on United Airlines? 

United Airlines travel certificates are more flexible than flight credit. Passengers will receive a travel certificate when the airline intends to compensate you for an inconvenience. For example, you voluntarily gave up your seat on a flight.

  • Although you can’t sell or barter United Airlines travel certificates, you can use them to book flights for your friends and family.
  • Travel certificates generally expire one year from the date of issue, although, as we saw in today’s case, they can have other expiration dates. 
  • Although you must book travel by the expiration date of a travel certificate, you do not need to be in the air by that date. Generally, you just need to book a new United Airlines flight by the expiration date on the travel certificate.

Find your United Airlines travel credit and its expiration date

When you’re ready to spend your travel credit, you can access it directly through your United Airlines account. 

Sign in to your United Airlines account, and on the front page, you will see a link.

How to find United Airlines travel credit in your account
United Airlines makes it easy to find your travel credit (and its expiration date). Just sign into the website and click the “Find your travel credits” button.

Or on the mobile site, check your wallet.

United Airlines wallet allows passengers to quickly access their travel credit and determine its expiration date.
It’s super easy to check the expiration date on your travel credit via the United Airlines wallet.

When you click on the Travel credits button, you will see any balance you have as well as the expiration date.

United Airlines always displays the expiration date of your travel credit in your account.
Despite what many passengers tell me when asking Consumer Rescue for help, United Airlines is fully transparent with the expiration date of your travel credit. All you need to do is look at the details. Here’s my latest future flight credit, I must BEGIN travel by March 1, 2025. (No worries there, I’ve already redeemed my balance).

The bottom line

Travelers should always keep careful records when storing any future travel credit. Make sure you know the terms of use and the expiration date or you could be in for a very unpleasant shock when you attempt to redeem it. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Rescue)


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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle Couch-Friedman is the founder and CEO of Consumer Rescue. She is a consumer advocate, ombudsman columnist, mediator, writer, and licensed psychotherapist. Michelle is a public speaker, and her expert guidance has been cited in MarketWatch, Consumer Reports, Travel & Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Popular Science, CNN, CNBC, Boston Globe, CBS News, National Geographic, Travel Weekly, Reader's Digest and more. You might even catch Michelle on TV reporting on a situation. :) Michelle is also the travel ombudsman columnist for The Points Guy and is the former executive director of the nonprofit Elliott Advocacy. During her six years in that position, she resolved thousands of cases for troubled travelers and other consumers. You can read hundreds of 5-star reviews Michelle earned during her service to the nonprofit since 2016 here on Great Nonprofits. She is also a member of the Society of American Travel Writers. Today, she continues to spend as much time as possible fiercely defending consumers and traveling the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Couch-Friedman or on Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook.