Guide to refunds and elite status during coronavirus

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The pandemic brought most types of travel to a screeching halt throughout 2020, which created a whirlwind of complications for people who paid for travel with cash or points. In some cases, consumers were able to get their money back or a credit for a future booking. Meanwhile, travelers who booked with points or miles have largely been refunded their rewards for use on a future trip.

Whether you purchased a flight with airline miles, a debit or credit card or rewards, there are options for you to cancel in exchange for reimbursement. Further, many loyalty programs have made it easier to reach elite status requirements for the 2021 travel year.

Keep reading to find out the latest information from the major frequent flyer programs.

Scenario 1: You booked your flight with a debit card or airline miles

If you used a debit card or airline miles to purchase a flight, you should go directly to the airline you booked with for flight cancellation information.

Many U.S. airlines are offering reimbursements, no-fee cancellations or credit-earning opportunities for flights that may need to be canceled due to COVID-19. You can read official statements and other information from the following U.S. airlines, below, including any elite status extensions.

Delta Air Lines

Previously booked flights: As of April 30, 2021, you can change flights without any change or cancel fees. Exceptions include Basic Economy tickets purchased after April 30, 2021, which are non-refundable and non-changeable.

Going forward: Delta Air Lines has eliminated change fees permanently for tickets purchased for travel within the U.S., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. This rule also applies for tickets departing from North America to anywhere in the world and from the Caribbean to the United States or Mexico.

Flight credit expiration: Existing eCredits are now valid through Dec. 31, 2022.

Award redeposit fees: Redeposit fees are now waived for Delta awards flights originating in the United States with the exception of Basic Economy tickets purchased after April 30, 2021.

Additional information can be found on Delta’s coronavirus travel updates page.

Delta Medallion Program

Delta elite status was extended through Jan. 31, 2022, or the end of Delta’s Medallion year. Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) were also extended into 2021, giving frequent flyers and leg up toward earning status for 2022.

The Delta SkyMiles program is also offering more 2022 Medallion Status Accelerators for Delta flights from April 1, 2021 through Dec. 31, 2021. Beginning with flights on April 1, 2021, through the end of the year, Delta’s frequent flyers can earn:

  • At least 50 percent more Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs), Medallion Qualification Segments (MQSs) and Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQDs) on Delta flights (including Miles + Cash tickets)
  • An additional 25 percent to 75 percent more Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs), Medallion Qualification Segments (MQSs) and Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQDs) on premium cabin tickets
  • Bonus MQMs will also apply to your Million Miler Status Qualification

American Airlines

Previously booked flights: American Airlines has eliminated all change fees for First, Business, Premium Economy and Main Cabin tickets for domestic and short-haul international tickets issued on or after Aug. 31, 2020. Further, there are no more change fees for First, Business, Premium Economy and Main Cabin tickets for all long-haul international flights originating in North or South America provided tickets were issued on or after Nov. 19, 2020.

Going forward: There will be no more change fees for all domestic, short-haul international and select long-haul international flights within a Premium Cabin, Premium Economy and the Main Cabin. An exception applies for Basic Economy fares bought on or after April 1, 2021, which are non-refundable and non-changeable.

Flight credit expiration: Flight credits are valid for travel completed through March 31, 2022.

Award redeposit fees: Those who booked an award flight with American Airlines miles can have their miles redeposited for no fee.

More information on American Airlines’ policies can be found here.

AAdvantage program

As of right now, 2020 American Airlines elite status is now extended through Jan. 31, 2022, including those with status’ set to expire Jan. 31, 2021.

The American AAdvantage program also has lower than normal AA elite status requirements for 2021, which you can read about here.

United Airlines

Previously booked flights: For flights already booked on or after March 3, 2020, there won’t be any change fees due to travel waivers United already has in place.

Going forward: United has permanently dropped change fees for most Economy and premium cabin tickets within the United States, or between the U.S. and Mexico or the Caribbean. Change fees are also waived going forward on international flights that originate from the United States.

Flight credit expiration: In most cases, future flight credits expire within 12 months, and electronic travel certificates expire within 24 months.

Award redeposit fees: United is waiving change fees for award travel provided the ticket is in Economy or a premium cabin and your flight is within the U.S. or departs from the U.S.

