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How American, Delta and United no-change-fee policies stack up against Southwest

Dec. 09, 2020
7 min read
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Southwest has long been an outlier in the industry. The airline famously never charges baggage or change fees.

Well, following United's news in August that it's eliminating most domestic change fees, both American Airlines and Delta made similar announcements 24 hours later. They've made even more tweaks to these policies toward the end of the year.

Even though the Big 3 U.S. airlines have now joined the no-change-fee party, there are still some significant differences in each carrier's policy. Let's take a look at how the policies stack up against each other.

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American AirlinesDeltaSouthwestUnited
Which tickets are included?All, except basic economyAll, except basic economyAll (Southwest doesn't offer basic economy)All, except basic economy
Which destinations are included?All domestic destinations (including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands), Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean. In addition, all long-haul flights departing North or South America.All domestic destinations, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands. In addition, all international flights departing North America, as well as flights to/from the U.S., Mexico and the CaribbeanAllAll domestic destinations, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands. In addition, all international flights departing North America, as well as flights to/from the U.S., Mexico and the Caribbean
Are award tickets included?YesYesYesYes (with exceptions)
What if you switch to a cheaper flight?Issued credit with the price differenceIssued credit with the price differenceIssued credit with the price differenceLose the value
What if you switch to a more expensive flight?You owe the fare differenceYou owe the fare differenceYou owe the fare differenceYou owe the fare difference
Can you get a refund if you cancel?NoNoNoNo
Can you convert credits to points?NoNoYes, with conditionsNo

Which tickets are included?

Southwest is the clear winner here. The airline's no-change-fee policy covers every ticket the carrier sells. Whether you're purchasing the cheapest or most-expensive fare, you never have to pay a change fee.

The Big 3 noticeably exclude basic economy tickets from the new policy. If you book a basic economy ticket, you won't be able to change or cancel it — even if you're willing to pay a penalty.

Note that all Delta and United tickets purchased before March 31, 2021, including basic economy tickets, don't carry a change fee. (For now, American's limited-time waiver expires on Dec. 31, 2020.)

When these global waivers ultimately expire, then basic economy will revert to being non-changeable and non-cancelable.

Related: Comparing basic economy fares across U.S. airlines

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Which destinations are included?

Again, Southwest's well-established policy stands the test of time. All routes, including the carrier's nascent international network, are eligible for no-fee changes.

American's policy is the most flexible of the Big 3. AA includes all domestic flights, and tacks on Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean as well. In addition, the carrier recently announced that long-haul flights departing North and South America are included in the no-change-fee policy.

Delta won't charge a change fee for domestic flights, as well as for all itineraries that start in North America, including long-haul international flights. Additionally, the carrier includes flights to/from the U.S., Mexico and the Caribbean in its no-change-fee policy.

United's no-change-fee policy applies to all domestic flights, including the Caribbean and Mexico. In addition, all international tickets originating in the U.S. are included.

Are award tickets included?

American and Southwest are tied for the best award ticket change and cancellation policy. All AAdvantange awards, including revenue-based Web Specials, can now be changed or canceled without penalty. Likewise, all Rapid Reward redemptions are included in the airline's no-change-fee offer. Additionally, you can cancel a Southwest redemption for free up to ten minutes before departure.

All Delta SkyMiles itineraries originating in North America can be changed or redeposited for free anytime before departure.

United won’t charge change fees for award flights originating in the U.S. However, you'll still be on the hook for a $125 redeposit fee if you decide to cancel a MileagePlus award within 30 days of departure, regardless of destination.

Related: Complete guide to changing and canceling award tickets

What if you switch to a cheaper flight?

This is a big one.

One of the reasons I love booking with Southwest is the promise that if the fare goes lower, I can rebook my ticket and collect credit for the difference. The same applies if I change to a cheaper flight — the residual value will be stored in a travel fund that can be used within a year of the original booking date. (Note that Southwest has extended some credits due to the coronavirus.)

American is just as generous as Southwest. If you change to a cheaper flight, you'll get a credit for the price difference. Delta will also credit the difference if you're changing to a cheaper flight.

United isn't nearly as flexible. If you change to a cheaper flight, you'll lose the fare difference in the process. (If you switch to a more expensive ticket, you'll be on the hook for the difference.) That's why I'd now recommend booking United flights as one-ways, assuming that they're pricing as half the cost of a round-trip ticket.

Related: How to rebook a Southwest flight when the fare changes

What if you switch to a more expensive flight?

This one can get confusing.

Just because these four airlines are waiving change fees doesn't mean t hat changes are free. You'll still be charged the fare difference on all four airlines if you move to a costlier flight. (Note that Southwest sometimes waives the fare difference when making changes to more expensive flights.)

Waiving change fees just means you won't have to pay the pesky $200 (or more) fee, in addition to the fare difference.

Can you get a refund if you cancel a flight?

Again, another tricky one. Free changes don't mean you'll get your money back if you cancel your flight.

Unless you purchase a fully refundable ticket, you'll receive a future travel credit if you decide to cancel your flight. When it's time to rebook, you won't be charged a change fee, but you will be on the hook for a possible fare difference.

The only way to get a refund for a nonrefundable ticket is by waiting until the last minute to see if your flight is significantly changed or canceled by the airline.

Related: You are entitled to a refund for your canceled flight

Can you convert credits to points?

Due to the pandemic, Southwest is offering a limited-time opportunity to convert travel credits into Rapid Rewards points through Dec. 15, 2020. You'll want to crunch the numbers before making the non-reversible conversion, but the option definitely makes sense for some customers.

None of the Big 3 are offering a similar program, so Southwest wins here too.

Related: Southwest now lets you convert vouchers into points — but is it a good deal?

Bottom line

Though American, Delta and United have all introduced no-change-fee policies, there's still one clear winner. And that's Southwest.

It's possible that their competition will make their offering even more lucrative. Until then, if you're looking for the most flexible non-refundable ticket, look no further than the airline that started the trend, Southwest.

Featured image by Alberto Riva

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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

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  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
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  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023