Best Ways to Avoid Airline Change and Cancellation Fees

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This year some airlines have continued to find new and creative ways to charge customers for basic services, but have no fear, they’re sticking to the tried and true ways as well. Today TPG Contributor Jason Steele discusses change and cancellation fee policies, and what your options are to avoid paying them.

Airlines frequently change schedules, or have their flights delayed or cancelled for a number of reasons. When the airlines change plans, passengers are usually offered little (if any) compensation, but when travelers must change or cancel their own reservations, huge fees can apply.

In this post I’ll look at current change and cancellation policies for major domestic carriers, and offer some tips on how to minimize or avoid fees.

cancelled_flights
Passengers get charged when they cancel flights, but generally airlines don’t.

Alaska Airlines does not have a change or cancellation fee for changes made more than 60 days before departure. After departure, the fee is $125 for all paid and award tickets, except refundable first class. Same day confirmed changes are just $25.

Allegiant Air imposes a $75 change fee per person, per segment, and all changes must be made more than 7 days before departure. Allegiant does sell an add-on called TripFlex that waives these fees and allows changes to be made until one hour before departure.

American Airlines has a whopping $200 change fee on paid fares (other than full fare refundable tickets) for domestic flights, and up to $450 for international flights. Same day changes are $75 in economy and free for business and first class passengers on paid fares. For an extra charge (less than the price of refundable tickets), American also offers Choice Plus fares, which have no change fees.

In contrast, American is especially generous with regard to award tickets, allowing changes to flights times, dates, carriers, or class of service so long as the origin and destination remain the same, unless the change results in an outbound departure date within 21 days (in which case a change fee of $75 applies). Changes to an award ticket’s origin or destination incur a $150 change fee. Cancelling an award ticket is $150 for the first award, and $25 for each additional award reinstated at the same time for the same account. Award change and reinstatement fees are waived for Executive Platinum members of the AAdvantage frequent flyer program.

Delta is limiting the amount of SkyMiles you can transfer in from their partners.
Delta charges some of the highest change and cancellation fees among domestic airlines.

Delta Air Lines also charges a $200 change fee for paid domestic flights (including to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico), and up to $450 for international flights. Same day confirmed and standby changes are permitted for Delta SkyMiles Medallion elite members, but there’s a $50 fee for Silver Medallion members. No changes are allowed to Basic Economy (E class) fares for flights after February 1, 2015. For award flights, Delta charges a $150 change or redeposit fee that is waived for Diamond and Platinum Medallion members. Finally, award flights cannot be changed within 72 hours of departure.

Frontier Airlines has a $75 change fee for paid Economy class tickets, but changes are free for those who pay extra for Classic Plus fares. Award tickets can be changed with no fee 8 days or more prior to departure; otherwise the $75 change fee applies.

Hawaiian Airlines charges a $200 change fee for flights to the US mainland, and between $50 and $200 for international flights. There is also a $30 change fee for flights within the Hawaiian islands. Refunds on restricted tickets are $100 for flights to the US mainland and international destinations, and $25 for inter-island flights. Award ticket redeposit fees are $150 for mainland and international flights, and $30 for inter-island award tickets.

JetBlue charges a $75 fee for changes or cancellations made more than 60 days prior to departure. Otherwise the fees are:

  • $75 per person for fares under $100.
  • $100 per person for fares between $100 – $149.
  • $150 per person for fares over $150.

Change and cancellation fees are waived for TrueBlue Mosaic elite members and others traveling on the same itinerary.

Another option is to transfer your points to 70,000 Southwest Rapid Rewards.
Southwest Airlines has the friendliest change and cancellation policies, with no fees in either case.

Southwest Airlines is famous for charging no change or cancellation fees, though naturally you’ll have to make up for any difference in fare. Refunds are given as a credit that can only be used by the person whose name originally appeared on the ticket. However, when an award ticket is changed or cancelled, surplus points are re-deposited in the member’s account and can later be used by anyone. Same-day standby is only permitted for those who book Anytime or Business Select Fare classes.

Spirit Airlines charges a $120 fee for cancellations or changes to paid bookings when the change is made over the Internet, and $130 for those made over the phone or at the airport. The fee is $110 for award flights. There is no fee to change or cancel a flight ticketed within 24 hours, so long as the reservation was made at least 7 days prior to departure.

