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Airlines frequently change schedules, or have their flights delayed or canceled for a number of reasons. When the airlines change plans, passengers are usually offered little (if any) compensation, but when travelers must change or cancel their own reservations, huge fees can apply.

In this post I’ll look at current change and cancellation policies for major domestic carriers, and offer some tips on how to minimize or avoid fees.

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Passengers get charged when they cancel flights, but generally airlines don’t. Image courtesy of William Thomas Cain via Getty Images.

Alaska Airlines does not have a change or cancellation fee for changes made more than 60 days before departure. Less than 60 days before departure, the fee is $125 for all paid and award tickets, except refundable first class. Same-day confirmed changes are just $25.

Allegiant Air imposes a $75 change fee per person, per segment, and all changes must be made more than 7 days before departure. Allegiant does sell an add-on called Trip Flex that waives these fees and allows changes to be made until one hour before departure.

American Airlines has a whopping $200 change fee on paid fares (other than full-fare refundable tickets) for domestic flights, and up to $750 for international flights. Same-day changes are $75-$150 in economy and free for business and first-class passengers on paid fares.

In contrast, American is especially generous with regard to award tickets, allowing changes to flight times, dates, carriers or class of service so long as the origin and destination remain the same, unless the change results in an outbound departure date within 21 days of the original booking (in which case a change fee of $75 applies). Changes to an award ticket’s origin or destination incur a $150 change fee. Canceling an award ticket is $150 for the first award, and $25 for each additional award reinstated at the same time for the same account. Award change and reinstatement fees are waived for Executive Platinum members using miles from their account.

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Delta charges some of the highest change and cancellation fees among domestic airlines.

Delta Air Lines also charges a $200 change fee for paid domestic flights (including to the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico), and up to $500 for international flights. Same-day confirmed and standby changes are permitted for Delta SkyMiles Medallion elite members, but there’s a $75 fee for Silver Medallion members. No changes are allowed to Basic Economy fares. For award flights, Delta charges a $150 reissue or redeposit fee that’s waived for Diamond and Platinum Medallion members. Finally, award flights cannot be changed within 72 hours of departure.

Frontier Airlines has a $99 change fee for paid economy-class tickets, but changes are free for those who pay extra for The Works fares. Award tickets can be changed with no fee 8 days or more prior to departure; otherwise the $99 change fee applies.

Hawaiian Airlines charges a $200 change fee for flights to the US mainland, and between $50 and $300 for international flights. There’s also a $30 change fee for flights within the Hawaiian islands. Refunds on restricted tickets are $100 for flights to the US mainland and international destinations, and $25 for inter-island flights. Award ticket redeposit fees are $150 for mainland and international flights, and $30 for inter-island award tickets.

JetBlue charges a $75 fee for changes or cancellations made more than 60 days prior to departure. Otherwise the fees are:

  • $75 per person for fares under $100
  • $100 per person for fares between $100-$149
  • $150 per person for fares $150 and above

Change and cancellation fees are waived for TrueBlue Mosaic elite members.

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Southwest Airlines has the friendliest change and cancellation policies, with no fees in either case.

Southwest Airlines is famous for charging no change or cancellation fees, though naturally you’ll have to make up for any difference in fare. Refunds are given as a credit that can only be used by the person whose name originally appeared on the ticket. However, when an award ticket is changed or canceled, surplus points are re-deposited in the member’s account and can later be used by anyone. Same-day standby is only permitted for those who book Anytime or Business Select fare classes.

Spirit Airlines charges a $90 fee for cancellations or changes to paid bookings when the change is made over the Internet, and $100 for those made over the phone or at the airport. The fee is $110 for award flights. There’s no fee to change or cancel a flight ticketed within 24 hours, so long as the reservation was made at least 7 days prior to departure.

United Airlines charges change fees of $200 for domestic flights and as much as $400 or more for international itineraries. Same-day changes can be made for $75, but that fee is waived for MileagePlus Premier Gold, Premier Platinum and Premier 1K members.

When it comes to changing award tickets, United has made its fee structure so complex that it’s best to just copy and paste the chart:

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Virgin America is another carrier with a large, complicated fee structure for ticket changes and cancellations:

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Tips for Avoiding Change and Cancellation Fees

1. Take these fees into account when you choose a carrier. Many airlines have gotten away with charging outrageous fees because most passengers fail to consider them when they choose to purchase a ticket, or participate in a frequent flyer program. The best airline in this regard is clearly Southwest, which has the friendliest change and cancellation policies. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tweaked or canceled existing reservations on Southwest when it made sense for my schedule. Like making a purchase from a store with an excellent return policy, I never hesitate to book flights on Southwest even when I’m just considering taking a trip.

Alaska Airlines has the next-best change and cancellation policies, offering free changes 60 days out or more, followed by Frontier, which offers free changes to bookings in its more expensive fare class, and charges just $75 for other tickets. I’m also a big fan of American Airlines’ award ticket change policies, which allow passengers to book imperfect awards and make changes later (other than to the origin and destination) to improve their itinerary.

Finally, travelers whose plans are not set in stone should do everything possible to avoid purchasing tickets from American, Delta and United, which all impose an egregious $200 change fee on domestic tickets, and even more on international flights.

2. Remember the 24-hour rule. Airlines must now offer free 24-hour holds, or refunds within 24 hours of booking, so long as the flight is more than 7 days in the future. Most airlines don’t stick to the 7-day requirement, but Spirit and Allegiant do.

3. Don’t pay a cancellation fee until you have to. If you book a flight and you later need to cancel the trip, you shouldn’t pay that cancellation fee any earlier than you must. You never know when the airline might announce a schedule change, delay or flight cancellation that will entitle you to a refund without paying the fee. Sometimes weather or other events disrupt flight schedules in advance, and airlines issue change fee waivers as well.

Otherwise, unused tickets can usually be re-booked after the flight by paying the same change fee you would have paid in advance. A notable exception is Southwest, which now requires changes and cancellations to be made before departure, or passengers lose the value of their tickets!

4. Carefully consider booking one-way versus round-trip flights. These days, most carriers charge the same total price regardless of whether you book two one-way tickets or a single round-trip itinerary, but the implications for change fees can be dramatic. For example, if you book a $300 round-trip flight on American, Delta or United and then need to change the first flight, you’ll incur their $200 change fee no matter what, since missing the first flight will cancel out the return. However, if you instead booked two $150 one-way fares, you could simply discard the first flight and purchase a new one-way ticket with the same airline, with another carrier, or as an award ticket, sacrificing only what you already paid for the first flight.

On the other hand, booking a round-trip flight enables you to change dates on both ends of the trip for a single change fee. In general, it makes more sense to book flights as round-trip tickets when the total cost of the trip is significantly more than double the change fee.

Dog eating homework
The “dog ate my homework” excuse probably won’t fly, but there are plenty of legitimate reasons to ask an airline to waive your fees.  Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

5. Have a good reason. Travelers can often have change fees waived in the event of illness, a death in the family or other extraordinary circumstances like a natural disaster. Just be prepared to offer documentation, as it has been a long time since airlines simply took passengers at their word.

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