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Folks in the miles & points community talk a lot about the importance of flexibility when it comes to getting Big Travel with Small Money. And usually we’re talking about transferable points or being flexible with your travel dates. But one thing that’s easy to overlook is the value of booking with a travel provider that is flexible!
Some airlines have change or cancellation fees that can be more expensive than a cheap ticket! So if your plans change, you could lose your money. 🙁
But there are lots of things you can do to minimize the chance you’ll be stuck throwing cash away. And it starts with knowing the rules BEFORE you book your flight!
Million Mile Secret Agent Liz commented:
Would it be possible for you to write a post with a recap of the airlines that do not charge a cancellation fee? It would help me and probably other readers a great deal as I sometimes refrain from booking trips for fear of been slapped with a fee, especially when I try to combine airfare with hotel redemptions.
Unfortunately, Southwest is the only major US airline that doesn’t have change or cancellation fees. But there is a US law which requires airlines to allow consumers to cancel within 24 hours of booking without penalty or hold a reservation at the current price for 24 hours without payment.
These legal protections apply only to flights booked 7 days or more in advance. But some airlines are generous and apply the 24-hour grace period to certain flights booked within 7 days. 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 non-refundable travel with a 3rd-party site (Priceline, Orbitz, etc.) the rules might vary. So make sure you do your research first.
Here are tips for avoiding fees and a brief overview of the major US airlines’ change & cancellation penalties.
Getting the Fee Waived
Just because airlines charge excessive fees for changes & cancellations does NOT mean that you’ll have to pay them! There are plenty of different situations where you can get the penalty waived or refunded.
These tips won’t work for everyone, but they will be helpful for folks in a lot of different situations. And while each airline’s policy is different, these tricks can help you avoid nasty fees when your plans change.
1. Wait to See If the 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 1+ hour or cause you to miss a connecting flight for you to be entitled to complimentary changes or cancellations. So 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.
2. Provide Proof of a Qualifying Unplanned Event
Most airlines will waive change fees or refund tickets in certain cases. Events like jury duty, military orders, a death in the family, or a severe illness could be covered under the airline’s policy.
But you’ll need to provide documentation. And the specifics of what qualifies and what doesn’t are different for each airline. So if you’re not sure if your unplanned event qualifies for a refund, contact the travel provider.
You could also get extra coverage by paying for your flight with a card that has travel insurance benefits.
3. Book a (More Expensive) Refundable Fare
It can be a good idea to purchase refundable airfare if your plans are likely to change. But the price increase for purchasing a refundable fare can be many times the cost of a non-refundable ticket.
This isn’t always the case, so it’s a good idea check the price difference for your dates, destinations, etc. to see if it makes sense for your situation.
4. Change Your Travel 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 award changes for free! American Airlines allows you to change your award flight date or departure time without a penalty. But your origin, destination, and award class will need to stay the same. And Alaska Airlines has no penalty for changing or canceling an award (or paid) ticket, as long as you’re not within 60 days of departure.
5. Earn Airline Elite Status
For most folks, this will be 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.
But this isn’t true for all airline elite levels.
Major US Airlines Cancellation & Change Fees
This is a brief overview of the major US 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. And all of these airlines allow free cancellation within at least the first 24 hours of booking.
Alaska Airlines does not charge change or cancellation fees on paid or award tickets if they are made 60 days or more before departure. Any paid or award flight changes or cancellations made within 60 days will have a $125 fee.
And if you cancel an award flight the taxes will be refunded, but call center ($15 per booking) or partner booking (~$13 one-way) fees won’t be reimbursed.
American Airlines charges $200 for domestic flight changes and cancellations on non-refundable tickets.
There are no fees for Saver award ticket changes as long as the airline, destination, origin, and award type stay the same. And for Anytime awards (more expensive), the origin and destination change fee is waived when you keep the same award type.
But if you need to cancel an award ticket or make certain changes, there is a $150 fee.
Delta charges a $200 penalty for domestic ticket changes. And no changes are allowed for Basic Economy fares.
JetBlue charges $75 for changes or cancellations made at least 60 days before departure. But if you’re within the 60 day window, the fee varies from $75 to $150 for changing or canceling a flight, depending on the cost of the airfare. The fees are the same for paid and award tickets because the price of an award ticket is tied to its cash price.
Southwest has no change or cancellation fees! That’s why they’re the favorite airline for domestic travel for many Million Mile Secrets team members.
Plus, 2 free checked bags per person isn’t a bad deal either!
United Airlines charges a $200 fee for domestic airfare cancellations or changes.
To change or cancel an award ticket 61 days or more before departure you’ll pay $75. And if you’re within 60 days of your departure, you’ll pay $125. But the fees are reduced or waived for United Airlines elite members.
When your travel plans change, the airlines will try to make you pay. And while you won’t be able to always avoid change or cancellation fees (unless you’re flying with Southwest), in some situations you can get the fees waived!
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. But each airline’s rules for these events are different. So be sure to do your research and contact the airline.
Knowing each airline’s policies can go a long way in reducing unwanted fees. For example, Alaska Airlines has no fees for changes or cancellations made 60 or more days before your travel date. This is great for folks who want to lock in a good price and still have time to change their mind if another great deal comes along.
What do you do to avoid or reduce outrageous airline fees?