The Best Ways to Avoid Airline Change and Cancellation Fees on Paid Flights

May 16, 2019

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When the airlines need to change or cancel a flight due to weather, crew scheduling, maintenance or another reason, you, the passenger, are rarely offered compensation. But when you need to change or cancel your own reservations, you can be hit with huge fees.

In this post I’ll look at the major domestic carriers’ current change and cancellation policies for paid tickets, and I’ll offer some tips on how to minimize or avoid these fees. To learn how to avoid fees for award flights, see my post on How to Avoid Cancellation Fees When You Book an Award Flight.

The Best Way to Avoid Airlines Change and Cancellation Fees are:

  • Consider Change and Cancellation Fees Before You Buy Your Ticket
  • Remember the 24-Hour Rule
  • Don’t Pay a Cancellation Fee Until You Have To
  • Consider Booking One-Way vs. Round-Trip Flights
  • Have a Good Reason
  • Consider Your Credit Card Coverage
  • Earn Elite Status

Consider Change and Cancellation Fees Before You Buy Your Ticket

Airlines have gotten away with charging outrageous change and cancellation fees for decades, probably because most passengers don’t always consider them when they purchase their tickets. The best airline for avoiding change and cancellation fees is Southwest, which has no change or cancellation fees. Southwest will charge you the current price of the new ticket — if the price goes down, then you can receive a credit toward a future flight. And if you cancel a non-refundable ticket, you get the entire price back as a credit, or your Rapid Rewards points back if it’s and award flight. Credits are valid only in the name of the original traveler, and they expire one year from the date of booking.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tweaked or canceled existing reservations on Southwest when it made sense for my schedule. And 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.

The next-best airline for changes and cancellations is Frontier, which now has no change fees for flights more than 90 days from departure. There’s a $49 change fee from 89 to 14 days before departure, and a $99 fee within 13 days of departure. It also has no change fees if you purchase “The Works” option. All of these change fees are in addition to any fare differential.

JetBlue has a more nuanced schedule of fees. It charges $75 for Blue and Blue Plus fares under $100. For fares between $100 and $149.99, the fee $100 per person and for fares between $150 and $199.99, the fee is $150 per person. For fares over $200, the fee is $200. These change fees don’t include any difference in fare. But for Blue Flex fares, changes can be made for the difference in fare only. Finally, Mint fares have a $200 change fee, plus the difference in fare.

Alaska has a $125 change fee for most fares, and changes aren’t allowed on its Saver fares. 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 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 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 need to. You never know when the airline might announce a schedule change, a delay or a flight cancellation that will entitle you to a refund or change without paying the fee. Sometimes weather or other events disrupt flight schedules in advance and airlines issue change fee waivers. For example, in 2017 I needed to reschedule a family vacation to Kona in Hawaii due to a scheduling conflict. I was able to do it at no cost due to the fee waivers triggered by the Mount Kilauea eruption.

Unused tickets can usually be rebooked 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.

You can usually change or cancel for free if an act of nature like an active volcano affects your travel. (Photo by Kevin Thrash / Getty Images)

Consider Booking One-Way vs. Round-Trip Flights

Most carriers 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 their $200 change fee 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 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.

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’s been a long time since airlines simply took passengers at their word.

Consider Your Credit Card Coverage

Make sure you keep in mind the trip cancellation insurance you could be eligible for with your travel or airlines credit card if you used it to pay for the booking. 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 United Club Card also offer trip cancellation insurance — again, only for covered reasons, not just when you want to move around your travel dates. The information for the United Club has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

If an emergency arises that allows you to invoke your credit card’s trip delay or cancellation coverage, then 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.

Earn Elite Status

Perhaps one of the greatest advantages of having airline 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. Travelers with elite status are also more likely to be granted a waiver from a sympathetic airline representative.

Cancellation and Change Policies by Airline

Alaska Airlines has a change and cancellation fee that 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 7 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 no change fees for flights more than 90 days from departure. There’s a $49 change fee from 89 to 14 days before departure, and a $99 fee within 13 days of departure. It also has no change fees if you purchase “The Works” option. All of these change fees are in addition to any fare differential.

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, a $100 fee for fares between $100-$149 and $150 for fares over $150. Change and cancellation fees are waived for TrueBlue Mosaic elite members.

Southwest Airlines Is famous for not charging change or cancellation fees, though you’ll have to make up for any difference in fare. But 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. 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 as long as the reservation was made at least seven 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.

Featured photo by wundervisuals / Getty Images.

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