“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Fly for Free! Airline Vouchers: Earning, Processing, and Redeeming

Fly to Mexico City for $35?  To the East Coast from Chicago for nothing?  And accumulate frequent flyer miles at the same time?  It's possible.  And if you allow flexibility in your travel schedule, you, too, can fly for free - or discount - on airfare vouchers.  I'm writing about vouchers on American Airlines, so if you have experience with vouchers on other airlines, I'd love your feedback and will incorporate it here (with proper credit).  But first, a quick background, then some tips about how to utilize these vouchers.  And what are they?

A voucher is a "coupon" of sorts from an airline with a pre-printed value on it in your name only.  It allows you to redeem the voucher for the face value and applied toward a future fare.  If you receive a $300 voucher, then later redeem it against a $350 fare, then you only pay $50 for your ticket.  You pay the difference.  I have yet to experiment with cashing in a voucher that is more than the published fare.  If you have experienced this, let me know.  When I have encountered a fare that's lower than my voucher, I select add-ons to raise the fare, such as Choice Select (Group 1 boarding, 50% miles bonus, premium drink, same-day no-charge flight changes, etc).

If you unfortunately get involuntarily bumped from a flight, chances are you will receive a voucher.  But airlines desperately try to coax volunteers to give up their seats first before bumping anyone from a flight.  In some instances, I've heard the offer for vouchers go as high as $600.  So these days I tend to build time into my schedules so if a bump opportunity arises, I can take it and claim the voucher and get to my destination a little later.

Earlier this year I was en route to Rio de Janeiro with a connection at JFK.  The layover was 5 hours so I was planning on having dinner with my parents who live near the airport.  The flight from ORD to JFK was over-booked so they asked for volunteers to give up their seats.  I knew this meant a voucher was in order, but I passed on the chance since I had dinner plans in NY.  Then I was paged by the gate agent.  Since I was 1) traveling alone, 2) had no checked baggage, and 3) my final destination was Rio, not New York, they asked me to connect in MIA or DFW instead.  I understood their position, but I said that I was looking forward to dinner with my parents.  After the agent explained why I was chosen to re-route, I did feel sympathetic, and besides, they have tough jobs, I wasn't going to pick a battle and put up a stink.  The agent  rebooked me to DFW, and as a thank you, she still gave me a $300 voucher.  Being nice and patient and cooperative can work in your favor sometimes!  I didn't expect the voucher, although I did try for an upgrade.

One month later I was in Vegas for work.  On the way back to Chicago, I stopped at the gate desk to inquire if the flight was full, meaning I wanted to try for an upgrade into 1st class.  The agent said yes, it was full, and would I like to volunteer to give up my seat?  He hadn't even announced it to the passengers yet, but he said he needed more space.  There was another flight back to Chicago 3 hours later, so I agreed.  It turned out that he only needed 1 seat, so after they boarded the flight, he rebooked me, and gave me a $300 voucher and a meal ticket.  I bid my co-workers farewell and that I'd see them the next day at the office, as they were all on the earlier flight.

Now in my hands I had two $300 vouchers!  When I saw Mexico City airfare drop to $379 (usually around $600), I went to aa.com to hold my flight.  Then I called the booking phone number on my voucher to book my ticket.  I gave them the record locator number and they booked my ticket.  My next voucher I used to visit family over the July 4th weekend.

Note that the below process applies to PAPER vouchers.  I have not yet received an e-voucher so I can't speak to how those are redeemed or if the process is different.  Let me know if you have.

  1. Go online to find your fare, and put your ticket on 24 hour HOLD
  2. Book at least 3 weeks in advance to give the voucher time to process (see below)
  3. Call airline to book the fare and redeem the voucher
  4. If there's a fare difference, have a credit card handy.  Your card will not be charged the difference until your voucher is processed and your ticket status changes.
  5. AA will give you an address to which you have to mail in the voucher.  Make a copy of your voucher before mailing it!  If it gets lost, call AA and have the copy handy.
  6. Your ticket online will be listed as TICKET PENDING until the voucher is fully processed (or UNKNOWN if viewing from a mobile device).
  7. AA can take up to 2 weeks to process the voucher.  They process them in order of departure date.  So people sending in vouchers with departures sooner than yours will get processed first.  My first voucher took 2 weeks to process, my second voucher took 3 weeks because my departure date was more than a month away.
  8. Once your voucher is processed, AA will email you your confirmed e-ticket, and your ticket status will change from TICKET PENDING to TICKETED and your credit card will be charged for any fare difference.  One voucher I used, the fare dropped, and my card ended up being charged less than what I expected.
  9. And yes, you still earn frequent flyer miles that apply to elite status!
American Airlines Voucher Redemption Address:

American Airlines
6570 Caroline Street
Suite B, Dept 109
Milton, FL  32570

Below your return address in upper-left corner: