Higher Airline Change Fees Are Here To Stay – United, US Airways and Delta All Raise Prices

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Update: On the morning of the publication of this post, American Airlines also announced it would be matching United, US Airways and Delta in increasing its ticketing change/cancellation fees for travel within the U.S., between the U.S. and Canada, and between both the U.S. and Canada and Mexico, Puerto Rico & the Virgin Islands, the Caribbean and Central America to $200.

Apart from the brief air traffic controller furlough brought on by sequestration “cuts” last week, the big news in air travel was the fact that first United, then US Airways, and now Delta have all raised their ticket change fees within the last week, with probably more airlines to follow suit.

All three airlines have raised the price of changing your domestic non-refundable ticket from $150 to $200 now while international ticket change fees have stuck around the $250 mark.

The one bright spot is that American has not yet raised its prices, Following suit, American announced it would also be raising its change fees on flights within the US, Canada, Mexico, Hawaii and the Caribbean to $200 (fees on international tickets remain the same), although the airline still offers its new Choice Fares, where you can pay $68 more on a non-refundable ticket and have your change fees waived if you think your plans are going to be in flux. You also get a 50% mileage bonus with Choice Plus fares ($88 roundtrip), so I end up buying them most of the time and have saved hundreds on change fees, while banking more miles.

Here’s a table showing the current change/cancellation fees of the major US airlines:

Airline

Domestic Change Fee

International Change Fee

Award Ticket Change Fee

American

$200, Choice Essential and Choice Plus fares  do not have change fees

$150-$750

$150

Alaska

$75 online, $100 by phone

$75 online, $100 by phone

$75 online, $100 by phone

Delta

$200

$250

$150

United

$200

$250

$75-$150

US Airways

$200

$250

$150

Southwest

$0

$0

$0

JetBlue

$100

$100

$100

Virgin America

$100

$100

$100

Air Canada

$75

$75

$90

Although we all hate them, airline fees – including change fees, checked bag fees and more – are here to stay, and they’re only going to get worse. That’s because they are the one revenue stream that is largely responsible for many airlines’ return to profitability.

To take two stark examples, the Bureau of Transportation statistics reports that in 2011 (the last full year for which statistics are available), US airlines collected nearly $3.4 billion in baggage fees while reservation change and cancellation fees in 2011 totaled over $2.38 billion (with Delta topping the list at over three quarters of a billion dollars)! No wonder airlines are jacking them even higher.

Airline Ticket Change Fees 2011

This infographic from Visually shows the various fees that North American airlines have started charging including for phone service, checked bags, pets, unaccompanied minors and change fees. Notice the huge spike at change fees, which involves both more airlines than any other fee as well as a higher price – and this is pre-$200 markup!

AGuidetotheComplexWorldofAirlineFees

Airlines have realized that they can tack on fees for any number of amenities and conveniences and now it’s just a matter of charging as much as possible for them without losing customers. Though the $200 mark spawned a lot of outrage, it did not exactly surprise anyone. It seems as though we’ve all just gotten used to being gouged.

Part of that is because even at $200, the change fee is still less than purchasing refundable fares, which have long been priced outrageously high. But there’s nothing more frustrating than having to throw away a cheap ticket you got because paying the change fee would cost more than just buying a whole new ticket.

So why would airlines be raising prices if they’re already profitable? Well, although many of them are doing better than they have in a long time, there is still a crushing amount of competition that requires airlines to price tickets as low as possible to attract customers and then use these fees to wring every last possible penny out of them. After all, it’s much harder to walk away from a ticket because of fees if you’ve already bought it, and airlines can bank on the fact that very few flyers actually take the time to educate themselves about possible pitfalls and pricing before purchasing a ticket.

What can you do to avoid change fees? Unlike other perks that airline co-branded credit cards confer, such as a free checked bag, a companion ticket or priority boarding, none include waived ticket change fees in their benefits package, so you’re stuck, no matter what plastic you’re carrying. Top-tier elite status on some airlines used to spare high flyers some of these fees (and many do offer same-day flight change fee waivers), but those benefits are changing now as well. For example, Delta just revised its same day confirmed and standby rules to account for ticket fare class and tightens the time window in which you can change your flights.

Other than that, you can fly Southwest, which doesn’t charge change or baggage fees for the most part. However, it also doesn’t fly many places beyond the continental US. You can also fly American and take advantage of their Choice Fares (which also include other perks like priority boarding and mileage bonuses) if your plans are likely to change and you don’t mind spending $68-$88 extra dollars (beats $150 or $200 if the airline raises its prices too!).

Like it or not (and I can’t imagine anyone who does!) airline fees are here to stay and they’re only going to get higher. Although many have been around for a while at this point, they still come as a surprise to many travelers who go through a long booking process only to find that they’ll have to pay even more for something as simple as a checked bag, choosing a window seat, a slight itinerary change or even just asking for a pillow or blanket.

The best thing you can do to avoid the worst of these is do your homework. Know what fees the airline you are planning to fly charges for what, and then make sure you travel in such a way as to avoid as many of them as possible – whether it’s taking a carry-on bag instead of checking, or paying a higher fare on dates you know you will be traveling rather than taking a chance on a lower fare when you might have to change your plans.

Have airline ticketing change fees affected the way you travel? Will these new fee increases change your travel plans or loyalty to an airline?

With additional reporting by Eric Rosen.

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