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All about airline-ticket expiration policies

March 24, 2020
7 min read
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In light of the coronavirus outbreak, many passengers are understandably concerned about their upcoming travel. Even if the airlines haven't canceled flights, flyers are deciding that it's better to stay home to flatten the curve. Many will then end up with unused tickets, sans change fees.

While this might sound great in theory, the truth is that it's much better to wait and see if the airline ends up canceling your flight. That way, you'll receive a full refund back to the original form of payment, instead of needing to reuse your existing ticket.

But if you do end up with an unused ticket, it's important to pay attention to its expiration policy. Most expire within a year of the original date of issue, but it's important to know the policy of your carrier, since each has unique policies regarding ticket expiration.

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Basics of airline tickets

Anytime you book a flight, your confirmation will include a ticket number. These 13-digit numbers are what the airline systems use as an identifier to associate with your name and flight. They typically aren't reused, so that there's a unique one for each individual passenger and flight.

Those 13 digits are made up of two parts: the first three indicate which airline issued your ticket. For example, tickets starting with 001 are issued by American Airlines and 006 by Delta. The next 10 numbers are basically the serial number.

When inputting a ticket number into an airline's reservation system, agents can pull up all the information about your itinerary, including the ticket expiration date. Since each airline has different policies regarding validity, let's take a deeper look below.

Alaska ticket expiration

Like most airlines, Alaska has a standard expiration date for its tickets. You have to rebook and fly within one year of the original date your ticket was issued.

If you've already flown a segment, which renders your ticket partially used, all travel must be booked and flown within one year of the first flight taken.

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But Alaska is unique in that it will (sometimes) issue credit certificates when you exchange or cancel nonrefundable airfare. In that case, the certificate will be valid for a year from the original issuance date, or 30 days from the date you exchanged or canceled your flight — whichever is greater. In this case, you can use the credit certificate for travel anytime, as long it's applied to a new flight before it expires.

American ticket expiration

American also has a standard policy for ticket expiration. If the ticket is unused, you must start your travel within a year of when it was issued. If your ticket is partially used, then you must complete your travel within one year of the first completed flight.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Delta ticket expiration

Delta's ticket expiration policy differs whether your travel is domestic (including Canada, Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands) or international. For the former, tickets are valid for one year from the date they're issued — and all travel must be completed within that 12-month period.

If your ticket includes international travel, it'll expire one year from the date it's issued. If you end up changing a wholly unused ticket, your expiration date will reset to one year from the date of reissue. But once you've taken one flight on a ticket, it must all be used within one year from that first flight.

Hawaiian ticket expiration

Hawaiian tickets expire one year from when they're issued if you haven't yet flown any segments on your itinerary. If you have, then the ticket expires one year from your first flight.

JetBlue ticket expiration

JetBlue's expiration policy is unique. Regardless of whether your ticket is used or unused, it'll expire one year from the date it was originally issued.

Like Alaska, JetBlue also offers travel bank credit instead of leaving tickets in the "open" and unused state. In that case, your credit expires one year from when it's added to your account.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Interestingly, all changed tickets are transferrable and can be used by anyone. Furthermore, you can book travel far beyond the expiration date — but you're not allowed to make any further changes once the expiration date passes.

Southwest ticket expiration

All Southwest tickets are converted to Travel Funds once they're canceled (or have some residual value after a change). Travel Funds expire within one year of the date of original ticket issue, and all travel must be completed by then.

United ticket expiration

United tickets expire within one year from the original issue date. If you end up rescheduling your travel, it must begin within one year from the reissued ticket date.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

If you've already flown a flight sector, all travel must be completed within one year of the outbound travel date.

What this means for upcoming travel in light of the coronavirus

Many passengers aren't sure if they should keep upcoming travel plans. When going to reschedule, many will be surprised to know that the change fee waivers only apply to rescheduled flights before the end of 2020 or those within one year of the date the ticket was issued, whichever is earlier.

That means that if you purchased a flight in August 2019, your ticket is only valid until August 2020. And since that's the contract you agreed to at booking, airlines have naturally been unwilling to extend the validity. You may have some luck calling an airline's customer service line, but generally, the policies above hold — even though there are plenty of waivers for the coronavirus pandemic.

(Photo courtesy of Denver International Airport)

Southwest is the sole outlier that's proactively extending the validity of travel credits. If your Travel Funds expire between March 1 and May 31 or you cancel a flight within that date range, the funds will expire on June 30, 2021.

Bottom line

Ticket expiration policies differ by airline. Though many seem similar, it's important to pay attention to these dates — otherwise you'll end up losing the value stored in your ticket.

As it relates to the coronavirus, many people who booked flights well in advance for summer 2020 are going to be in trouble. Since most airlines aren't proactively extending ticket validity, you may end up in a use it or lose it situation... Just another reason to wait until the day of departure to cancel your flight.

Featured image by Getty Images