Trying to get away in 2020 could be described as turbulent, at best.
A year ago, as coronavirus outbreaks multiplied, borders quickly closed, bringing both cruising and air travel to a halt. But that’s when the real journey began for so many would-be travelers.
“In retrospect, if I had gone, there was a very likely chance I would have been stuck in Italy and not been able to come back as things started to lock down so fast,” Chicagoan Merle Ward told NBC 5 Responds.
Ward was scheduled to depart for Italy on Feb. 26, 2020, and canceled her vacation just hours before her flight. Now a year later, she is still unable to reschedule and her airline voucher has since expired.
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“Obviously we're unable to reschedule this past year, because the opportunity doesn't exist,” said Ward.
She’s not alone. Millions of travelers on both cruise lines and airlines are sitting on vouchers with upcoming expiration dates.
By law, if an airline cancels the flight, they are required to refund a passenger’s money. At the start of the pandemic, many airlines issued vouchers instead, some expiring anywhere from 90 days to one year.
“The airlines already have the passengers' money, and so it's really just an arbitrary policy that they decide that a travel credit expires," said Andrew Appelbaum of FlyersRights.org, a non-profit consumer airline organization.
Appelbaum noted that after a bumpy start and a billion-dollar bailout from the government, airlines updated and changed policies as the shutdown wore on.
"The airlines could extend these deadlines indefinitely into the future, but it seems like if they don't, then they're just punishing passengers who are doing the right thing and being responsible," said Appelbaum, adding, "I think passengers will remember how individual airlines treated them during the pandemic."
NBC 5 Responds reached out to seven of the biggest domestic airline carriers, and all responded that they have extended their voucher and travel deadlines from anywhere between the end of 2021 and December 2022.
The airlines reiterated that customers need only to book a flight by the expiration date, not complete their travel. See their responses below:
United Airlines: If tickets were purchased between May 1, 2019, and March 31, 2021, those tickets will now be extended through March 31, 2022, to give customers extra time to use for travel. Tickets purchased on April 1, 2021, and after will have a 12-month validity from the date of purchase.
JetBlue: All travel bank credits that JetBlue issued in March through June of 2020 came with a 24-month expiration, meaning that they must be booked by March through June 2022.
Spirit: All reservation credits issued since March 2020 have been extended. Guests can use the credits to travel until Dec. 31, 2021, and flights must be booked by Sept. 30.
Southwest: Travelers get up to one year from the original date of booking. For travel funds that were created or set to expire between March 1, 2020, and Sept. 7, 2020, Southwest extended the expiration date to Sept. 7, 2022.
Delta: Customers must re-book and complete their trip by Dec. 31, 2022.
Frontier: Customers who hold a flight credit are not required to travel by the credit's expiration date. The customer simply needs to book travel by the expiration date and Frontier’s flight schedule now extends to April 2022.
American: If a travel voucher was set to expire between March 1, 2020, and March 31, 2021, customers will have an additional 12 months to use those vouchers.
In addition, United, Delta and American Airlines announced they would join Southwest Airlines in eliminating change fees.
"The best hope would be to wait as long as possible before it expires to book a flight, and then maybe change the flight in the future if the pandemic is not over," Appelbaum advised.
A year later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends against travel, but many domestic flights are full again, middle seats included.
International travel is still up in the air with borders still closed or strict coronavirus testing requirements, making those bucket list destinations still difficult to get to.
"It's been a murky path and definitely frustrating," said Ward. "And it's still, you know, I hope in the next several years we'll be able to get out and enjoy more that the world has to offer."
"While I still hope to go back to Italy and have my trip, at this point with the continued uncertainty, I would just like to have a refund," she said.