How to avoid airline change and cancellation fees
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When an airline changes or cancels a flight because of weather, crew scheduling, maintenance or another reason, you as the passenger are rarely offered compensation. However, when you need to change or cancel your own reservations, you can be hit with huge fees.
Not all is lost, though. Thankfully, there are some tricks on how to minimize or avoid these fees on paid flights altogether — especially if you were scheduled to travel during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
We’ve rounded up everything you need to know about changing and canceling your flight in this article, giving you a one-stop shop for avoiding change and cancellation fees. These tips can possibly save you thousands of dollars depending on how many people are traveling on your itinerary, so they’re worth keeping in mind as you go about your travels.
The best ways to avoid airline change and cancellation fees
We’ll take a closer look at change and cancellations fees in a bit, but for now, here’s a list of some possible strategies:
- Look for a travel waiver.
- Keep an eye out for schedule changes.
- Remember the 24-hour rule.
- Consider booking one-way vs. round-trip.
- Have a good reason.
- Consider your credit card coverage.
- Earn elite status.
- Use a credit card travel credit to cover your fees.
- Don’t pay cancellation or change fees until you have to.
Overview of change fees
Change fees are charged by most major airlines when you need to simply adjust your itinerary a new date or time. Generally speaking, you’ll need to pay a flat fee in addition to the fare difference for moving to a new flight. These fees can vary depending on the airline, destination or even how far in advance you make the change. For example, let’s say you’re flying on American Airlines and booked a $400 domestic flight. Now you need to change it to a new flight that costs $425. In this case, you’ll be charged a $200 change fee plus the $25 in fare difference, leaving you with a total of $225 in added costs to make the switch.
However, some airlines work differently than others. For example, Southwest Airlines will only charge you the fare difference, as the airline doesn’t charge change fees as of the time of writing this article. With this in mind, make sure to check the specifics for your airline before you change your ticket — and we’ll show you these fees later in the article by article.
Things change a bit when you’re looking to make a last-minute flight change, generally on the day of your departure. Many airlines offer same-day changes at a much lower price than if you make changes in advance, and these are often waived for certain tiers of elite status. Each airline handles same-day changes differently, but they’re almost always cheaper than if you were to change your flight in advance.
Again, sticking with the example of American Airlines, you can change to a new flight on the same day for $75 when flying domestically or to Canada and the Caribbean. American also offers same-day changes on flights between New York-JFK and London-Heathrow (LHR) for $150.
One last word of warning: Many U.S. airlines won’t let you cancel or change basic economy tickets unless there’s a very special circumstance like a schedule change or travel waiver, so keep this in mind when booking a flight in basic economy.
Overview of cancellation fees
As the name suggests, cancellation fees are typically charged when you need to completely cancel a nonrefundable flight. These vary from airline to airline, and in most cases, you’ll be issued a travel credit when you cancel your flight — less the applicable cancellation fee. Almost all major U.S. airlines don’t offer refunds to your original payment method unless you’re subject to special conditions like a schedule change (more on that soon).
Once again, Southwest is an exception here, as you can cancel your ticket without penalty at any time up to 10 minutes prior to departure. However, you typically won’t get a refund; instead, you’ll receive a voucher for the full amount of your original ticket.
Exceptions for the coronavirus outbreak
One of the main ways to avoid these change or cancellation fees is when a travel waiver is issued, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing right now with the coronavirus outbreak. This has had major impacts on the travel industry, as airlines cut capacity and entire countries implement travel restrictions. A number of airlines have issued travel waivers in response to the outbreak, giving travelers added flexibility to change or cancel their existing flights without penalty.
In addition, many airlines are even allowing complimentary, one-time changes to new tickets in an effort to spur new business for the future. However, the individual details of the waivers vary, and the policies are changing frequently, so be sure to bookmark our guide to change and cancellation policies during the outbreak. We’ve also included links below to the individual airlines’ coronavirus pages, as these sites will have up-to-date information.
