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Avoiding Award Travel Change and Cancellation Fees

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Travelers generally pick one airline over another based on cost and the in-flight experience, but in this post, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele looks at why you should also consider the costs of not flying at all.

Right now my family and I are supposed to be in Key West — one of my top 7 Spring Break Destinations for Families. We had the flights, hotels, and rental car reserved, and then life happened. First, I got sick and fell behind at work, then we had some major home repairs to deal with, and finally my wife took a new job. In the end, we couldn’t afford to take a week off, even though the entire trip was going to be paid for with points and miles.

Thankfully, we were able to cancel the entire trip without paying a dime in penalties because we had booked award flights on Southwest. However, some airlines might have charged the four of us as much as $800 to refund the miles from our canceled award tickets!

Today, I want to examine the policies of major domestic airlines for canceling award flights, and compare the penalties to those incurred for canceling paid tickets. Finally, I’ll look at some strategies for avoiding these fees altogether. This should come in handy if you’re considering canceling a trip, but may also help you decide which programs to use if your schedule isn’t set in stone.

Alaska Airlines lets you change award tickets for free up to 60 days before departure, but cancellations cost $125.

Alaska Airlines
Canceling an award ticket and having the miles redeposited will cost $125 per ticket; however, changes more than 60 days before departure are free. Changes within 60 days, or after departure, also cost $125. The rules are the same for paid tickets.

American Airlines
Canceling an award ticket costs $150 for the first award, and $25 for each additional award reinstated at the same time for the same account. There’s no fee to change an award ticket, so long as the origin and destination remain the same. Note that award change and reinstatement fees are waived for AAdvantage Executive Platinum members.

On the other hand, American does charge an outrageous $200 change fee on paid fares for domestic flights (other than full fare refundable tickets), 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. Thankfully, American offers slightly more expensive Choice Plus fares, which have no change fees.

Delta Air Lines
Delta charges an award ticket redeposit fee of $150, which is waived for Diamond and Platinum Medallion members. Award tickets not canceled at least 72 hours prior to the originating flight departure time are nonrefundable; however, Delta representatives have been known to grant exceptions.

For paid fares, Delta also adds a ridiculous $200 change fee for domestic flights (including to the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico), and the fee jumps to 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. Finally, no changes are allowed to Delta’s new Basic Economy (E class) fares.

Frontier Airlines
Awards can be canceled before departure for a $75 redeposit fee, which is waived for Last Seat Availability awards. Changes made more than eight days before departure are free, though there is a $75 charge for changes to economy awards made within 7 days. Changes to Classic Plus and Last Seat Availability awards are free at all times.

With paid tickets, Frontier charges a $75 change fee for Economy fares, and does not charge for Classic Plus fares.

The Hawaiian Miles award ticket redeposit fees are $150 for mainland and international award flights, and $30 for inter-island award flights.

For paid fares, Hawaiian adds a $200 change fee for flights to the US mainland, between $50 and $200 for international flights, and a $30 change fee for inter-island flights. Refunds on restricted tickets are $100 for flights to the US mainland and international destinations, and $25 for inter-island flights.

Change and cancellation fees for both award and paid fares depend on the price of the ticket. Fares under $100 have a fee of $75, fares between $100 and $149.99 have a fee of $100, and fares of $150 and above have a $150 fee.

Southwest has the friendliest change and cancellation policies among domestic airlines.

Southwest Airlines
Famously, Southwest does not charge change or cancellation fees (just one of the many reasons to love Southwest Rapid Rewards), although you do have to pay the difference in price for any new travel booked. When canceling an award flight, the points automatically return to the account they were redeemed from, while the taxes paid return to the original form of payment. However, when using gift cards, the taxes paid become travel credits that can only be used by the person listed in the original reservation.

With paid tickets, any change must be for a ticket in the same name, and any cancellations result in a travel statement credit that can only be used in the same name. The exception is for Business Select fares, which are fully refundable.

Spirit Airlines
Spirit charges a $110 fee to change or cancel an award ticket prior to departure.

For paid fares, there is a charge of $120 for cancellations or changes when the change is made over the Internet, and $130 if you do so over the phone or at the airport.

United Airlines
Since having one award change fee would be too simple for United, you have to consult a chart to determine how much you’ll pay, which can be as high as $200 per ticket for those without status.

United’s MileagePlus award change fees.

For paid tickets, United charges absurd change fees of $200 for domestic flights and up to $400 or more for international itineraries.

Virgin America
The Elevate frequent flyer program has a simple $100 redeposit fee for changes and cancellations other than those made on the same day.

In contrast, paid tickets are subject to fees based on this chart:

Virgin America's change and cancellation fees for paid tickets.
Virgin America’s change and cancellation fees for paid tickets.

Strategies for avoiding change and cancellation fees

If you’re canceling an award flight with a carrier that charges hefty redeposit fees, you should never pay them until you have to. That’s because several things can happen before the day of departure that can entitle you to cancel your award without penalty. The most common example is a significant schedule change, although each airline and representative may have a different interpretation of how significant the change must be. For example, I was recently able to cancel a British Airways award  on US Airways (and receive my Avios back at no charge) simply because the flight number changed!

Other opportunities for a free refund or mileage redeposit include flight cancellations and delays due to weather, mechanical difficulties, or just about anything else. Finally, airlines have been known to grant fee waivers due to extraordinary circumstances, especially when you can offer documentation.

Finally, you might not want to bother canceling an award at all sometimes. If the change fee is $200, and you have a one-way award that only cost 12,500 miles, then you might rather just forfeit the miles rather than buy them back at 1.6 cents each.

For more info, check out my post on the Best Ways to Avoid Airline Change and Cancellation Fees.

The Scandinavian-style décor at the Radisson Blu Saga hotel.
Hotel and rental car awards are much easier to cancel.

Canceling hotel awards

When you book either a paid or award stay at a hotel, you’ll be shown the cancellation policy detailing how far in advance you must cancel to avoid a penalty. That can range from some time on the day of arrival to several days or weeks beforehand, and can vary between paid and award reservations. For example, the Sheraton Key West had a much less forgiving cancellation policy for paid bookings than it did for award bookings. Either way, I like to note the cancellation deadline by creating a reminder in my calendar.

Canceling car rentals

By far, the easiest reservations to cancel are for car rentals. Some companies offer a small discount on pre-paid reservations, which can have cancellation penalties, but most companies don’t even do that. When it comes to award bookings, I used Hertz Gold points for my Florida trip, which had no cancellation penalty at all. The same is true for most rental car awards.

What experiences have you had with award cancellations?

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