United Airlines flight credits: Everything you need to know

Sep 22, 2020

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As with many carriers around the world, United Airlines has been issuing credits for canceled trips.

Following pandemic-related cancellations, travelers are learning to navigate the world of travel credits for the very first time. And, whether or not it’s the airline’s intention, the intricacies of these various carrier-specific currencies can add yet another layer to the already-complex process of booking a flight.

In most cases, if United cancels your flight, you’re eligible for a refund to your original form of payment. Meanwhile, if you make the choice not to travel on your own, you’ll most likely end up with what the airline calls a “future flight credit,” or an Electronic Travel Certificate (ETC).

Both types of credits can be used to book new travel, but there are some important nuances to note, as United outlines below:

Screenshot courtesy of United Airlines

After reading this guide, you’ll walk away with a better understanding of United’s various flight credits, and how you can redeem them when booking a flight.

Accruing ETCs

Of United’s two flight credit offerings, I prefer electronic travel certificates, since they’re valid for longer (two years from the issue date), can be combined with other ETCs and can be redeemed for someone else. You also won’t lose value when redeeming an ETC — any balance will remain on the certificate for future use.

United customers who have experienced various service lapses are likely already familiar with ETCs. You’ll receive one whenever the airline issues any form of monetary compensation — an extra-long delay, broken in-flight entertainment system, involuntary denial of boarding and so on.

Until recently, customers taking advantage of United’s free-change policy had been able to request an ETC when voluntarily canceling a flight. The airline has since made that process a bit more complicated — you may still be eligible for a certificate, instead of a future travel credit, but you’ll need to speak with a reservations agent at (800) 864-8331 to make the request.

Redeeming ETCs

United now lists travel credits on the “My account” page, which you can access right here when logged into your MileagePlus account. Unfortunately, the airline’s website only seems to track a portion of a customer’s available ETCs — I keep mine organized in a spreadsheet, and I recommend you do the same.

Screenshot courtesy of United Airlines

ETCs can be redeemed for travel operated by United and United Express — unlike future flight credits, which I’ll dig into below, ETCs can’t be used for partner travel.

If you’ve selected an eligible flight, you’ll see an option to redeem your ETCs on the payments page. Certificates can also be used to cover the cost of seat assignments when selected during the purchase process.

Related: What it’s like to fly in the U.S. right now

ETCs can be used multiple times — if the flight costs less than the value of the certificate, the balance will remain on your ETC. If you’re purchasing a higher-cost flight, you can combine ETCs with a credit card payment to cover the difference.

Screenshot courtesy of United Airlines

After you successfully enter an ETC, including the year issued, 10-digit PIN code and the recipient’s last name, you’ll see the amount deducted from your flight total.

Screenshot courtesy of United Airlines

United recently added the ability to combine up to 10 ETCs on the airline’s website. Alternatively, you can call the reservations line at (800) 864-8331 to have your certificates combined over the phone. Note that when combining certificates over the phone, the expiration date may be updated to 24 months from the date the oldest ETC was issued, not 24 months from the date your ETCs are combined.

Future flight credit

Unlike ETCs, future flight credits can be used to cover the cost of partner flights, as long as those flights are available for United to book, either on United’s own website or by calling reservations at (800) 864-8331.

To view your current future flight credits, log in to United’s website then head to the “My trips” page right here. From there, click the “Future flight credit” tab and select the “Book with credit” option to book a new trip.

Screenshot courtesy of United Airlines

Unfortunately, I haven’t had success redeeming future travel credits for revenue tickets online —you can always give reservations a call at (800) 864-8331 to rebook if you receive an error, such as the one I’ve repeatedly encountered below.

Aside from the fact that you can’t use these credits to book travel for someone else, there’s another significant downside to note. If you move to a lower-cost flight, you’ll lose any residual value — for example, if your original flight cost $2,000 and your new flight costs $200, you won’t receive the difference back. You’ll forfeit that $1,800.

The same does not apply when using the future flight credit tool to rebook canceled award tickets. If your new flight requires fewer miles or a lower cash co-pay, you’ll receive a refund for the balance once you reissue the ticket.

Screenshot courtesy of United Airlines

Your first instinct may be to cancel and redeposit the award, for added flexibility, but if you had been able to lock in a lower-rate award with your original booking, it may be advantageous to call in and request an agent’s help in making the change.

If United canceled your original flight and the airline still offers service between the same cities on your new travel date, a reservations agent may be able to reissue your award in the originally ticketed cabin at the original rate.

Related: Guide to the United MileagePlus program

For example, since United was responsible for the cancellation, in my case, an agent may be able to honor my original 60,000-mile award rate between Newark (EWR) and Dublin (DUB), even if a similar award is priced higher on United’s website today. There’s never any guarantee, but it’s certainly worth making the request.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking to book a cash fare, you may be able to call United reservations at (800) 864-8331 to have your future flight credit canceled, with the balance issued in the form of an ETC, instead. That’s certainly your best bet if you’re looking to move to a lower-cost flight, or prefer to use your credit to book travel for someone else.

United TravelBank

United offers a third type of travel credit, via the airline’s TravelBank. Customers purchase these credits directly — they’re not issued following a customer service complaint or flight cancellation. It’s also possible to boost your balance with the since-discontinued United TravelBank Card.

The information for the United TravelBank Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Generally, it doesn’t make sense to tie up funds without some sort of additional return, but United does occasionally offer incentives for customers to add funds to their TravelBank, in the form of a percentage bonus or fixed mileage earnings, such as 5 miles for every dollar spent.

TravelBank funds can be redeemed for flights operated by United and United Express. Unfortunately, they cannot be combined with ETCs or future flight credits, and, since they offer the longest validity — as I explain below — I’d use up any other credits before tapping your TravelBank.

Expiration policy

While United miles no longer expire, all of the carrier’s travel credits are subject to expiration as follows:

  • Electronic Travel Certificates: 24 months from issue date
  • Future flight credit: 12 months from original ticket issue date*
  • TravelBank: 5 years after last activity

*Future flight credits for tickets issued between May 1, 2019 and Mar. 31, 2020 are valid for 24 months from the original issue date.

Bottom line

Navigating United’s various travel credits and policies can seem daunting, and perhaps needlessly complex. Still, armed with this guide, you should have a much better idea of how to identify which credits you have at your disposal, and how to make the most of them when booking your next trip.

Featured photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

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