Change and cancellation policies by airline
Each airline has its own cancellation and change policies, and some are more restrictive than others. Here’s a look at all of the U.S. airlines and their respective policies for paid tickets — note that these don’t include travel waivers and other special exceptions that I’ll cover later in the article, and many are offering flexibility related to the coronavirus outbreak.
Alaska imposes a $125 change and cancellation fee on most tickets, a policy that was implemented in mid-2018. However, this fee is waived for MVP Gold and Gold 75K members, and 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 — and are also waived for MVP Golds and 75Ks.
Check this link for details on Alaska’s change and cancellation fees, and visit this page for details on how these are being handled in light of the coronavirus outbreak.
Despite it’s status as a low-cost carrier, Allegiant imposes a relatively-tame $75 fee per person each way when you change or cancel your ticket. However, any changes or cancellations must be made within seven days of departure unless you’ve purchased Trip Flex. This add-on allows a one-time change or cancellation until one hour prior departure, though it can’t be added after the fact. You must commit to purchasing this protection at the time of booking.
American charges a whopping $200 change or cancellation fee on most paid fares (excluding full-fare refundable tickets) for domestic flights, though this climbs as high as $750 per passenger for international flights. Same-day changes start at $75 for domestic and short-haul international flights in economy class, though these same-day fees are waived for business- and first-class passengers on paid fares as well as Executive Platinum and Platinum Pro travelers.
Delta Air Lines
Delta also charges a $200 change or cancellation fee for paid domestic flights (including to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico), and this climbs as high as $500 for international flights. Same-day confirmed and standby changes are $75 for non-elite passengers but are complimentary for Diamond, Platinum and Gold Medallion members. However, no changes are allowed to basic economy fares.
Frontier imposes no change fees for flights more than 60 days from departure. However, there’s a $79 change fee from 59 to 14 days from departure (this is $49 for flights purchased before Sep. 13, 2019). That climbs to $119 fee within 14 days of departure — including for same-day changes. The carrier also has no change fees if you purchase its add-on option called The Works. All of these change fees are in addition to any fare differential.
Hawaiian charges a $200 change or cancellation fee for flights to the U.S. mainland, and this will fall between $50 and $300 for international flights. There’s also a $30 change fee for flights within the Hawaiian islands. However, the carrier’s Main Cabin Basic tickets can’t be changed or canceled at all.
Unlike other U.S. carriers, the fees for changing or canceling your JetBlue flight vary based on the price of your original ticket and the fare class you book. Blue Basic fares can’t be changed or canceled at all, while Blue Extra tickets have no fee for changes or cancellation. For Blue and Blue Plus fares, the following fees apply:
- You’ll pay $75 per person to change or cancel fares under $100.
- You’ll pay $100 per person to change or cancel fares between $100 and $149.99.
- You’ll pay $150 per person to change or cancel fares between $150 and $199.99.
- You’ll pay $200 per person to change or cancel fares over $200 and for all Mint tickets.
As noted earlier, Southwest is famous for not charging change or cancellation fees, though you’ll have to make up for any difference in fares. However, you can also receive a credit if the fare goes down. The credit can only be used by the person whose name originally appeared on the ticket, though you change an award ticket that has dropped in price, surplus points are redeposited in the member’s account and can later be used for travel by anyone. Just note that you must cancel paid Wanna Get Away reservations at least 10 minutes prior to your scheduled departure time. Otherwise you’ll forfeit the entire value of your ticket.
Spirit charges a $90 fee for cancellations or changes to paid bookings when the change is made online, though this climbs to $100 for those made over the phone or at the airport. However, a change or cancellation to a group booking will only set you back $50 per passenger. In addition, you could purchase the optional Flight Flex add-on (which is also included in the carrier’s Bundle It Combo), as this allows you to make a one-time change to your flight without incurring a fee — though this must be added at the time of booking.
