United just made it more difficult to claim a travel voucher for certain flights

Aug 12, 2020

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Like many carriers around the world, United Airlines is currently offering customers extra flexibility when booking flights for future travel. As it’s been doing since March, United will waive all change fees for flights booked through the end of this month, for all future travel dates. While that sounds great on the surface, you’ll lose any residual value if you move to a lower-cost flight, as I explain in this earlier post.

Fortunately, the airline has been offering a workaround, which has given me (and likely many others) the confidence to book future travel. To avoid losing value when moving to a cheaper flight, customers have been able to request that the full value of the original flight be applied to an Electronic Travel Certificate (ETC). For many itineraries, it was even possible to make the request online.

Sadly, that’s no longer the case. As of this month, United has removed the option to cash out to an ETC from its website. Fortunately, it’s still possible to request an ETC by speaking with a reservations agent at 1-800-864-8331. The agent will likely offer to keep the remaining value within your original ticket, but if you explain that you’d prefer an ETC, the airline has confirmed that’s still an option.

ETCs can only be used to book United and United Express flights. Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.
ETCs can only be used to book United and United Express flights. Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

Note that there are a few advantages to keeping the value of your ticket within the reservation, rather than cashing out to an ETC. First, Future Flight Credits (FFCs), as they’re referred to internally, can be used to book partner flights — if you can book a flight on United.com, you can use an FFC to cover it. Second, if you originally booked your ticket through a travel agency, your agent can retain control of that same itinerary — ETCs must be redeemed directly with United. FFCs are also available to reuse immediately, while ETCs could take weeks to issue.

All that said, in most cases, I’d prefer to receive an ETC, unless rebooking for travel in the near future, on a flight that’s equally or more expensive than what I’d previously booked.

While you are limited to travel operated by United and United Express, ETCs are valid for 24 months from the date they’re issued, while most FFCs must be used for travel within 12 months of the original ticket issue date; FFCs for tickets originally issued between May 1, 2019 and March 31, 2020 are valid for 24 months. ETCs can also be combined to book a more expensive ticket, and if you can’t travel yourself, you can book a flight for someone else.

Featured photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

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