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I recently had to abandon a ticket I had purchased on United as I ended up having a date conflict that made the trip impossible.  If you book enough trips, this is bound to happen.  If I had booked on United miles my United Platinum status would have saved me from cancellation penalties, but even status can’t save you from the change fees associated with basic revenue tickets.  United actually has a bit of a “unique” process for making changes to your purchased tickets, so I thought I would offer up my experience in case you encounter this in the future.

How to Potentially Avoid Change Fees

In general, unless you die, have jury duty, a real medical emergency, or you purchase a specific (expensive) fare class that permits changes, refunds, etc. you are going to be hit with a hefty change fee in the event you want to make a change to your ticket.  Though the policy is murky, United seems to often allow refunds minus a $50 processing fee in cases of death, doctor saying you can’t travel, etc…  Some other caveats to traditional change fees would be if the airline makes a schedule change to your reservation or there is an event (like a major storm or similar) that prompts a waiver to be in place for all travel to/from your airport for specific dates.  A schedule change you will be able to see in advance, a waiver you typically won’t know about more than a day or so before your travel.  If a large enough schedule change happens you can call the airline and tell them it no longer works for your travel plans and try to get your money back.  If it is a 3 minute change that may not work.  If it is an hour change, it might.  I have had luck with this in the past, but I know of no firm rule on how large the schedule change needs to be.

How Change Fees Work

Barring any small miracle that permits you to change or refund your normally non-refundable ticket, your only real option to salvage value from a United ticket is to pay the change fee and book a new ticket.  For example, I had a ticket that cost me $390 that I was no longer going to be able to use since I now needed to be somewhere else on my originally booked dates of travel.  My options were to do nothing and lose all the value of the ticket, or pay the change fee and apply the value of that ticket toward another ticket.  Note that this has to happen before your flight departs or the ticket has no value.  Also note that the ticket must be flown within one year from the original booking, so you can’t change it to a flight beyond one year from the original purchase date.

My itinerary had already undergone a schedule change a few months out (that I used to my advantage to get a better routing), so I didn’t find it likely that it would happen again at just a few weeks before departure.  A weather issue was always possible, so I waited until 24 hours before departure to do anything to my ticket.  No weather waiver was in place, so I made the call to change my ticket.  Instead of a round trip to Hawaii, I was now going to be applying the value of the ticket toward a trip to Chicago that I needed to book.  Exciting, right?

With United, you have to pay the change fee ($200 for most domestic/Canada/Caribbean tickets tickets booked 4/18 or later; $150 for most similar tickets booked before then) with new money in order to apply the value of the United ticket toward another.  In other words, they won’t subtract the change fee from the value of the ticket, you have to fork over your credit card and give them more money in order to use the money you have tied up in your current ticket.

Process of Making a Change

I needed to book a pretty expensive ticket to Chicago that cost about $500 (I checked award availability first and it was non-existent).  Since my Hawaii ticket had been booked when change fees were “just” $150, the process went like this:

  • New flights cost $500
  • Value of current ticket $390
  • That is a difference of about $110 I needed to pay
  • Plus the $150 change fee required
  • Total cost for the new ticket was about $260 instead of the $500 it would have cost without changing my original ticket

Normally I could make this change online, but that option didn’t work for my ticket, so I had to pick up the phone and call United.  It stinks I had to make a change, but in the end I did get some value out of the ticket I wasn’t going to be able to use.  My options were either spend $150 change fee or lose all $390 of the original ticket.  My Chicago reservation retains the confirmation code as the original Hawaii reservation.  As a side note, I was told that the confirmed regional upgrades I had on my ticket to Hawaii would be immediately and automatically be redeposited, and that hasn’t happened yet.  Looks like that will require another call back into United.

United Flight Change Mommy Points

Keep in mind this experience does not take into account things like same day changes (made within 24 hours of departure) to different flights to the same destination since that is a whole different process.  Hopefully it just gives you a glimpse into the process in case you need it in the future.  Change fees can be super painful – especially if you are a traveling family with multiple tickets booked that you need to change.  I was lucky it was just my ticket this time.

What has your experience been with changing United tickets?

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