Comprehensive Guide to Canceling Airline Award Tickets

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Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Nick Ewen runs through award ticket cancellation policies for major airlines, and explains what you can do to minimize or avoid change fees altogether.

Booking airline award tickets is more of an art than a science. You may often want to make an award reservation before you’re even sure that you’ll be taking the trip, because it’s no fun to wait and then find out the availability you want has disappeared.

Unfortunately, most airlines charge fees when you cancel and redeposit an unused award ticket, and those fees eat into the value of your points and miles. In this post, I’ll explain these award cancellation policies so you’ll know what to expect if your plans change, and offer an overview of how you can earn miles in each program.

Virgin Atlantic 787-9 Dreamliner
Your flight may be operated by Virgin Atlantic, but the effective cancellation policy comes from whichever airline booked your ticket.

Before we get into the policies of each airline, it’s important to note that when you redeem miles, you are subject to the cancellation fees of the airline whose miles you used, not the carrier operating the flight. This is especially important given the rapidly expanding partnerships both within and outside of alliances.

A perfect example is the trip I recently booked on Virgin Atlantic. One of the reservations was booked using Delta SkyMiles, while the other was booked using Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles (transferred from my sign-up bonus on the Citi ThankYou Premier Card to take advantage of the current 25% transfer bonus). Even though my wife and I are taking the exact same flights, each ticket is subject to different cancellation policies, since I used different mileage currencies for the reservations.

Distance-based redemptions using Avios can be lucrative, but you may prefer adding a free stopover or open jaw with other programs.
If you’ve already taken the first flight (or two) of your itinerary, it may be much more challenging to cancel!

This post will focus on the cancellation policies of wholly unused awards, meaning that you have yet to depart on the first leg of your ticket. Once your trip has started, it becomes significantly more difficult and complicated to cancel your ticket, and in some cases you can’t!

In addition, the policies below are for cancelling awards, not changing them. While some airlines treat the two equally (Alaska and Delta, for example), others charge higher fees for changes (like Avianca) and some charge lower fees for changes (like American). Stay tuned for a post focusing on award ticket changes next week.

Here’s a quick run-down of airline cancellation fees on award tickets for the 16 airlines included in TPG’s monthly valuations:

Airline

Award Ticket Cancellation Fee

Fee Waivers/Discounts

Air Canada

$90

None

Air France/KLM

€45 ($50) for Classic and Round-the-World Awards

Waived for Flex Awards

Alaska

Free at least 60 days prior to flight; $125 fewer than 60 days prior to flight

Waived for MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75K members

American

$150 for first ticket; $25 for additional tickets reinstated to same account at same time

Waived for Executive Platinum members

ANA

3,000 miles per person

None

Avianca

$50 per passenger

None

British Airways

Varies by region of departure, but £35/€42.50/$55 for flights departing from the UK and Ireland/Europe/North America

Waived for Gold members

Delta

$150 per ticket

Waived for Diamond and Platinum Medallion members

Frontier

$75

Waived for Last Seat Availability awards

JetBlue

$0 – 150 (varies based on type of fare, price of ticket and/or cancellation window)

Waived for Mosaic members and any traveler on the same reservation

Lufthansa

€50/$60/CHF70

None

Singapore

$30

$15 for elite members

Southwest

$0

n/a

United

$200 per ticket

$125 for Premier Silver; $100 for Premier Gold; $0 for Premier Platinum, 1K and Global Services

Virgin America

$100

Waived for Gold members

Virgin Atlantic

£30 ($47) for flights originating in the UK; $50 (or the equivalent local currency) for flights originating elsewhere

None

As you can see, these policies are all over the map, and many include some additional exceptions and details. Let’s take a closer look at each one through a ranking of most to least generous (links will take you to the relevant page on the respective airline’s website):

Southwest has the nicest cabin crew among domestic airlines in my opinion.
Southwest leads the pack, allowing you to cancel your award ticket for free at any point leading up to your departure.

1. Southwest Airlines

It’s no secret that Southwest Airlines is highly generous when it comes to the added fees that are often the bane of casual travelers. Southwest doesn’t charge for checked bags, and doesn’t impose change fees when you modify a trip; you’ll just have to pay any applicable difference in fare. In addition, you can cancel an award itinerary at any time and immediately get your Rapid Rewards points back in your account. You can also get a refund of the taxes and fees (or save it as a credit toward a future trip).

Southwest Rapid Rewards is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards (earned on cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and Ink Plus Business Card); you can also open the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Card, which offers 50,000 bonus points after spending $2,000 in the first three months.

2. Singapore Airlines

If you redeem KrisFlyer miles (like TPG recently did to fly in first class on the A380 from Frankfurt to JFK), you won’t have to pay an arm and a leg to cancel the itinerary and get your miles back. It’ll cost you just $30, and if you happen to hold elite status in the KrisFlyer program, the fee drops to $15.

Singapore is one of two airlines that partners with all four transferable points programs: Starwood Preferred Guest, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Amex Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards (earned on cards like the Citi Prestige Card).

ANA actually charges you in miles when you cancel an award ticket.
ANA charges you in miles when you cancel an award ticket.