United charges $200 to change or cancel domestic flights, and this can reach as high as $400 for international itineraries. Note that Basic Economy tickets are not eligible for flight changes. Same-day changes can be made for $75, but that fee is waived for MileagePlus Premier Gold, Platinum and 1K members.
Do these policies apply to award tickets?
Many of the above fees and the strategies that follow apply to award tickets too. However, this isn’t the case across the board, and each airline has its own set of rules for changing or canceling award tickets depending on the circumstance. For example, American allows you to change the date and/or time of your award ticket for free, as long as you keep the same origin, destination, airline(s) and award type. United, meanwhile, imposes lower fees for canceling or changing award tickets when compared to paid tickets — and even lowers the cost for those made far in advance. Finally, elite status can often open up additional fee waivers or discounts on award tickets that aren’t typically available on paid ones.
If you’re considering making a change to or completely canceling an award ticket, make sure to read our full guide to award ticket changes. Here, we’ll walk you through all of the ways to minimize cancellation and change fees and show you a couple of ways to get out of paying them completely — though note that many of the tips that follow will work on award tickets.
How to avoid change and cancellation fees
In some special circumstances, the airline may be willing to waive your change or cancellation fees. We introduced the list of ways you can avoid change and cancellation fees at the outset of this guide, but below is a deep dive into possible strategies you can use.
Look for a travel waiver
Travel waivers are usually issued during times when airlines anticipate significant numbers of delays or cancellations. For example, during bad weather, natural disasters or — more recently — virus outbreaks, many airlines will adjust their operations, and they’d rather provide flexibility for travelers in advance than try to accommodate you at the airport. The specifics of travel waivers vary by airline and the specific reason for the waiver, but they usually let you change or even cancel your flight(s) without incurring fees.
You can find travel waivers on the airline’s website. Generally, these will show at the top of the website and on-screen when check-in for your flight. The airline may even email you if you’re eligible for a travel waiver, so make sure to keep your eyes on your inbox before you travel if you think there will be a waiver in place.
As noted above, the most recent waivers that many airlines are offering relate to the coronavirus outbreak. In most cases, airlines are letting customers change flights for free throughout the month of May, but make sure to check with your airline for specifics.
Keep an eye out for schedule changes
Another way to get out of paying change and cancellation fees is if your flight schedule changes after you book a ticket. For example, if your flight was set to depart at 1 pm but now departs at 2:30 pm, you may be eligible to change or cancel your flight for free. Often these schedule changes are sent via email, but it’s also important to frequently review your trips to identify these on your own.
Schedule changes happen more often than you think and are especially common if you book a flight far out from the date of travel. This is because airlines usually finalize flight schedules at the start of each season, and flights booked before these schedules are finalized are generally based on the airline’s current and historical schedule.
As a general rule of thumb, many U.S. airlines will give you a full refund if your flight’s departure or arrival time is changed by 90 minutes or more. However, schedule change policies vary from carrier to carrier, so make sure to check out our full guide to maximizing schedule changes for specific information for your airline.
Remember the 24-hour rule
Airlines are required by law to offer free 24-hour holds or refunds within 24 hours of booking as long as the flight is more than seven days in the future. This can really come in handy if the price drops or you are still nailing down some travel details. This is also applicable to tickets booked through credit card sites like Amex Travel and the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal.
Consider booking one-way tickets vs. round-trip flights
Most airlines charge the same total price regardless of whether you book two one-way tickets or a round-trip itinerary, but the implications for change fees can be dramatically different.
For instance, if you book a $300 round-trip flight on American, Delta or United and then need to change the first flight, you’ll incur a $200 change fee, since you’re making a change to the first. However, if you instead book two $150 one-way fares, you could simply discard the first flight and purchase a new one-way ticket with the same airline or another carrier, 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.
In some cases though, airlines may charge more for a one-way ticket than two round-trip tickets, so make sure to do your research before you book one-way.
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 supporting documentation, as it’s been a long time since airlines simply took passengers at their word.
