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Almost all airlines sell two types of airfare: refundable, which can be canceled for a refund with or without a cancellation penalty, and non-refundable, while can generally still be canceled, with the balance applied to a new ticket issued within one year of the original booking date, minus any applicable fees.
There are exceptions to this non-refundable rule, however. If the airline cancels your flight or moves your departure or arrival time significantly, you may be eligible for no-fee changes and possibly even a full refund.
TPG reader Marah A. wrote in to share a recent experience, in which she was able to receive a full refund after a schedule change of more than 30 minutes:
My husband and I booked two round-trip tickets from Portland, OR to Maui. We booked them last spring, and would have been departing today. I have the flu and we had to cancel last minute. But also, since booking the reservation, United has emailed us twice to change the times on some of our flights. One of the changes was more than 30 minutes, so I thought I could use that to my advantage. I called United’s 800 number, chose the menu option for refunds, and told them that I have the flu and need to cancel, but asked if I have any protections since the schedule has been changed since we booked? The agent asked me to hold while she looked up my reservation, and when she returned, she said the time had changed and offered to refund the full price to my credit card.
I think Marah have encountered an especially helpful agent — from the airline’s perspective, a 30-minute change typically doesn’t justify a full refund, especially to the original form of payment (instead of a travel voucher). That said, I’ve found that certain agents will go out of their way to be accommodating following a schedule change, since it makes fee waivers and refunds far easier to justify.
Of course, official policies offer even more protection — agents should accommodate you according to their guidelines, which I’ve outlined for the three largest US carriers below.
As AA explains, if the flight time has changed, the customer may be rebooked on the first available AA-operated flight, either before or after the original departure time. Alternatively, a customer may select a flight one day prior or up to two days after the original date, and may change their return flights to maintain the original trip length. Changes of 31 to 90 minutes require the same booking code (fare class), while changes of 91 minutes or more can be rebooked into the next lowest inventory, or in the same cabin up to a “B” fare class.
If a nonstop flight is replaced with a connecting flight, the customer may request a refund. Otherwise, changes of 60 minutes of less are not eligible for a refund, changes of 61-120 minutes may be refunded in the form of a travel voucher, and changes of 120 minutes or more may be refunded to the original form of payment. As is the case with most airlines, only unflown segments will be refunded.
Delta Air Lines
As per Delta’s policy, a customer may request a new itinerary if a flight departure or arrival time changes by more than one hour. The new flights must be operated by Delta, Air France or KLM, and your origin, destination and travel date must remain the same. Alternatively, according to a Medallion agent I spoke with, if the schedule change is 90 minutes or greater you can request a full refund for a fully unused ticket, or a partial refund if you’ve already begun travel.
If you’re booked on United, you’ll generally be able to request reaccommodation on another United or United Express flight if your departure or arrival time changes by 30 minutes or more. As with most other policies, your origin and destination must remain the same, though you can change connecting cities or move to a nonstop flight. You also have the option of requesting a refund, but only if your scheduled departure or arrival time jumps by two hours or more. Additionally, you may be eligible for a refund if your new connection time is too short or if it ends up being significantly longer than the connection you booked, though this latter exception may be open to interpretation.
Schedule changes are common on nearly all major carriers, and the further in advance you book, the better your chances for having a change of schedule — and an opportunity to change your itinerary for free. And while you’re much more likely to be successful with a change or refund request in line with the policies above, agents are often empowered to waive change fees at their own discretion, so it never hurts to ask for an exception.
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