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Understanding Airlines’ 24-Hour Hold and Cancellation Policies

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When it comes to airlines’ cancellation policies, don’t expect the same rules across the board. As TPG Contributor Richard Kerr explains, the three US legacy carriers each have their own approaching to allowing fee-free itinerary changes, and knowing the rules can help you avoid unnecessary fees.

I recently looked at how to avoid airline change and cancellation fees, a subject that has always had more caveats than hard rules. Thanks to the US Department of Transportation, though, a great way to avoid airline fees is to make your cancellation or change within 24 hours of booking your ticket. However, major US airlines implement the DOT’s rules differently, and the carriers’ policies are often opaque and difficult to understand. Today, I’ll cover the 24-hour hold and cancellation policies of American, Delta and United to help you avoid paying steep fees.

DOT TO THE RESCUE

The US Department of Transportation requires airlines operating flights within or to the US to give customers a refund in the original form of payment if a cancellation is made within 24 hours of booking and the reservation is made more than seven days in advance of departure.

Even with this very well spelled-out rule, legacy carriers have gone about complying with this policy in very different ways. Let’s look at the policies the airlines have presented so you know how to best protect your wallet.

DELTA

Delta allows fee free cancellations on both revenue and SkyMiles tickets within 24 hours of booking.
Delta allows fee-free cancellations on both revenue and SkyMiles tickets within 24 hours of booking.

This carrier’s risk-free cancellation policy is its implementation of the DOT’s rule. After purchasing almost any ticket from Delta, you can cancel for a full refund as long as your cancellation request is made by midnight of the day after the ticket is purchased or midnight of the departure date of the first flight, whichever comes first. Risk-free cancellation does not apply to travel agency tickets and bookings, paper tickets or partially flown, reissued tickets. That said, I’ll discuss later how you can still get a free cancellation when booking through online travel agencies.

Delta’s risk-free cancellation also applies to SkyMiles award tickets. However, Delta has a policy of not allowing any changes or cancellations to award tickets within 72 hours of departure. However, according to a Delta agent I spoke with, if you book an award ticket 48 hours from departure, you can still cancel it within the 24-hour window. This lines up with reports on FlyerTalk, and it’s one of a few great notes to remember if you’re looking at any short-notice Delta award travel in the near future.

UNITED

United also lets you change and cancel tickets within 24 hours of booking.
United also lets you change and cancel tickets within 24 hours of booking.

24-hour flexible booking policy allows United travelers to make any changes or cancellation to a reservation within 24 hours of purchase without incurring any change or cancellation fees. This includes receiving a 100% refund to the original form of payment. United also allows free cancellations of MileagePlus tickets booked within 24 hours. There are a few more terms and conditions for United’s policy:

  • Applies to tickets booked at United.com or with the United Customer Contact Center.
  • The 24-hour timeframe begins at the time your ticket is purchased.
  • Requests for refunds will be credited back in the original form of payment with the exception of purchases made with a United Gift Certificate, which will be credited back in the form of electronic travel certificates.
  • Group tickets and tickets purchased using Western Union, cash or e-certificates are excluded.
  • Reservations that are being held but have not yet been purchased are excluded.
  • Any FareLock fees paid to hold a reservation will not be refunded.

United also offers travelers the ability to use the FareLock service — pay an extra fee to keep the fare you found for three or seven days. This typically costs between $7 and $20.

United's FareLock service gives you more than 24 hours to decide for a small fee.
United’s FareLock service gives you more than 24 hours to decide for a small fee.

Pay with Cash Trick

Sometimes we need more than 24 hours to decide on a trip because of a wishy-washy travel companion or a boss who won’t approve vacation time right away. I don’t want to pay a fee to use FareLock, so I use another trick with United to get up to 48 hours to change my mind. On the payment screen, select cash as the form of payment and then select Airpot Ticket Office. After selecting to proceed, your reservation will be on hold and you will have until midnight CT the following day to pay for the ticket.

By initially selecting pay with cash, you can have up to 48 hours to make up your mind on United tickets.
By initially selecting pay with cash, you can have up to 48 hours to make up your mind on United tickets.

I took the above screen shot at 2am EST on Jan 17, giving me 46 hours to make up my mind. Regardless of whether you want to pay for the ticket or cancel it, all you have to do is log in to your account before midnight the following day and either select cancel or select a credit card payment option and pay as usual.

AMERICAN

American offers a 24-hour hold option, but once you pay you can't back out for free.
American offers a 24-hour hold option, but once you pay you can’t back out for free.

American has taken an entirely different approach than United or Delta in implementing the DOT’s rule, and you need to be careful. Instead of allowing you to cancel within 24 hours of payment, American gives you the option at checkout to hold the fare — fee-free — for up to 24 hours. Once you pay for a ticket, there’s no 24-hour free cancellation period. Also, American’s 24-hour hold policy does not apply to bookings made within less than seven days of departure.

American's 24 hour hold policy has unfortunately tripped up a few TPG readers.
American’s 24-hour hold policy has unfortunately tripped up some travelers.

If you’re unsure of your plans with American, or if you’ve found a mistake fare which may quickly disappear on AA.com and you aren’t sure if you can utilize it, make sure you select Hold on the final payment page instead of paying with a credit card.

American Airlines allows you a free hold for 24 hours, instead of the ability to cancel for free after payment.
American Airlines allows you a free hold for 24 hours, instead of the ability to cancel for free after payment.

Unlike Delta and United, there’s no 24-hour free cancellation of AAdvantage award tickets.

BOOKING WITH ONLINE TRAVEL AGENCIES

I typically steer away from booking flights with online travel agencies (OTAs) due to poor customer service and the fact that it’s easier to contact the airline directly when things go wrong. That said, the ability to take advantage of most major OTAs’ 24-hour cancellation policy can come in handy.

As American’s 24-hour free hold policy specifically excludes flights booked within less than seven days of departure, you could feasibly book with an OTA in this instance and still have the ability to cancel within 24 hours of booking. I called Expedia and Travelocity to ask about this specific instance and was reminded again that OTAs have terrible customer service. I eventually got the answer that yes, I could still get a full refund if booking an American flight departing within seven days. The notice also appears when booking online.

Expedia.com still gives the same 24 hour cancellation notice for booking American flights departing within seven days.
Expedia.com gives the same 24-hour cancellation notice for booking American flights departing within seven days.

I can’t tell you with complete confidence this strategy would work, as I’m not sure how the OTA would overcome American’s policy, but a few FlyerTalkers have reported success. I would feel comfortable heading down this path if I needed a last-minute flight and may have to quickly cancel.

THE KEY TO 24-HOUR CANCELLATION SUCCESS

Airlines want as much of our money as possible — I can’t blame them for that, and the policies they’ve enacted in recent years are becoming quite ingenious in making sure lackadaisical passengers will pay for not being thorough. You must complete your due diligence with the above airlines and others which operate in the US to make sure you’re indeed covered in case you need to cancel within 24 hours of booking — or holding — a reservation.

Have you taken advantage of an airline’s 24 hour cancellation policy?

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