The biggest U.S. airlines have eliminated change fees: Here’s how to best take advantage of these policies

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Imagine a world where every airline had policies as customer-friendly as Southwest.

That’s probably never going to happen — but there have been some sensationally beneficial changes in the past 72 hours. The novel coronavirus has strong-armed airlines into benevolence that they likely would never have developed by themselves.

American Airlines, Delta, United Airlines, and Alaska Airlines are permanently eliminating change fees. Their policies vary in generosity, so we’ll tell you everything you need to know.

You’ll no longer lose money when changing select American Airlines, Delta, and United Airlines flights. (Photo by EWY Media/Shutterstock)

What are change fees

Change fees may not be exactly what you think.

When you book a ticket with American, Delta, United, or Alaska Airlines, you’re normally locked into the exact details of your ticket. If you want to change them in any way (dates, destinations, etc.), you’ve had to pay up — hundreds of dollars, in some cases.

These are change fees, and they’re what are being eliminated with the above carriers. Instead of demanding that you pay to change your flight, these airlines will simply keep the money you spent on the tickets, and issue you a voucher of equal value, good for future flights with that particular airline.

If you book a flight on one of the above airlines, you won’t be locked into any particular itinerary. These vouchers can be used to book any future travel. You can change your dates, you can change your origin and destination airport, you can change your seat.

There are some stipulations, though. Let’s look at them.

Legacy airlines eliminate change fees

American Airlines

What’s the policy?

American Airlines is waiving change fees by offering you a flight credit for your travel. You won’t get a refund to your credit card, but you also won’t lose your money if you decide to postpone a trip. You can use the credit for any future American Airlines flights. If your new flight costs less than your original ticket, you’ll receive a voucher for the remaining amount.

It’s also worth noting that all travelers are now eligible for free standby (previously $75).

Which fares are eligible for no change fees?

All fares, including award flights, can be changed with no fees — except Basic Economy.

Which flights are eligible for no change fees?

Only domestic flights and short-haul international flights, such as travel to Canada the Caribbean, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands qualify for no change fees.

When does this policy begin?

Travel purchased on and after Oct. 1, 2020 qualifies for no change fees. However, if you purchase your tickets on or before Dec. 31, 2020, change fees for all American Airlines flights — including Basic Economy and long-haul international flights — are waived.

Delta

What’s the policy?

Delta allows you to change a ticket with no change fees. Delta has not said what its policy will be if you book a cheaper flight (i.e. if you will receive the difference in fare in the form of a voucher).

Which fares are eligible for no change fees?

All fares can be changed with no fees — except Basic Economy and international award flights.

Which flights are eligible for no change fees?

Only domestic flights, as well as travel to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands qualify for no change fees.

When does this policy begin?

This policy is effective immediately. Delta will also waive change fees on international flights, Basic Economy flights and award flights purchased on or before Dec. 31, 2020.

United Airlines

What’s the policy?

United Airlines is waiving change fees by offering you a flight credit valid for one year after your original ticket issue date. Again, you won’t get a refund to your credit card. Most importantly to note, if you book a flight that costs less than the value of your travel credit, you will lose the remaining value.

On Jan. 1, 2021, all travelers are eligible for free standby.

Which fares are eligible for no change fees?

All fares can be changed with no fees — except Basic Economy. You can change your award flight for free, but if you want to cancel and redeposit your miles into your account, you must do so more than 30 days before departure. You’ll be charged a $125 fee to redeposit miles within 30 days.

Which flights are eligible for no change fees?

Only domestic flights, as well as travel to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands qualify for no change fees.

When does this policy begin?

This policy is effective immediately. Basic Economy and international flights can still be changed for no fee if issued by Dec. 31, 2020.

Alaska Airlines

What’s the policy?

Alaska Airlines is waiving change fees by offering you a flight voucher for future travel on Alaska Airlines. You won’t get a refund to your credit card unless you buy a refundable fare. Alaska has not yet outlined what will happen if you redeem your voucher for a cheaper flight than the value of the voucher. We suspect they will issue an additional voucher for the remaining balance of the original.

For tickets booked through December 31, 2020, you will receive a voucher if any part of your original flight credit is unused when rebooking.

Which fares are eligible for no change fees?

All fares can be changed with no fees, except Saver fares (Alaska’s version of Basic Economy).

Which flights are eligible for no change fees?

All Alaska Airlines flights are eligible for no change fees, including its international flights to Canada, Mexico, and Costa Rica. Award tickets for Alaska Airlines flights are also changeable, though we’re unclear as to whether award flights on partner airlines can be changed.

When does this policy begin?

This policy is effective immediately.

Taking advantage of these new policies

These new rules are a speculative miles and points enthusiast’s fantasy. While this news is truly fantastic for all consumers, it’s especially sweet for those of us who have accrued hundreds of thousands of miles from the best airline credit cards.

The fact that American, United, and Alaska Airlines will allow you to book and redeposit miles as often as you want with no consequence means a lot of travelers will be jumping on great deals long before they sit down to ponder the feasibility of the trips in their own schedule. We see this happen a lot with Southwest flights. They don’t charge change fees, so when an out-of-this-world deal arises, seats quickly sell out from speculative bookings.

It’s a double-edged sword. No change fees likely mean both paid and award seats will be scooped up faster. This could very well create less award availability overall.

United (while we’re all grateful to them for spearheading this new change and forcing the hand of American Airlines and Delta) has the worst change policies by far. I repeat — if you cancel a ticket, receive a travel credit, then use that credit to book a less expensive flight, you will forfeit the remaining value of your credit. In other words, if you cancel a $500 flight and use it to book a $150 flight, you will lose $350.

For this reason, you’ll want to keep each ticket as small as you can, i.e. stick to one-way flights instead of round-trips. Piece together as many legs as you can so you can receive multiple small travel credits instead of one giant credit.

As an example, I recently booked two one-ways: Cincinnati to Oklahoma City, and Dallas to Cincinnati. The flight was considerably less than had I booked a multi-city open-jaw, and if I cancel it, I’ve got two small credits to redeem instead of a high-dollar credit, which is significantly harder to ensure no money is forfeited.

Bottom line

American Airlines, Delta, United Airlines, and Alaska Airlines are ditching their change fees and offering you the opportunity to switch your plans without losing money. You can change your flights and pay the difference if the ticket costs more, or you can receive a travel credit to be redeemed for future airfare.

Just note that each airline has policies that differ slightly, depending on where you’re going and which fare class you booked. Some policies are sneakily dangerous, so don’t just begin frenziedly booking flights you think you might be able to use.

Let us know if you have any questions! And subscribe to our newsletter for more travel news and tips delivered to your inbox once per day.

Joseph Hostetler is a full-time writer for Million Mile Secrets, covering miles and points tips and tricks, as well as helpful travel-related news and deals.

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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