3. ANA

The ANA Mileage Club program is unique in that it doesn’t charge a monetary fee. Instead, you’ll have to pay miles to cancel an award ticket (regardless of the destination). Instead of getting the full number of miles back, you’ll wind up 3,000 miles short. These are worth $45 based on TPG’s most recent valuations, which puts the program just ahead of the next entry on the list.

ANA is a transfer partner of both Starwood Preferred Guest and American Express Membership Rewards.

4. Avianca

Avianca’s LifeMiles program regularly offers lucrative promotions for purchasing miles, and has a straightforward cancellation policy if you wind up being unable to keep a reservation. You’ll pay $50 per passenger per ticket, end of story. Unfortunately, this can’t be done online, so you’ll need to call the Avianca/TACA call center. Based on this FlyerTalk thread, be prepared to spend up to three hours on the phone to make this happen (though it could be quicker with a more competent agent).

Avianca doesn’t partner with any of the transferable point currencies, so you’ll need to buy miles or credit Star Alliance flights to the LifeMiles program.

Virgin's latest Upper Class cabins are pretty swanky.
If you must miss out on Virgin Atlantic’s swanky new Upper Class, at least you won’t go bankrupt by canceling the trip!

5. Virgin Atlantic

Richard Branson’s flagship airline also has reasonable award ticket cancellation fees: you’ll need to pay just £30 (about $47) for flights originating in the UK. For flights originating elsewhere, canceling an award ticket will set you back $50 (or the equivalent in local currency). In either case, you’ll receive 100% of your miles back as long as you cancel more than 24 hours before departure. Within 24 hours, you’ll still be charged £30 (as an administrative fee), but won’t receive any miles back.

Virgin Atlantic is the other airline that partners with all four transferable points programs: Ultimate Rewards, ThankYou Rewards, Membership Rewards and SPG. You can also open the Virgin Atlantic World Elite MasterCard, which currently offers 20,000 bonus miles after your first purchase, plus the opportunity to earn up to 70,000 more miles in your first year.

6. British Airways

Right on the heels of Virgin Atlantic is its fellow UK-based airline; British Airways charges different amounts based on your region of departure; these are likely the most common ones for TPG readers:

  • £35 for the UK and Ireland
  • €42.50 for Europe
  • $55 for North America

These fees are waived if you have Gold status in the Executive Club program.

British Airways partners with Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards and SPG. You can also apply for the British Airways Visa Signature Card, which currently offers 50,000 bonus Avios after spending $2,000 in the first three months.

7. Air France/KLM

The next most generous airline is also based in Europe; FlyingBlue, the loyalty program of Air France and KLM (among others) charges €45 (about $50) to cancel Classic and Round-the-World Awards, while Flex Awards can be cancelled with no fee. Unfortunately, Promo Awards cannot be cancelled, so you better be sure about your plans before locking one of those down!

Flying Blue partners with ThankYou Rewards, Membership Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest.

Lufthansa 747-8i
Booking an award on Lufthansa’s 747-8 but then having to cancel would be a bummer.

8. Lufthansa

Lufthansa’s Miles & More program (which is shared with SWISS and others) has slightly higher cancellation fees: €50/$60/CHF70. However, the above site indicates that the “amount may vary or may be waived for certain awards,” so as usual, you’ll want to double check the specific fare rules of your itinerary when booking or considering a cancellation.

Miles & More is a 1:1 transfer partner with Starwood Preferred Guest, and you can also earn miles from the Miles & More Premier World MasterCard, which currently offers 50,000 miles after spending $5,000 in the first 90 days.

9. Frontier Airlines

If you’ve booked a ticket using Frontier EarlyReturns miles, you’ll have to pay $75 to cancel the award. This fee is waived for Last Seat Availability awards.

You can earn miles on the Frontier Airlines World MasterCard, which is currently offering 40,000 bonus miles after spending $500 in purchases in the first 90 days of account opening.

10. JetBlue

JetBlue recently introduced a new fare structure, and since award tickets book into these same fare types, they’re subject to the same cancellation policies. The fees vary based on the type of fare, the price of the flight, and how much advance notice you provide. Here’s a quick chart:

Window Price Blue Blue Plus Blue Flex Mint
60+ days from departure: <$950 $70 $60 $0 $75
$950+ $70 $60 $0 $0
Within 60 days of departure: <$100 $70 $60 $0 $150
$100 – $149.99 $90 $80 $0 $150
$150 – $949.99 $135 $120 $0 $150
$950+ $135 $120 $0 $0

As you can see, more expensive tickets have more expensive cancellation fees. While Blue Flex fares never incur a fee, those awards are astronomical to begin with.

JetBlue is a transfer partner of Membership Rewards, and you can also get the JetBlue Card from American Express, which currently offers 20,000 TrueBlue points after you spend $1,000 in purchases on the card in your first three months.

11. Air Canada

Aeroplan, the spun-off loyalty program of Air Canada, offers a very simple cancellation policy: $90 per person per award ticket.

Aeroplan is a transfer partner of both Membership Rewards and SPG, and launched the TD Aeroplan Visa for US cardholders earlier this year.

