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When the airlines need to change their plans, passengers are rarely offered any compensation, but when travelers must change or cancel their own reservations, huge fees can apply.

In this post I’ll offer some tips on how to minimize or avoid fees, and look at the current change and cancellation policies for major domestic carriers. To learn how to avoid these fees specifically for award flights (booked with points or miles rather than cash) see this post.

Look at Fees When You Choose an Airline

For decades, airlines have gotten away with charging outrageous change and cancellation fees because most passengers fail to consider them when they purchase their tickets. The best airline in this regard is clearly Southwest, which has no change fees but will charge you the current price of the new ticket. If the price went down, you get a credit of the difference toward a future flight. And if you cancel a non-refundable ticket, you get the entire price back as a credit, or your miles returned.

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.

Next is JetBlue, which charges just $75 for changes made more than 60 days before departure and has a sliding scale for other changes, based on the ticket price. Unlike with other carriers, the change fee is never more than the ticket price.

Meanwhile, Frontier offers free changes to bookings in its tickets with “The WORKS” options, and charges $99 for other tickets. 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.

Southwest Airlines ticket counter with Priority check-in sign at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA). (Photo by Evan Didier via Flickr)
Southwest Airlines ticket counter with Priority check-in sign at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA). (Photo by Evan Didier via Flickr)

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 Allegiant and Spirit do. Alaska only offers these refunds for travel beginning more than 24 hours after purchase.

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. For example, I recently needed to change reschedule a family vacation to Kona Hawaii due to a schedule conflict. I was able to do it at no cost due to the fee waivers triggered by the Mount Kilauea eruption.

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. Nevertheless, I’ve had luck requesting Southwest for credit after the flight has departed, so it never hurts to ask.

Hawaii
You can usually change or cancel for free if something inevitable, like an active volcano, affects your travel. (Photo by Kevin Thrash / Getty Images)

(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 dramatically different. 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 could enable 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.

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.

Consider Your Credit Cards’ Coverage

Related to the item above, make sure you keep in mind the trip cancellation insurance you could be eligible for with your travel rewards credit cards. For example, if you have a covered reason (such as jury duty or serious illness) for needing to cancel or change your trip, with the Chase Sapphire Reserve you’re eligible for up to $10,000 per trip. Other cards including the Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard, Citi Prestige and the United MileagePlus Club Card also offer trip cancellation insurance — again only for covered reasons, not just when you want to move around your travel dates.

If you’re in the position where you’re able to use credit card trip delay or cancellation coverage, you’re probably worrying about more than just airline change/cancellation fees (we’re talking hotel reservations, plans made on the ground and much more), but it’s definitely nice to know that these protections do exist should you need them. Note you’ll need to pay for at least a portion of the covered trip with your card to receive this coverage.

Chase Elite Status

Perhaps one of the greatest advantages of having elite status is the waiver of change fees and redeposit fees on award tickets. Most elite status programs also offer discounted or waived same-day flight changes on paid tickets.

Cancellation and Change Policies By Airline

Alaska Airlines — The change and cancellation fee is now $125. There’s no change fee for paid flights entirely within Alaska, although there is still a cancellation fee. Same-day confirmed changes are just $50, or $25 for flights entirely in California or Alaska Airlines’ shuttle markets.

Allegiant Air — Imposes a $75 change fee per person, per segment, but no changes may be be made within seven days of 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Southwest Airlines — Is famous for charging no change or cancellation fees, though naturally you’ll have to make up for any difference in fare, but you’ll also receive a credit if the fare goes down. Refunds on paid tickets 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, and for those with A-List or A-List Preferred status.

Spirit Airlines — Charges a $90 fee for cancellations or changes to paid bookings when the change is made online, and $100 for those made over the phone or at the airport. 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.

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