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Make Travel Vouchers Work for You

If you travel even a modest amount, you’re likely to find a situation where a supplier owes you some compensation—a full or partial refund for a service not fully delivered or a response to a complaint. And when that happens, the supplier is very likely to offer a voucher with a dollar value or the promise of a big discount on a future trip rather than cash.

Suppliers are almost always eager to offer vouchers or future discounts instead of cash: At worst, the supplier loses the cost of the service rather than the marked-up retail price; at best, you’ll never get around to using the voucher and the supplier faces no cost at all.

Obviously, then, suppliers incorporate gotchas into vouchers and future discounts that make them less useful to consumers than cash.

Tight Validity Limit

This is probably the oldest voucher gotcha in the book.

A cruise line promises a huge discount or even a “free” future cruise, but you have to use the discount within six months. Clearly, a lot of travelers are uninterested in or unable to schedule a second cruise within that short a time. Many occasional travelers aren’t interested in a trip that quickly.

Any voucher or discount promise with less than a full year of validity is worth substantially less than the nominal value.

Seasonal Limitations

Some cruise, tour, or hotel vouchers restrict validity to off-peak seasons or days of the week.

Exclusive Use

Often, a voucher or future discount can be used only for the person who initially received it for his or her own travel. That person can’t use the value for a spouse, relative, or friend.

Incomplete Coverage

Vouchers or future promises seldom include the full cost of the trip to which they supposedly apply. Typically, you must pay at least the applicable taxes and government fees.

But I learned of a much worse problem a few months ago: an airline voucher that covered only the base fare and not the very stiff carrier-imposed fee, essentially a fuel surcharge in drag, which on many trips is more than the base fare.

One Bite

You can use some vouchers for only one transaction, even if the value of that transaction is less than the face value of the voucher. Thus, for example, if you use a $500 airline voucher to buy a $400 ticket, you can’t use the remaining $100 for a second ticket. Instead, you lose that value outright.

Phony List Prices

Sometimes, future discount promises apply only to the list or brochure price of a service—a service that is widely available at big discounts in the travel marketplace. Again, a 25 percent discount on a list-price cruise at $3,000 is worthless if the online cruise agencies are selling it openly at $2,000.

How to Make a Voucher Work for You

Sometimes, your only option is to take what the supplier offers. But in other cases, you have the opportunity to bargain. When an airline bumps you from a flight, for example, government rules call for mandatory cash payments of $200 to $600, depending on the circumstance. In that situation, almost all airlines will first try to get you to take a voucher. Here, you have the advantage: Say you will accept the voucher, but only if you can use it toward a ticket for anyone, that it remains valid for at least a year, that it cover all airline-imposed mandatory and optional fees, including checked baggage and seat assignment charges, that you can use the full value in multiple transactions, and that the face value be at least double the cash award the airline would otherwise have to pay.

Similarly, if a cruise line offers a future discount, insist that the offer be open for at least a full year and—better—a full two years, that it be transferable, that it apply to any available cabin, and that it apply to the lowest currently advertised price, not some phony rate.

You get the picture: If you have any bargaining power, insist that a voucher or future discount work for you the way you really want to use it. Otherwise, ask for cash.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.

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