10 ways to avoid airline change and cancellation fees

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 In the miles and points community, we talk a lot about the importance of flexibility.

Flexibility in redeeming miles and points, flexibility with travel dates, even flexibility with your destination. And nowadays, something equally important is booking with a flexible travel provider!

Some airlines have change or cancellation fees that can actually be more expensive than the original price of your airfare. But there are lots of things you can do to minimize the chance you’ll be stuck paying if your plans fall through. It starts with knowing the rules before you book your flight.

The coronavirus has also loosened the collars of many airlines, as they continue to accept that very few travelers will purchase flights if there isn’t some level of flexibility. We’ve seen extremely generous policy changes, including free changes and cancellations on award flights with select airlines.

Let’s take a look at the best ways to avoid airline cancellation fees.

  • Look for flight schedule changes
  • Provide proof of qualifying unplanned event
  • Check for travel waivers
  • Check for credit card coverage
  • Book more expensive refundable fares
  • Change dates instead of canceling
  • Earn elite status
  • Use the 24-hour booking rule
  • Don’t pay change fees until you have to
  • Contact the airline with a good reason
Most airlines will charge you a fee if you need to change or cancel a flight. (Photo by Vova Shevchuk/Shutterstock)

Best ways to avoid airline cancellation fees

How much does it cost to cancel a flight? The answer today is radically different than it was just a year ago. Airline policies are changing in the time of coronavirus.

It’s really not difficult to change or cancel your flight free of charge anymore. But as a rule of thumb, here are some keys to getting your cancellation fees waived on whatever airline in the world you’re dealing with.

Look for flight schedule changes

If your arrival or departure time changes by a significant amount, you should be able to get a refund or change your itinerary without penalty. But the definition of “significant delay” varies widely depending on the airline and they don’t make it easy to understand.

Usually, the delay will have to be upwards of 90 minutes or cause you to miss a connecting flight for you to be entitled to complimentary changes or cancellations. If you’re going to have to cancel your flight regardless, you could wait to see if the schedule changes.

Also, if you’re getting close to your travel date, make sure the fees don’t increase the closer you get to departure before trying this strategy.

As airlines strive for efficiency and consolidation amid COVID-19, you may notice that your flight schedule changes a lot. It’s worth noting, though, that many airlines are offering blanket travel waivers due to the pandemic, so you may just be able to change or cancel your flight regardless of schedule changes.

Provide proof of qualifying unplanned event

Most airlines will waive change fees or refund tickets in certain cases. Events like jury duty, military orders should qualify you for exemption under the airline’s policy.

You’ll need to provide documentation and the specifics of what qualifies and what doesn’t are different for each airline. If you’re not sure if your unplanned event qualifies for a refund, contact the travel provider. Coronavirus does not count as an unplanned event, so if your airline hasn’t relaxed its policies as a result of the virus, don’t think you can use it as an excuse.

Note that you can also get extra travel coverage by paying for your flight with a card that has travel insurance benefits.

Check for travel waivers

Airlines hand out travel waivers all the time. Air travel is unpredictable. If there are cancellations and delays for various reasons (think weather, equipment malfunctions, pandemic-related issues, etc.), your airline may give you a travel waiver of some sort. You may be able to completely cancel your flight, or more likely you’ll get to change your flight for free.

If you have plans to fly in inclement weather, pay attention to your airline app and your email inbox. The airlines will usually tell you if they plan to offer you a travel waiver. By far the most common waivers issued at present are coronavirus related.

Check for credit card coverage

If you travel even a couple of times per year, you should be booking your airfare with the best travel insurance credit cards. They are brilliant. Many come with trip cancellation/interruption coverages that can save you many thousands of dollars in change and cancellation fees.

Our favorites are:

  • The Platinum Card® from American Express
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
  • Chase Sapphire Reserve®

If you pay for your airfare with these cards, you’ll get their automatic travel insurance coverages.

Book more expensive refundable fare

I hate to even say it, but it can be a good idea to purchase refundable airfare (usually labeled as “flexible” by the airline) if your plans are likely to change. The cost of a refundable fare can be many times the cost of a nonrefundable fare, though this isn’t always the case. Check the price difference for your dates, destinations, etc. to see if it makes sense.

Change dates instead of canceling

Most airlines charge the same fee to change or cancel a flight. But if you’ve booked award travel, you might be able to save by changing your award ticket instead of canceling it. Sometimes you can make changes to award tickets for free.

Earn elite status

For most of us, this is the most difficult way to avoid fees because there aren’t many easy ways to earn airline elite status. But if you can get it, some airlines are generous with their most loyal customers. For example, if you have JetBlue Mosaic or Alaska MVP Gold status or higher, your change or cancellation fees will be waived – both for paid flights and award flights.

This isn’t true for all airline elite levels.