For more information, you can read United’s guide to canceling and rebooking flights.

United MileagePlus program

United elite status members will receive an extension of their elite status through the end of the 2021 program year (Jan. 31, 2022).

United has also lowered its Premier qualification thresholds for 2021 to help frequent flyers earn elite status for 2022. Premier status members from 2020 will also automatically receive 25 percent bonus Premier qualifying points (PQP). Specifically, United says on their website that they’ll “deposit PQP in your MileagePlus account no later than Feb. 1, 2021, and the amount will be equal to 25 percent of the PQP-only requirement for your 2021 Premier status level.”

Southwest Airlines

For quite some time, Southwest Airlines has allowed customers to cancel or change flights without a fee. Note that Wanna Get Away fares are not refundable, yet you can cancel your flight and get a credit for a future trip. Meanwhile, Anytime and Business Select fares are reusable or refundable.

Previously booked flights: Flights booked with a credit card or gift card can qualify for a travel fund that is valid through Sept. 7, 2022.

Going forward: Travel funds come with an expiration date of 12 months from the date you booked the ticket.

Flight credit expiration: Travel funds that have already expired or are set to expire by Sept. 7, 2020, have a new expiration date of Sept. 7, 2022.

Award redeposit fees: Points will be redeposited into your account for no fee, no matter if you cancel the flight or don’t show up at all.

Additional information can be found on Southwest’s official coronavirus travel information page.

Southwest Rapid Rewards® program

A-List and A-List Preferred Members whose status expired on Dec. 31, 2020 receive an automatic extension of their status through Dec. 31, 2021, including members with Southwest elite status earned through an airline promotion.

No matter what your status is, the Southwest Rapid Rewards program is depositing the following into Rapid Rewards Member’s accounts:

  • 15,000 tier qualifying points (TQPs)
  • 10 qualifying one-way flight segments (toward elite status)
  • 25,000 Companion Pass qualifying points (CPQPs)
  • 25 qualifying one-way flight segments (toward Companion Pass qualification)

Additionally, those who earned a Companion Pass through Dec. 31, 2020 and received an automatic extension through June 30, 2021 will enjoy another extension on this benefit through December 31, 2021. Learn more here.

Alaska Airlines

Previously booked flights: Flight purchases made after Feb. 27, 2020 and before April 30, 2021 can be canceled for no fee and in exchange for a future travel credit.

Going forward: As of May 1, 2021, Alaska permanently eliminated all change fees.

Flight credit expiration: Flight credits set to expire anytime in 2021 can be used through Dec. 31, 2021. Travel can take place up to 11 months later, but the flight credit must be used by the expiration date.

Award redeposit fees: Standard change and cancellation fees apply.

Links to additional coronavirus travel information from Alaska Airlines can be found here.

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

Frequent flyers with Alaska elite status in 2020 saw their status extended through Dec. 31, 2021.

The Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan has also made it easier for members to reach the next elite status tier by awarding 50 percent more elite-qualifying miles (EQM) on Alaska Airlines flights through June 30, 2021.

JetBlue

Previously booked flights: All flights booked through June 7, 2021, have no change or cancellation fees.

Going forward: Blue, Blue Plus and Mint fares booked June 8, 2021, and onward have no change or cancellation fees and can make a same-day change to their flight for $75 (and not pay the fare difference). Further, there are no change or cancellation fees and free same-day confirmed switches for Blue Extra fares. Fare differences may apply.

Blue Basic fares can be changed or canceled for a $100 fee for travel within the U.S., Caribbean, Mexico and Central America. The fee goes up to $200 for all other destinations and routes.

Flight credit expiration: Travel Bank Credits issued by June 30, 2020, expire 24 months from the date issued. Meanwhile, Travel Bank credits issued after June 30, 2020, will expire 12 months from their date of issue.

Award redeposit fees: There are no redeposit fees for canceled awards flights.

You can read more information on JetBlue’s travel alerts page.

TrueBlue Mosaic

Mosaic elite status has been extended for those who currently hold it through Dec. 31, 2021, including those with statuses set to expire on Dec. 31, 2020.