Consider your credit card coverage
Keep in mind the trip cancellation and interruption insurance that comes with many travel rewards or airline credit cards if you used it to pay for the booking. In certain scenarios, this protection may cover any change or cancellation fees you’d incur in additional to other eligible, nonrefundable expenses. For example, if you have a covered reason (such as jury duty or serious illness) for needing to cancel or change your trip and you booked with the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you’re eligible for up to $10,000 in reimbursement per trip.
If an emergency arises that allows you to invoke your credit card’s trip delay or cancellation coverage, then you’re probably worried about more than just airline change/cancellation fees, but it’s nice to know that these protections exist should you need them.
Just remember that you’ll need to pay for at least a portion of the covered trip with your card to receive this coverage. This often includes paying for award taxes and fees with your credit card or using points to purchase a ticket through a site like the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal.
Earn elite status
One of the greatest advantages of having airline elite status is that certain tiers with select carriers will waive change fees and mileage redeposit fees on award tickets. Some — most notably JetBlue and Alaska — even offer these waivers on paid tickets. In addition, most airline loyalty programs also offer discounted or waived same-day flight changes for elite members on paid tickets. Finally, travelers with elite status are also more likely to be granted a waiver from a sympathetic airline representative, especially if you call your elite customer service number.
Use a credit card travel credit or redemption to cover your fees
If all else fails, you can use travel credits from a premium travel credit card like The Platinum Card® from American Express or the Chase Sapphire Reserve or redeem miles from a card like the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card to cover your change or cancellation fees. If you go this route, you’ll still be subject to paying these fees, but you may be able to cover them with a statement credit or your miles. Just note that this is most applicable to award tickets, since the change or cancellation fees are often an additional out-of-pocket expense in those situations. With paid flights, the fees are simply deducted from the value of your ticket.
In the case of the Amex Platinum, you can only cover the change or cancellation fee for the airline that you’ve selected to use for your $200 annual airline fee credit. Enrollment required. You can choose this airline when you first get your Platinum card and once per year thereafter. It’s also worth noting that Amex’s system will determine which purchases are (and are not) eligible for the credit. Read our full guide to the Platinum card’s airline credit for more information on what we’ve seen.
The Sapphire Reserve card has a more relaxed travel credit that is automatically applied to the first $300 you spend on a variety of travel purchases in a cardmember year. This credit resets once per calendar year, so if you’ve yet to use your credit, just charge the change or cancellation fee to your Sapphire Reserve and you’ll be automatically reimbursed for your fee.
Finally, if you’re required to pay a change or cancellation fee out of pocket, you could always charge it to a card like the Capital One Venture card and then use your miles at a fixed value to cover the cost. This purchase eraser feature of the Venture Card is very popular, though note that transferring your Capital One miles to travel partners will likely get you a much higher redemption value.
Don’t pay cancellation or change fees until you have to
If you book a flight and you need to cancel the trip later, you shouldn’t pay that cancellation fee any earlier than you need to. You never know when the airline might announce a schedule change, a delay or a flight cancellation that will entitle you to change or cancel your trip without paying the fee. Note as well that airline-initiated cancellations of service should result in a refund to your original form of payment, not a travel voucher, making this a powerful tool in your arsenal if the airline can no longer provide the service you booked.
Just be sure to understand the specific policies of your airline. Unused tickets can sometimes be rebooked after the flight by paying the same change fee you would have paid in advance, though some carriers require you to cancel or change your flight before the scheduled departure.
Having to change or cancel a flight is never fun — especially if you were supposed to go on a family vacation or another relaxing getaway. To make matters worse, doing so may result in a large change or cancellation fee, so it’s always good to know your options for avoiding these fees when you can.
Make sure to bookmark this page and refer to it the next time you need to cancel or change a flight you’ve booked. It may help you save hundreds of dollars depending on the flight you’ve booked.
Additional reporting by Jason Steele.
Featured photo by wundervisuals / Getty Images.
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