Hold off on airline gift vouchers for now: you could be throwing your cash away

Aer Lingus has promised to make key changes to its gift vouchers which will make it easier for people to use them

Louise McBride

Anyone thinking of buying an Aer Lingus gift voucher for a loved one this Christmas should hold off for a while - the airline has promised to make key changes to its vouchers by the end of the year which will make it easier for people to use them to pay for flights.

The move comes after the airline received complaints from people who ran into difficulties using the gift vouchers - with many finding it impossible to redeem the vouchers because of their terms and conditions. As a result, many consumers have simply wasted their money when buying these vouchers as gifts.

"Aer Lingus regrets that customers have experienced difficulties," said a spokeswoman. "We have listened to customer feedback and are aware of a number of technical limitations with our voucher system.

"Key changes will be in place before Christmas that we believe will lead to much greater satisfaction with our gift vouchers. These include the ability to change the name on the voucher, the ability to change the currency of the voucher after it has been purchased, and the extension of the voucher expiry date."

One of the key problems with Aer Lingus's gift vouchers - as well as those sold by Ryanair - is that the vouchers can only be redeemed in the currency of issue.

So people buying gift vouchers for relatives abroad have found that the relatives have often not been able to use the vouchers to buy a flight because vouchers can only be redeemed against flights in the currency they were issued in.

So for example, Aer Lingus currently won't take euro vouchers if you're booking a return flight from the US to Ireland. You need dollar vouchers instead.

Once Aer Lingus introduces its changes, you will be able to change the currency of the voucher after you buy it. But in the meantime, the way around this is to buy your gift voucher in the currency that the person you are buying it for uses.

Aer Lingus gift vouchers can be bought in euro, US dollar or British sterling. Ryanair's gift vouchers can be bought in various euro denominations - "or the local currency equivalent", according to its terms and conditions.

Aer Lingus gift vouchers are also non-transferrable (although this is set to change). So currently, if you buy an Aer Lingus gift voucher in your own name - rather than that of the person you're giving the gift to - they can't use it.

Similarly, if you buy the voucher in the name of the relative you intend to give it as a gift to, and that relative then can't use it because the voucher is not issued in the country of the currency they would be booking a flight out of, the name on the voucher can't be changed from the relative's to your own.

The same applies with Ryanair.

"The vouchers are valid for use by the voucher recipient only and their name must be the first one entered during the flight booking process," Ryanair states in its voucher terms and conditions.

Asked if it is possible for a customer to get their money back if the person that the gift voucher was bought for was unable to redeem it because it was issued in the wrong currency, a spokesman for Ryanair said: "Gift vouchers are non-refundable." Aer Lingus however said that is it possible to get a refund.

Aer Lingus and Ryanair vouchers have a one-year expiry date. Consumers have found this restrictive given the nature of travel as it could take people longer than a year to plan a holiday abroad.

"We agree that the expiry date should be extended," said a spokeswoman for Aer Lingus. "We need to make some technical changes to our system and plan to have this live before the end of this year."

As gift vouchers are bought for a set amount, it is often the case that the entire value of a gift voucher won't be used up when a customer books a flight. So another drawback of the Aer Lingus gift vouchers is that customers cannot get a refund of any unused balance on their gift voucher - or an extension of the expiry date where the full balance is not used up.

"We believe that the extension of the expiry date will solve this issue as customers can then use the remaining amount of their voucher on their next flight purchase," said a spokeswoman for Aer Lingus. Ryanair does issue new vouchers for unused balances - but with the original expiry date only.

Ryanair did not answer our question when this paper asked it if it had any plans to relax or change the terms and conditions of its vouchers.

"We would strongly recommend to consumers that they carefully read the terms and conditions of a voucher before making a purchase," said a spokeswoman for the consumer watchdog, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission.