Travel: Don’t wait until the last minute: Use your upgrades, credits and perks well before they expire

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Last weekend, American Airlines had a raft of customers ready to redeem systemwide upgrades that were set to expire en masse.

After numerous extensions, the Dallas-based airline stuck to its July 31 expiration date for systemwide upgrades. Travelers flooded American’s call center looking to apply their certificate to any eligible flight they could find. Long hold times ensued, and many travelers wanting to use their upgrades for business-class seats got something else instead: nothing but an expired certificate.

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This translated to thousands of dollars in lost value for frequent flyers. But even if you’re not a frequent flyer, you should learn from this experience. Credit card statement credits — like American Express’ Saks Fifth Avenue credit — and travel vouchers often have a nonnegotiable expiration date, many of which are returning now that pandemic-era extensions are no more.

Let’s look at what happened to American elite members last week and discuss how you can avoid a similar situation by planning ahead and not redeeming your credit card and elite status benefits at the last minute.

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Hold time and limited availability led to expired systemwide upgrades

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy) © The Points Guy (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

As July 31 rolled around, American elite members were ready to redeem their expiring certificates, racing to do so just before the midnight expiration.

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But the airline couldn’t keep up with the rush; travelers encountered hold times of eight hours on the phone. According to some accounts, hold times were extensive in the days leading up to the July 31 expiration date.

American stuck to its July 31 expiration and told many disgruntled travelers via Twitter that their systemwide upgrades are indeed expired, despite these long hold times and lack of upgrade space. This gives said travelers no recourse to use their now-expired SWUs, losing out on potentially thousands of dollars in value in the process.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a long-extended benefit expire this year. Most major hotel programs have stopped extending suite upgrade awards and free night certificates. Likewise, Delta and United haven’t announced plans to further extend their elite upgrade certificates past their current expiration dates. We expect the airlines to keep these policies as certificates start to expire.

Related: How to keep your points and miles from expiring

Protect yourself: Don’t wait until the last minute

(Photo by Emilija Manevska/Getty Images) © The Points Guy (Photo by Emilija Manevska/Getty Images)

This frustration isn’t limited to American Airlines upgrades. You need to strategically plan how and when to use your upgrades, credits and vouchers before they expire — and know their terms.

This is especially important now that pandemic-era extensions are going away and travel is back. This presents a double whammy: Your certificates and other benefits are expiring, and, if you wait until the last minute, you could be met with long hold times if you have to call in to redeem them. And this is on top of any difficulties you’d encounter finding a good price (or availability) with the current travel environment.

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This could lead to similar issues that plagued many American Airlines flyers last week.

Take this unfortunate experience as a reminder to have a plan to use your upgrades, flight vouchers and other benefits before they expire. Give yourself more time than you need to call in to redeem them, and understand the terms fully.

Let’s look at some different benefits you may have and how to protect yourself against expiration.

Monthly, quarterly, semiannual and annual credits from your credit card

We touched on this above, but credit card perks are a great example of when you shouldn’t wait until the last month. You may receive monthly Uber Cash from your American Express card. These credits disappear at the end of the month, whether you’ve used them or not.

American Express spending credits with Saks Fifth Avenue, Dell, $200 in hotel credits from The Platinum Card® from American Express and its business equivalent all expire at set times. You need to use the credit by the deadline, and this means the charge must post to your account by then. Making an online purchase at 11:59 p.m. likely means missing out on a statement credit for hundreds of dollars. The full charge must post to your account before the cutoff time. Enrollment is required.

Chase also offers $300 in travel credits on the Chase Sapphire Reserve. As with other credits, you can only receive the reimbursement if charges post to your account before the end of your cardmember year. Likewise, the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card has a $300 Capital One travel portal credit that also resets each cardmember year.

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To help you remember these credits before the deadline, keep an eye on our monthly checklist of credit card perks.

Airline upgrade certificates

By this point in the article, you’re probably aware that airline upgrade certificates expire. American, Alaska, Delta and United flyers should keep an eye on their expiration dates and use upgrade certificates well before their expiration date. Otherwise, you could be in the same position as the American flyers mentioned earlier.

(Screenshot from delta.com) © The Points Guy (Screenshot from delta.com)

Airline vouchers

From all of the canceled flights over the past two years, you might be sitting on hundreds or thousands of dollars in airline vouchers. Many of these expire within one year of issuance. Unless the terms of your voucher say differently, this expiration date is “fly by,” not “book by” — meaning you need to finish your trip by the expiration date.

In addition, different vouchers will have different terms, so a second tip here is to know the terms of your voucher. Then, create a plan for using the voucher before it expires.

Free night awards with hotel programs

Many people put off using their free night awards with hotels, hoping to extract more value from a later booking. If that later trip is canceled or doesn’t work out as planned, you may be approaching the deadline on your free night certificates with Hilton, Hyatt, IHG or Marriott. To prevent them from expiring unused, you may feel the pressure to redeem these awards at a poor redemption value, simply to use it before it goes away.

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A better option is to plan ahead to use your free night awards, and avoid the temptation to wait for the highest possible redemption value. “Good enough” may make it easier to use these awards without sweating over the expiration date.

Related: I have 13 free night certificates that expire soon – here’s how I’m using them

Hotel suite night upgrades

Like free nights with hotels, you may have suite upgrade awards from your elite status with World of Hyatt or Marriott Bonvoy. These expire and must be used by the expiration date — not just requested by the reservation date. The same applies to Club upgrade awards from Hyatt. Plan ahead and remember to use these when possible.

Companion certificates

You may have companion certificates from holding an airline credit card like the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card and Alaska Airlines Visa® Business card. Make sure you understand when these expire and have a plan in place to use them. While saving them for later — for example, hoping to offset expensive summer airfare — can seem ideal, travel plans change. Make sure you have a plan for using these before the deadline, especially since companion space may be limited.

Related: How to save hundreds on airfare with the Alaska Visa companion ticket

Bottom line

(Photo by kieferpix/Getty Images) © The Points Guy (Photo by kieferpix/Getty Images)

American Airlines has maintained its stance on not extending systemwide upgrades, and we expect other travel companies to do the same. If you have expiring upgrade certificates, travel vouchers or credit card benefits, plan to use your benefits early and don’t wait until the last second to redeem them. Doing so may mean you run into long hold times or even expired benefits that could otherwise have brought hundreds of dollars in value.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy.

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

These airline credits will now last forever .
Southwest Airlines has removed the expiration date on its credits. The move applies to new credits as well as those previously issued which have not yet expired.As part of what Southwest calls a $2 billion attempt to improve customer service, Ryan Green, senior vice president and chief marketing officer, has announced that as of July 28, any flight credits created by Southwest will be valid until whenever the customer wants to use them. Green called it “ultimate flexibility that is unmatched in the industry” in a statement.

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