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The threat of missing a flight feels like an imminent disaster, but there are ways to salvage your ticket and maybe even your plans. Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Nick Ewen explains how you can avoid (at least some of) the stress of last-minute flight changes by putting these favorable airline policies to work.
Unless you’re the luckiest traveler in the world, chances are you’ve had at least one instance where you needed to change your plans at the last minute. Maybe it was a meeting that ended early (or ran late), or maybe you hit traffic on the way to the airport and were going to miss your flight. Fortunately, most airlines offer same-day change policies that allow you to confirm a seat on an earlier (or later) flight without paying those onerous change fees and huge fare differences. In this post, I’ll explain these policies for key airlines, and give you some suggestions about how you can use them to your advantage.
Before we get into the specifics, note that I’ll be focusing on policies that allow you to confirm a seat on a different flight. Most airlines also offer a standby option, but this leaves you at the mercy of no-shows or cancellations. I don’t know about you, but I’d feel much better about changing my flight knowing I’d be able to snag a seat.
In addition, the information in this post reflects the published policies of the airlines. With any of these carriers you’ll find reports of exceptions made by a flexible and accommodating agent, but if you’re looking to make a same-day flight change, I wouldn’t count on anything outside of the written policy.
Finally, many of the policies are more complicated than quantum physics. I’ve done my best to capture as many details as possible without getting too far into the weeds, but feel free to share your own experiences in the comments section below!
Alaska allows any passenger to change a flight on the day of departure for a fee of $25. You can do this online, using the app, at the airport or over the phone. You can request this change as early as 6 hours prior to the departure time of your new flight, though this limitation doesn’t apply to MVP members (who can request changes beginning at 10pm the day prior to departure). You can even use this option if you’ve missed your flight, but in that case you must see an airport agent.
The following additional restrictions apply:
- You must keep the same origin, destination and connection cities. Co-terminal changes are also not allowed (in other words, you can’t same-day confirm from a JFK flight to a Newark flight).
- Your new flight must depart on the same calendar day as your original flight (with the exception of red-eyes leaving between 12am and 3:59am, in which case you can change to a flight departing 10pm or later on the previous day).
- The $25 fee is waived for passengers traveling in F, D, A, Y and Z fare classes.
American offers a same-day flight change policy as well, though it’ll cost most passengers $75 for domestic flights or $150 for flights from New York-JFK to London-Heathrow (a new policy implemented earlier this month). Both of these fees are waived for Executive Platinum members. You can make these changes online, over the phone or at the airport starting 24 hours prior to your new intended departure time, and there must be E inventory available on your desired flight. This will show up on AA.com if you go to your reservation and click Same Day Change, or you can use ExpertFlyer to find availability:
Unfortunately, the policy just became more restrictive last week. American always restricted these changes to flights on the same calendar day and with the same origin and destination; now you must have the same routing, and cannot change to a co-terminal airport. This is especially unfortunate given that American and US Airways will soon be merging their reservations systems, but won’t allow you to switch your connecting airport from one carrier’s hub to another.
Note that this policy also applies to award tickets. Like full-fare tickets, AAnytime awards can be changed for free. MileSAAver awards can be changed for free if there’s MileSAAver availability on your new flight, as with all flight changes with the same origin/destination. Otherwise, you can still pay the same $75 to confirm a flight change. Remember too that Choice Plus fares include no change fees plus waived same-day flight change fees.
Delta has changed its same-day confirm policy multiple times over the last few years, and while the current policy is an improvement over the initial 2013 change, it’s still quite restrictive. The greatest limitation is that coach passengers must have the same fare class available on the new flight (paid premium travelers just need an available seat in the first or business class cabin). If you’re booked on a discount economy fare (like L, U, T or X), this can be quite challenging even on light travel days. For example, looking at this afternoon’s available flights from Orlando to New York, I see only Q inventory despite the seat maps showing anywhere from 16 to 30 open seats! To make matters worse, you can’t look to ExpertFlyer for help, since Delta forced the site to remove all information last fall.
You can request a same-day flight change up to 24 hours prior to the departure time of your original flight, though you can only change to a new flight on the same calendar day as your original ticket. The fee for general SkyMiles members and Silver Medallion members is $50; this is waived for Diamond, Platinum and Gold Medallion flyers (a nice perk of Delta elite status).
There are several other restrictions to Delta’s policy:
- It’s only available on flights within the US, Canada, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.
- You cannot change your origin, destination or co-terminal.
- You cannot change from a connecting flight to a nonstop flight, though you can change from nonstop to connecting to earn additional miles.
- Basic Economy fares (E class) are not eligible.
- Medallion upgrades do not transfer to your new flight.
- Purchased Trip Extras or premium seats (including Comfort+ and Preferred Seats) also do not transfer to your new flight.
Fortunately Delta’s policy does apply to award tickets, though the same fare class restriction applies.
JetBlue also allows travelers to confirm a seat on an earlier flight. However, the policy only applies to cities with multiple flights per day, and you must contact JetBlue prior to the departure of your originally scheduled flight. The change can be made beginning at midnight (in the time zone of your departure city) on the same calendar day of your original flight. You can call JetBlue or make the change at the airport, and while you must keep the same city pairs, you are allowed to change to a “designated co-located airport.”