12. Virgin America

Like Air Canada, Virgin America has a consistent cancellation policy: canceling and redepositing your Elevate award ticket will cost you $100. However, this fee is waived for Gold members.

Virgin America partners with Membership Rewards, and offers several co-branded credit cards.

Emirates first class is one luxurious product listed on ExpertFlyer.
Emirates first class is a great use of Alaska miles, but if you must cancel within 60 days of your flight, you’ll be out $125!

13. Alaska Airlines

Figuring out where to place Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan was a little challenging, because in one sense it has a very generous cancellation policy. If you have 60 or more days until your flight, you can cancel your award ticket for free and get a refund for all of your miles and money (from taxes and fees). Unfortunately, I would bet that most cancellations happen much closer to departure, in which case the fee rises to $125 (though this is waived for MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75K).

Like Virgin America, Alaska only partners with Starwood Preferred Guest. You could also get the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card from Bank of America, which currently offers 25,000 bonus miles upon account approval, plus a $100 statement credit after you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days.

14. American Airlines

The bottom of the list should come as no surprise, but the best of the worst is the AAdvantage program. As of now, American charges $150 to cancel an award ticket, plus an additional $25 for additional tickets reinstated to the same AAdvantage account at the same time. Fortunately, this fee is waived for Executive Platinum members.

American is a transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest, and is actually offering a 20% bonus for transfers from SPG through August 7, 2015. Also, Citi Prestige cardholders can redeem ThankYou points for 1.6 cents apiece toward American Airlines flights via the ThankYou Travel center.

There are also several co-branded credit cards offering lucrative sign-up bonuses and great earning potential, including the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard (currently offering 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months) and the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard (currently offering an increased sign-up bonus of 75,000 miles after spending $7,500 in the first 3 months).

You can leverage existing airline status to attain status on other carriers.
Canceling a Delta One award ticket is not only a sad proposition but a costly one as well.

15. Delta Air Lines

Coming in second-to-last is Delta SkyMiles, which imposes a blanket fee of $150 per ticket. This fee is waived for Platinum and Diamond Medallions, which will be one of the features I miss most when I lose my status early next year! Keep in mind that all changes and cancellations must happen at least 72 hours before your first flight.

Delta is a transfer partner of both Membership Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest. You can also choose from several Delta American Express cards, incuding the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express, which is currently offering 30,000 bonus miles after you make $1,000 in purchases within the first three months.

16. United Airlines

Last place belongs to United, which charges a whopping $200 for canceling an award ticket when you don’t have status. This is discounted for all elites:

  • $125 for Premier Silver
  • $100 for Premier Gold
  • $0 for Premier Platinum, 1K and Global Services

United partners with both Ultimate Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest (though the transfer ratio from SPG is a measly 2:1). You also have a few credit card options, like the United MileagePlus Explorer Card, which is currently offering 30,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 in the first three months. Even better, the United MileagePlus Explorer Business Card is offering 50,000 miles after you spend $2,000 in the first three months.

Southwest
Southwest is (sadly) the only airline that offers completely fee-free award ticket cancellations.

Analysis

As you can see, the three major US carriers fall at the bottom of the pack, with each charging cancellation fees of at least $150! While Southwest is well known for its lack of added fees, many other airlines have much more reasonable charges for when you have to cancel a trip. I’d much rather pay $40 – $50 to cancel a ticket than see the miles go to waste.

Fortunately, there are some ways that you can avoid paying these fees. One of the simplest strategies is to wait it out. Some airlines (Delta comes to mind) are notorious for making schedule changes in the months leading up to a flight. If your itinerary changes even by just a few minutes, you may be able to cancel the entire ticket and avoid paying a fee. Even without a schedule change, you may be able to explain the situation and find a sympathetic agent willing to waive the cancellation fee as a “one-time courtesy.”

Note that this isn’t a good strategy for Alaska Airlines when you’re more than two months out from your flight, as those cancellations don’t carry any added fee!

You may also want to consider a status match if you’re facing a hefty cancellation fee. While most airlines these days offer status challenges, a few (like Alaska and United) will either grant a match or give you temporary status at a level that waives these fees. These status matches are typically only available once during the lifetime of an account, but if you have a family of four booked on a United award ticket that must be canceled, using up the status match to save $800 might be worthwhile.

Finally, if you must cancel a trip and have to pay a fee, you can always use a card like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard to wipe out the fee once it posts to your account. While it’s not the most enjoyable way to spend your miles, it keeps money in your pocket for when you can rebook and actually take the trip.

Foreign transaction fees can be like a vacuum cleaner, sucking up your hard-earned cash for no reason!
Cancellation fees can be like a vacuum cleaner, sucking up your hard-earned cash with nothing in return! Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Bottom line

As you can see, there’s a wide spectrum of award ticket cancellation fees imposed by the most popular carriers, and sadly, it seems like these fees are here to stay. Remember that the policy of the booking airline applies to these award tickets, not the airline that actually operates your flight. As usual, be sure to do your due diligence and investigate what fees might be imposed if your plans change and you’re forced to cancel your trip.

What experiences have you had with award ticket cancellation fees?

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