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Give hope and inspiration – but not travel vouchers

Simon Calder
·3 min read
Comfort and joy? Ryanair’s ad for gift vouchers (Ryanair)
Comfort and joy? Ryanair’s ad for gift vouchers (Ryanair)

Hope, inspiration, dreams: at the end of a dismal year, what better gift for your family or close friends than the promise of travel in the seductive shape of a gift voucher? And you can buy it online, regardless of the retail rules that prevail in your town or tier.

Gift tokens are available for products across the travel spectrum, from airlines to hotels to experiences. But if you care for the recipient, please don’t offer one for Christmas.

For a hyper-competitive industry such as travel, choice is everything. Unfortunately, gift vouchers are designed to shrink options to just one. And being tied to a single operator is never a good thing.

That £10 note in your purse or wallet will, if you don’t use it, still be there in a year’s time for you to spend or save. But many travel vouchers won’t. Ryanair’s gift cards, you may not be astonished to learn, expire after 365 days.

The carrier’s not overly-generous terms become even more restrictive for those seeking redemption: “Passenger name changes are not permitted if a booking has been paid for using a gift voucher.” Ryanair insists that gift vouchers can only be redeemed in the currency of issue, subjecting the user to the airline’s painfully one-sided exchange rate for bookings from the EU to Britain. And in return for “a great gift idea for someone special”, Europe’s biggest budget carrier helps itself to a £2 administration fee.

The loved one who thanks you profusely on Christmas Day may curse you by summer when they discover better or cheaper flights are available on a different airline, and that time is running out.

In 2021, the expiry date will be a particular concern because of the number of people saddled with vouchers as a result of cancelled trips during this dreadful spring, summer and autumn.

While some issuers were actually being generous in allowing people to cancel flights to locked-down destinations in return for a credit note, many people who were entitled to their money back were unfairly persuaded to accept a voucher rather than cash.

Due to coronavirus cancellations, there are far too many vouchers out there for comfort. I estimate around £7 billion in travel credit is waiting to be spent, and predict that 2021 will see many cases of what I call “voucherflation”: the surge in prices triggered by a spike in demand by consumers whose travel vouchers are soon to expire and seek to use it or lose it.

Talking of losing it: sadly, travel firms that have seen no meaningful revenue for months (which is most of them) are not immune to failure. In the event of bankruptcy, voucher holders tend to find themselves down there with unsecured creditors at the end of the queue for any residual cash.

Back to the commendable wish to spread hope, inspiration and dreams. Give a card with a personal travel promise – whether a rail trip somewhere magical in Britain or a weekend in a great European city. Back it with cash when the recipient makes their plan. And avoid the gift voucher mystery tour.

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