The fee for this service is $50 per passenger, though that fee is waived when you purchase a Blue Flex ticket (which is part of JetBlue’s new fare structure announced last month).
While Southwest is well-known for having no change fees and no checked bag fees, the carrier’s same-day change policy is (unfortunately) relatively limited. Only Business Select and Anytime fares are eligible for free changes on the day of departure, subject to availability. If you’re booked on a Wanna Get Away fare, you’ll need to pay the applicable fare difference to “upgrade” your ticket to an Anytime fare in order to change for free.
United offers an approach similar to Delta’s, but with a few additional options. Any traveler can take advantage of a same-day change provided that the original fare class is available and the new flight is within 24 hours of the originally scheduled departure. However, if only higher fare classes are available, you can pay the fare difference to “upgrade” your ticket to the lowest available fare class and then make the change. You’ll still need to pay the same-day change fee ($75, which is waived for Premier Gold, Platinum, 1K and Global Services members), but you’ll avoid the change fees that are usually charged when you have to modify a ticket.
There are a few nice things about United’s policy:
- It doesn’t restrict your flight to the same calendar day. If you have a 6am flight on Friday morning but want to get home Thursday night instead, you can call to make this switch at 6am Thursday morning.
- You’re allowed to change your routing as long as your origin/destination remain the same and the new routing is permitted by the fare rules of your original ticket.
- You can make the change after checking in, even with checked baggage, though you’ll need to be confirmed at least 60 minutes before the new flight’s departure time to allow your bags to be transferred.
The policy also applies to award tickets.
Until US Airways and American Airlines merge their reservations systems, flights operated by US Airways follow a slightly different policy than those operated by American. For starters, the “MoveUp” program offered by US Airways applies to all flights, not just domestic ones. You’ll need to pay $75 for flights within the US, Latin America, the Caribbean and Canada, or $150 on flights to/from Europe, Israel and South America. However, these fees are waived for all AAdvantage elite members.
The program also has some other restrictions:
- You must be at the airport to use the MoveUp program.
- The new flight must be within 6 hours prior to your original departure — you can’t execute a same-day change to a later flight.
- The new flight must depart after 3am and have the same number of stops.
- All flights on the itinerary must have availability (for itineraries with connections).
On the plus side, US Airways allows you to take any open seat, with no capacity, inventory or fare class limitations.
On the day of departure, Virgin America also allows you to change to an earlier (or later) flight if there are seats available. You can make this change at the airport or by calling customer service, and you must confirm your seat before the scheduled departure of the originally ticketed flight. The fee depends on the length of your flight:
- Domestic long-haul flights (such as New York to San Francisco) and international flights — $50
- Domestic medium-haul flights (such as Los Angeles to Chicago) — $35
- Domestic short-haul flights (such as San Francisco to Las Vegas) — $25
Using These policies to Your Advantage
Now that we’ve reviewed the same-day change policies for the major US carriers, let’s look at how and when you might use them to your advantage (aside from the obvious benefit of getting home earlier):
1. When you’re going to miss your first flight — I’m sure many of you have been in this situation. Whether you’re late due to weather, a faulty alarm or some other circumstance, these policies allow you to change plans without having to worry about going standby on later flights. I once got stuck in a terrible traffic jam en route to the Omaha Airport on a Friday afternoon, and it was clear I wasn’t going to make my flight to Minneapolis (the last one of the night). Fortunately, there was a later departure to Atlanta, and I was able to call Delta and grab a confirmed seat on the later flight to get home that evening.
Just keep in mind that some carriers impose restrictions that affect this use:
- Many (like JetBlue and Virgin America) require you to make the change prior to the departure time of your original flight.
- Some (like American) require you to keep the same routing, so you aren’t able to switch your connection to a different hub.
2. To improve your chances of getting an upgrade — Since you’re reading The Points Guy, chances are you care (at least somewhat) about riding up front when you travel. If you hold airline elite status, you can use these policies to improve your upgrade potential. This is another instance where ExpertFlyer can be your best friend. Many airlines allow you to search for available fare buckets, which will tell you how many first/business-class seats are being sold on a given flight. While it’s not an exact science, it can give you an idea of how likely you are to score an upgrade.
For example, here’s a snapshot of American flight availability from Miami to New York-LaGuardia (pulled the night before earlier this week):
If you were booked on the 12:30pm flight, your chances of an upgrade would be quite slim. However, a change to either the 9:25am or 10:59am flight would significantly improve your shot at riding up front.
3. To earn additional miles — Some airlines allow you to use these policies to switch from a nonstop flight to a connecting flight. While some might question your sanity for adding additional time to your travel day, it does allow you to earn additional miles (so no judgement here at TPG!). This can prevent that end-of-year scramble to qualify for elite status, and help you avoid a potential mileage run or two to reach your desired status level.
Keep in mind that both Delta and United have instituted revenue-based mileage accrual, so this strategy won’t help you earn additional redeemable miles on either of those carriers. However, you would earn more elite-qualifying miles and elite-qualifying segments for changing to a connecting flight.
These same-day change policies are a rare win-win for both consumers and airlines. You can actually modify your flight(s) without paying an exorbitant fee when your plans change, and the airline gets some additional revenue and may avoid giving vouchers (if your change pushes a flight from being oversold to sold out). However, it’s important to be familiar with the specific policies of each carrier so you know what to expect.
What are your experiences with same-day travel changes?
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