Additionally, JetBlue has cut qualifications for earning 2021 elite status in half. You can now earn elite status with:

  • 7,500 Mosaic Qualifying points (instead of the usual 15,000 points)
  • 6,000 Mosaic Qualifying points + 15 segments (instead of the usual 12,000 points and 30 segments)

Also, remember that you can earn JetBlue TrueBlue Mosaic status just by spending $50,000 on your JetBlue Plus Card or JetBlue Business Card.

Didn’t see your airline?

Here are a few additional U.S. airlines that have commented on ticket changes, cancellations or elite status requirements:

Scenario 2: You booked your flight with a credit card

If you booked your flight with a credit card, you’ll still have the best luck reaching out to the airline instead of your card issuer.

“Airlines are offering very generous refund and fee waiver policies related to COVID-19,” says Ted Rossman, industry analyst at Bankrate. For non-refundable tickets, “customers should know that they probably won’t get the actual money back—instead, the airline will hold it and apply it towards future travel.”

You’ll also see that plenty of airlines have waived all change fees for most flights that depart from the United States. If you accept a travel credit for future travel, however, you’ll want to make sure you keep track of any limitations on your voucher.

“Look for an expiration date on those funds,” Rossman says. “And know that you might have to pay a fare difference if your eventual ticket cost is higher than what you already paid. Still, this is a very good deal.”

It’s important to note that for refundable tickets (such as tickets purchased with trip cancellation coverage), you’ll be refunded in U.S. dollars rather than flight credits.

Trip cancellation and interruption benefits

Typically, travel credit cards offer trip cancellation protection, but it likely won’t cover broader coronavirus concerns (and particularly if you are just reluctant to travel).

“Credit card trip cancellation protection typically doesn’t allow you to cancel just because you’re afraid you might get sick,” Rossman says.

For example, American Express’ trip cancellation and interruption FAQs sheet for COVID-19 states that “fear of traveling due to sickness, epidemic or pandemic (such as the Coronavirus) is not a Covered Loss under your American Express Trip Cancellation and Interruption Insurance benefit.”

You may, though, be able to submit a claim if you fall under one of the traditionally covered situations, like accidental injury or harsh weather. American Express’ list of approved situations conveniently includes “quarantine imposed by a physician for health reasons.”

Trip cancellation policies for an issuer can vary based on the exact card you own, so make sure to sign in to your online account for benefits information on your specific card.

Scenario 3: You booked your flight with credit card rewards

It’s not ideal, but whether or not your credit card rewards are refunded can vary based on your issuer’s guidelines and the COVID-19 cancellation policy of your airline.

Chase, for example, is offering the option to submit a trip cancellation request for flights booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards and trips paid for using rewards earned by an eligible Chase card. You must first confirm that your airline has waived trip cancellation fees.

“If you booked with points or miles, you should get those back (not a dollar equivalent, but the actual points or miles),” Rossman says—and most likely with a waived redepositing fee.

In most instances, you cannot undo a rewards transfer from your credit card loyalty program to an airline partner. This means that, if you’re able to get your miles reinstated to your account after you cancel a flight, you cannot move these miles from your frequent flyer account back to the flexible rewards account you originally transferred from.

The bottom line

Refund guidelines and elite status rules are changing all the time, so make sure to stay on top of new announcements from your favorite frequent flyer program. In the meantime, you can benefit from the fact that many major airlines are waiving all change fees on future travel for the time being.

Also, keep in mind that now is an excellent time to start racking up airline miles for your next trip, particularly since most airlines allow you to cancel an award flight and get your miles back without a fee. Check out the best airline credit cards to learn more about their sign-up bonuses and earning rates.

Written by
Holly D. Johnson
Author, Award-Winning Writer
Holly Johnson began her career working in the funeral industry, which may make you wonder why she works in personal finance now. Yet, the funeral industry taught the author everything she needs to know about the value of one's money and time. Johnson left the mortuary business a decade ago in order to explore her passion for personal finance and travel the world, and since then, she and her husband have built a debt-free lifestyle that has them on the path to retire very wealthy in their 40s. Holly's love of budgeting also led to the creation of her debt payoff book, “Zero Down Your Debt: Reclaim Your Income and Build a Life You’ll Love."