United Airlines charges change fees of $200 for domestic flights and up to $400 or more for international itineraries. Same day changes can be made for $75, but that fee is waived for MileagePlus Premier Gold, Premier Platinum and Premier 1K members.

When it comes to changing award tickets, United has made its fee structure so complex, that it’s best to just copy and paste their chart:

United strives for complexity when it comes to their change fees on award tickets.
United strives for complexity when it comes to change fees on award tickets.

US Airways charges a change free of $200 per passenger for domestic paid tickets, $150 – $750 for international paid tickets, and $150 for award tickets (waived for those with Chairman’s Preferred status). Their same-day standby program MoveUp costs $75 to $150, which is waived for elite members. There is no fee to change or cancel a flight ticketed within 24 hours, so long as the reservation was made at least 7 days prior to departure.

Virgin America is another carrier with a large, complicated fee structure for ticket changes and cancellations:

Virgin America will win no awards for having a simple fee structure either.
Virgin America also won’t be winning any awards for having a simple fee structure.

Tips for avoiding change and cancellation fees:

1. Take these fees into account when you choose a carrier. Many airlines have gotten away with charging outrageous fees because most passengers fail to consider them when they choose to purchase a ticket, or participate in a frequent flyer program. The best airline in this regard is clearly Southwest, which has the friendliest change and cancellation policies. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tweaked or cancelled existing reservations on Southwest when it made sense for my schedule. Like making a purchase from a store with an excellent return policy, I never hesitate to book flights on Southwest even when I’m just considering taking a trip.

Alaska Airlines has the next best change and cancellation policies, offering free changes 60 days out or more, followed by Frontier, which offers free changes to bookings in its more expensive fare class, and charges just $75 for other tickets. I’m also a big fan of American Airlines’ award ticket change policies, which allow passengers to book imperfect awards and make changes later (other than to the origin and destination) to improve their itinerary.

Finally, travelers whose plans are not set in stone should do everything possible to avoid purchasing tickets from American, United, Delta, and US Airways, which all impose an egregious $200 change fee on domestic tickets, and even more on international flights.

2. Remember the 24 hour rule. Airlines must now offer free 24 hour holds, or refunds within 24 hours of booking, so long as the flight is more than 7 days in the future. Most airlines don’t stick to the 7 day requirement, but Spirit, Allegiant, and US Airways do.

a
If an airline adjusts your itinerary even slightly, you may be able to get a pass on change and cancellation fees.

3. Don’t pay a cancellation fee until you have to. If you book a flight and you later need to cancel the trip, you shouldn’t pay that cancellation fee any earlier than you must. You never know when the airline might announce a schedule change, delay, or flight cancellation that will entitle you to a refund without paying the fee. Sometimes weather or other events disrupt flight schedules in advance, and airlines issue change fee waivers as well.

Otherwise, unused tickets can usually be re-booked after the flight by paying the same change fee you would have paid in advance. A notable exception is Southwest, which now requires changes and cancellations to be made before departure, or passengers lose the value of their tickets!

4. Carefully consider booking one way versus round-trip flights. These days, most carriers charge the same total price regardless of whether you book two one-way tickets or a single round-trip itinerary, but the implications for change fees can be dramatic. For example, if you book a $300 round-trip flight on American, Delta, United, or US Airways, and then need to change the first flight, you’ll incur their $200 change fee no matter what, since missing the first flight will cancel out the return. However, if you instead booked two $150 one-way fares, you could simply discard the first flight and purchase a new one-way ticket with the same airline, with another carrier, or as an award ticket, sacrificing only what you already paid for the first flight.

On the other hand, booking a round-trip flight enables you to change dates on both ends of the trip for a single change fee. In general, it makes more sense to book flights as round-trip tickets when the total cost of the trip is significantly more than double the change fee.

Dog eating homework
The “dog ate my homework” excuse probably won’t fly, but there are plenty of legitimate reasons to ask an airline to waive your fees. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

5. Have a good reason. Travelers can often have change fees waived in the event of illness, a death in the family, or other extraordinary circumstances like a natural disaster. Just be prepared to offer documentation, as it has been a long time since airlines simply took passengers at their word.

What are your strategies for avoiding change and cancellation fees? Please share your suggestions in the comments below.

For more info on avoiding airline fees, see these posts:
Avoiding Airline Fees
My Experience Getting Out of Delta Flight Change Fees
Higher Airline Change Fees Are Here to Stay
How Do I Get United to Refund My Airfare or Waive the Change Fee?

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