Flexible Airline Travel Vouchers - the Weekly Wish
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Today TPG Contributor Nick Ewen continues his series The Weekly Wish, looking at flaws, shortcomings, and room for improvement in the world of travel and loyalty programs. Today’s wish: more flexible airline travel vouchers.
I’m sure many of you have experience with airline travel vouchers. Sometimes they appear as gift cards, while others may be earned via status (like Delta’s Choice Benefits) or offered as compensation for travel delays or for giving up your seat on an oversold flight. However you come by them, it's in the airline’s best interest for you to never use them, which explains why vouchers are often loaded with restrictions. In today's Weekly Wish (which comes at the suggestion of TPG reader and friend Ali Nejad), I'm picturing a world where airlines treat vouchers as true customer service instruments. My wish: that airlines would allow travelers to combine these credits in a travel “bank” and redeem them for any and all expenses.
Ali’s suggestion struck a chord with me as a longtime Delta flyer. There’s no debating that Delta has repeatedly devalued the SkyMiles program over the last few years, from their planned shift to revenue-based mileage accrual in 2015 to their back-to-back award chart changes, or their decision to hack away at partner mileage accrual. However, for me personally, none of these stung more than the late 2011 changes to their voucher policy.
Before December 15, 2011, you could use vouchers to book travel for other passengers and combine up to three vouchers per ticket, but that all vanished with the unannounced changes. As a frequent business traveler, I would often use vouchers to book flights for my wife to meet me part way through a work trip. While Delta claimed (at the time) that this was implemented to prevent theft, passengers saw it for what it was: a policy to vouchers more difficult to use.
Fortunately, Delta isn’t the norm when it comes to using travel vouchers, though no airline even approaches my wish for a flexible travel bank applicable toward any expense. Here’s where the other major airlines fall in the voucher policy spectrum:
Alaska Airlines has three types of vouchers: gift certificates (purchased for friends/family members), bonus travel certificates (vouchers for volunteering your seat on oversold flights), and credit certificates (leftover funds from cancelled reservations). The gift certificates and bonus travel certificates are transferable, and in all three cases you can use up to four certificates toward new reservations. However, Alaska has a unique feature called “My Wallet” that allows you to pool all of your vouchers and then redeem an unlimited number of them toward flights. The My Wallet feature is currently the closest any program comes to this Weekly Wish, though the certificates are only valid toward airfare, and are restricted to Alaska, Horizon, and specific Pen Air and SkyWest flights. For a general overview of these options, please visit this page.
Unlike Delta, American Airlines issues travel credits (termed “eVouchers”) that are very flexible. Per the FAQ page, you can use up to eight vouchers on a single ticket, and should you have no need for them, you “may apply any or all of its value toward the purchase of a ticket for a friend or family member.” To use an eVoucher, simply input the 19 digit voucher number and PIN when booking a flight on AA.com; you can also apply them to reservations booked over the phone. Unfortunately, they're only applicable to travel originating in the U.S., Puerto Rico, or the U.S. Virgin Islands, and they cannot be redeemed for anything other than airfare, including ticket reissues, Admirals Club fees, upgrades, baggage, and award travel taxes & fees. For more information, visit this page.
As mentioned above, Delta currently doesn’t allow vouchers to be combined, and they are no longer transferable to other SkyMiles members. The only exception is when you're traveling with a companion on the same itinerary. In this case, you can use one voucher for you and “assign” another one to the second passenger. However, in my experience this doesn't work online, and you’ll have to get a strong phone agent to get the computer to recognize that this type of reservation is within the rules & restrictions of the voucher. However, if you're just booking a flight for yourself, these vouchers are redeemable online by visiting this page (you can also pull up the vouchers assigned to your SkyMiles number here).