Use the 24 hr booking rule

There is a U.S. law that requires airlines to allow consumers to cancel within 24 hours of booking without penalty or to hold a reservation at the current price for 24 hours without payment. This law is generally interpreted to apply only to paid flights but most airlines allow free cancellation within 24 hours of booking award flights, as well.

This applies only to airfare booked directly with the airlines. If you book nonrefundable travel with a third-party site (Priceline, Orbitz, etc.), the rules might vary, so do your research first.

Don’t pay changes fees until you have to

If you know you’ll have to cancel your flight, procrastinating can pay off. Taking into consideration the above points, some unforeseen (and qualifying) event could pop up that allows you to change or cancel your flight penalty-free. Who knows – you could be called into jury duty, be subject to an extreme itinerary change, have a cancellation due to inclement weather, or even become violently ill!

Paying the cancellation fee quickly guarantees you won’t get your fees waived.

There’s no getting out of jury duty, but thankfully, most airlines will be willing to work with you. (Photo by ehrlif/Shutterstock)

Contact the airline with a good reason

Similar to the above point, if you’ve got an airtight reason for missing your flight, airlines may work with you. A death in the family or severe illness could well be covered by the airline policies. Have some form of proof (supporting documentation) ready when the airline asks for it.

If you’re filing a claim over the phone or interacting with an airline employee, just remember that you’ll get results with kindness, not a demanding attitude. You’ll be surprised the power an airline customer service agent has to make your day.

Change and Cancellation Fees for top airlines

Here’s our guide to the major U.S. airlines’ domestic cancellation and change fees. If you have an international flight, the fees will vary and generally be much higher. Also, when you’re changing a flight, you will pay for any increase in the fare or taxes. All of these airlines allow free cancellation within at least the first 24 hours of booking.

Note that changing a flight usually results in you receiving credit on the airfare with which you canceled. In other words, you can cancel your ticket, but you won’t receive a rebate to your card – you’ll just have credit for a future flight. I’m absolutely considering this as a cancellation policy in the below table.

AirlineChange feesCancellation feesSpecial considerationsAward flight fees
Alaska Airlines$0$0Change fees for main and first class fares disappear forever in January 2021 (not for “Saver” fares). Only valid for Alaska flights, not when flying on partners$0
American Airlines$0$0You can change or cancel all American Airlines flights except international Basic Economy revenue fares$0
Delta$0$0Only Domestic flights (including Puerto Rico and USVI) are waved forever, minus Basic Economy. International flights will vary for tickets purchased in 2021 and beyond$0
JetBlue$0$0JetBlue will waive fees for existing bookings made through February 28, 2021. After that, fees will vary$0
Southwest$0$0Southwest has always had free changes and cancellations. They totally rule$0
United Airlines$0$0You can change or cancel domestic United flights, as well as those to the Caribbean and Mexico – excluding Basic Economy. International flights will vary for tickets purchased in 2021 and beyond$0 if canceled at least 30 days before travel

If you booked your flight with bank points like Chase Ultimate Rewards, you’ll have to check each bank’s cancellation policies separately. Read our post on what you need to know about canceling flights paid with bank points.


What’s the difference between cancellation and change fees? 

Funny you should ask that. When it comes to the updated policies of the airlines, there really is little difference.

A cancellation you may associate with getting a proper refund on your credit card. That’ll only happen if you actually book a flexible fare with the airline. Otherwise, you’ll just get a travel voucher that you can use later (usually within 12 months of the issue date).

If you want to change your flight, you can simply choose another date and pay the difference if the new fare is higher.

Whether you want to change or cancel your trip, you can achieve both by cancelling your flight and using your new credits for another trip.

How can I change my flight without paying a fee? 

The one good thing emerging from the novel coronavirus is the fact that you’ll no longer have to pay change fees on the vast majority of flights. Stay domestic and you’re pretty well guaranteed to make as many changes as you like for free.

Again, you’ll have to pay the difference in fare if your new flight costs more.

How can I cancel my flight without paying a fee?

 If you want to simply postpone your trip, nearly all U.S. airlines will no longer charge a fee for this. If you want your money back, you’ll have to spring for the often super-pricey flexible fares.

Bottom line

Historically, when your travel plans change, the airlines capitalize. This is a new and strange era we live in concerning change and cancellation policies, where everyone adopts the over-generous policies of Southwest flights. We could ever have dreamed of this from notoriously nickel-and-dimey airlines.

You won’t always be able to avoid change or cancellation fees, but you can get the fees waived in some situations. For example, if your flight time changes significantly, or you have certain unplanned events (jury duty, severe illness, etc.), you should be able to get the fees waived.

Each airline’s rules are different, so do your research before you smash the checkout button. Knowing each airline’s policies can go a long way in reducing unwanted fees.

What do you do to avoid or reduce outrageous airline fees? Let us know in the comments. And subscribe to our newsletter for more travel tips delivered to your inbox once per day.

Sarah Hostetler is a contributor to Million Mile Secrets. She covers topics on points and miles, credit cards, airlines, hotels, and general travel.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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