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How to Avoid Airline Change and Cancellation Fees

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Most of us have been there: Life happens and you have to change or cancel a flight. Usually, you’re met with stiff fees or an altogether nonrefundable ticket. As TPG Points & Miles Contributor Richar Kerr explains, though, it’s possible to avoid these charges if you’re aware of certain rules and policies.

While it’s fairly well engrained in the flying public’s brain that most airfares are not fully refundable, there are circumstances and strategies you can utilize to limit the damage or — in a few cases — receive a full refund.  Today, I’ll look at the policies that apply to most airlines when it comes to trying to get a refund on paid tickets, so you can hopefully avoid hefty (and often demoralizing) cancellation fees along the way.

Travelers often complain about nonrefundable airline tickets and cancellation fees, usually to the tune of, “If I can return clothes to Gap and get a refund, I should be able to do the same with my plane ticket.” Of course, that’s not really comparing apples to apples; as long as you’re occupying the seat on a plane, the airline cannot sell it to someone else. If you were to cancel at the last minute and receive a full refund, your seat would fly empty and the airline would be out that revenue. To combat this, airlines already sell more tickets than there are seats on aircraft, and they charge hefty fees on most fares for canceling or changing your flight.

In October, my iPhone auto updated the software at night deleting my alarm and allowing me to try a last minute cancelation.
In October, my iPhone auto updated the software at night deleting my alarm, thus forcing me to attempt a last-minute cancellation.

Are You Eligible for a Refund?

About 99% of the time, your ability to receive a full or partial refund when canceling a paid flight (as opposed to canceling award tickets) depends upon the fare class you booked. The more discounted the fare class of your ticket, the more restrictions and fees are tied to it when trying to change or cancel. For example, booking Delta’s Basic Economy “E” fares will give you a great price, but few benefits besides flying you from point A to point B. There are no ticket changes and no refunds allowed.

Alternatively, booking full “Y” fare economy tickets with most airlines will allow you to receive a full refund if you need to cancel. The catch is that Y fare tickets cost much more than discount economy tickets — they’re often more expensive than discount business or first-class seats. Different airlines have different numbers and types of fares between E and Y, with fare classes having more lenient policies the closer they are to Y.

When Can You Receive a Refund?

24-hour rule — The US Department of Transportation mandates that all carriers selling tickets to/from/within the US allow for customers to receive a full refund if they cancel within the first 24 hours after booking. This should provide you peace of mind in case you find a great deal that may not be around long and you have to immediately pull the trigger. Note that American Airlines gets around this requirement by offering a free 24-hour hold instead, so once you ticket a non-refundable AA flight you’ll need to pay a fee for any changes.

Schedule change — Airlines routinely change the takeoff and landing times of flights, sometimes by a few minutes and other times by a few hours. I love finding a schedule change on my itinerary, because I’m usually able to call and rebook onto a more convenient itinerary at absolutely no cost or even receive a full refund. Your chance of receiving a refund is even better if you have a connecting itinerary and the schedule change causes a violation of Minimum Connect Time. Each airline has its own policies when it comes to refunds due to schedule changes. In American Airlines’ case, the schedule change must be 61 minutes or greater to receive a full refund. Despite the different policies, your odds of getting what you want are pretty good if you call back often enough.

Booking specific fare classes — Airlines are making it easier than ever to find the kind of ticket you need based on your travel plans. If you know there’s a decent chance your schedule will change, search for a flexible fare. Though they’re more expensive, in the event that you do have to make a change or cancellation, you’ll often come out ahead compared to booking discount economy and losing everything or paying high fees and fare differences.

Airlines' websites are making it easy to search for the specific type of ticket you need based on your travel plans.
Airlines’ websites are making it easy to search for the specific type of ticket you need based on your travel plans.

Military — As an active duty military member, I’ve rarely had an issue receiving a refund or a travel credit when I must change or cancel my flight due to a change in my leave or deployment schedule. I’ve always been asked to provide my commanding officer’s name and phone number, and then the refund is processed or my change is made fee-free. This is of course only with American flagged carriers, and it’s been a huge help over the past eight years.

Bereavement refunds — Some airlines will give full refunds in the case of an immediate family member’s passing. Note that a death certificate and other documentation are usually required, and not all airlines have the same definition of what an immediate family member constitutes.

General Refund Knowledge

When it comes time to get request a refund or flight change, you need to have a general idea of the rules tied to your fare. Make sure you do your homework on the front end when booking tickets, and keep these tips in mind next time you’re searching for flights:

Click Fare Rules on the trip summary page of to find out fore sure if you can make a change or get a refund for your ticket.
Click Fare Rules on the trip summary page of to find out if you can make a change or get a refund for your ticket.

1. Read the fare rules — Most of the time, the fare rules won’t be easy to find, but still make sure you read over the penalties section when buying your tickets. This will give you everything you need to know about your ticket in case you have to make a change.

2. Book directly with the airline — There’s nothing more frustrating than dealing with an online travel agency’s spotty customer service when trying to make a change or cancellation. To avoid yourself a lot of heartache, always book directly with airlines when possible. There’s one exception here, however — because AA doesn’t allow changes after ticketing, you may be better off booking AA flights through an online travel agency that does permit free changes or cancelations within 24 hours of when you book.

Delta displays the fare rules in the Terms and Conditions box at the bottom of your itinerary summary.
Delta displays the fare rules in the Terms and Conditions box at the bottom of your itinerary summary.

3. Refunds vs. flight certificates — When you make a change or cancellation, you may be expecting a refund to your original form of payment, when in fact what you receive is a travel certificate for future use — which expires in a year. Make sure you ask about the form of the refund before agreeing to anything with a phone agent.

4. No change fees charged doesn’t equal a completely free change — I’m a fan of Southwest Airlines, mainly due to the Companion Pass that can be earned from the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Card, and the fact that the carrier doesn’t charge change fees. While Southwest’s no-change-fee policy is great, many people are confused when they call to change flights and still end up having to pay. You always have to pay the fare difference between your original itinerary and the new one for any airline, even Southwest.

5. Low-cost carriers play differently — If reading the fare rules for legacy carriers is important, reading all the text for low-cost carriers like Allegiant and Spirit is critical. Spirit doesn’t even sell refundable tickets, and change fees start at $110 per passenger — probably more than you paid for the ticket in the first place.

Bottom Line

Make sure you know the situations which can allow you to receive a refund when booking your next plane ticket. This lets you avoid a cancellation fee anywhere between $75-$450 depending on the airline, ticketed cabin and route, or losing out all together if your ticket is nonrefundable.

How have you been able to receive a refund on your plane ticket?

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