Southwest is leaps and bounds ahead in terms of flexibility on paid tickets, as they don't charge change or cancellation fees; when you cancel a flight, you retain all of that value in a “Travel Fund” that can be redeemed toward future travel. Two of these unused tickets may be applied per passenger. You can also use Southwest gift cards and LUV Vouchers, though you are limited to four forms of payment per ticket (including a credit card). Unfortunately, none of these funds apply toward incidental charges like in-flight beverages, baggage fees, or Southwest Airlines Vacations packages.
United’s policies are a little less clear. Their website offers limited information about vouchers, and the biggest restriction is that you can only use them on United and United Express flights (even excluding codeshares with a UA flight number). This thread on FlyerTalk indicates that some have had success applying United vouchers on codeshare flights, but that seems to be the exception rather than the rule. This page provides more information on United Airlines gift certificates that you can purchase for friends or family members; while those certificates are fully transferable, you can only use one per transaction, and like the rest of the lot above, they're only valid on airfare.
As it currently stands, US Airways gives Delta a run for their money (no pun intended) when it comes to the inflexibility of travel vouchers. Their “Travel with US” voucher can only be redeemed on US Airways, US Airways Express, and US Airways Shuttle flights, and requires booking by phone. You can only use one voucher per ticket, and if the voucher has your name on it, then it's non-transferable. However, the worst part is that you can only use these vouchers once. In other words, if you have a $500 voucher and want to purchase a $400 flight, you will forfeit that $100. At least Delta keeps that residual for you to use toward a future reservation! You can get all the details here.
As you can see, many airlines offer burdensome restrictions for using vouchers. This is really a shame, since in many cases, vouchers are distributed as a customer service gesture to apologize for poor travel experiences. How can airlines claim that vouchers make up for shortfalls in service, only to implement policies that prevent you from using them? That would be like a butcher saying, “Hey, sorry that cut of steak was rotten. Here’s a voucher than can be used from 9:05 – 9:10am on the first Tuesday of next month.” I doubt most of you would view that as reasonable compensation.
My vision of the ideal voucher is similar to Alaska’s “My Wallet” feature, but more expansive. In reality, I would love for airline vouchers to function like Starbucks Rewards. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the program, all it takes is a Starbucks gift card. You simply register the card online and then use it to make in-store purchases. Each purchase earns a star, and as you accrue stars, you unlock more and more benefits (see here for complete details). You can reload the card at any time using a credit card, but more importantly, you can also add funds to the account from any other gift card. This allows you to combine your balances into a single “bank” and then use those combined funds toward future purchases.
Starbucks Rewards even allows you to make purchases directly from their app, removing the need for a physical card. When you're ready to pay, simply open up the app, tap “PAY” up at the top, and then tap the “PAY” icon. This brings up the card’s bar code that can be scanned directly at the register. Imagine the sweetness of being able to pay for a glass of wine or a movie at 35,000 feet with a simple scan of an app, or the ease of paying for checked bags without pulling out your credit card. If I had my wish, you could use these funds to cover award ticket fees and surcharges, either online or on the phone. Now that would be a customer-friendly move!
This would also be a boon for those of us with minimum or annual spend thresholds to meet. If you knew that you were going to purchase an expensive plane ticket in four months, but only had a month left to hit your minimum spend on a new credit card, you could purchase an airline gift card and then add it to your travel bank. Then, when you were ready to purchase, you would still have access to your funds without sacrificing any flexibility. This could also be a great help to those of you holding cards with an annual airline benefit like the Amex Platinum or Citi Prestige. If you were reaching the end of the year and needed to use up the fee, you could simply purchase a small gift card and add it to your travel bank, even if you didn’t use it until the following year.
I'm a realist, and I don't expect anything like what I'm proposing to be implemented by airlines in the near future. However, I do think that others could take a cue from Alaska and offer additional flexibility on voucher usage, and with technology creeping into our lives more and more each day, I do see this as another way for airlines to track individual purchases and streamline the collection of various fees and surcharges.
What do you think? Would the change to a flexible travel bank be enough to make you consider switching your primary carrier? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!