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

Sep 1, 2020

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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 that it’s eliminating most domestic change fees, both American Airlines and Delta also made similar announcements 24 hours later.

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 Airlines Delta Southwest United
Which tickets are included? All, except basic economy All, except basic economy All (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 All domestic destinations, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands All All domestic destinations, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands
Are award tickets included? Yes Yes Yes Yes
What if you switch to a cheaper flight? Issued credit with the price difference Issued credit with the price difference Issued credit with the price difference Lose the value
What if you switch to a more expensive flight? You owe the fare difference You owe the fare difference You owe the fare difference You owe the fare difference
Can you get a refund if you cancel? No No No No
Can you convert credits to points? No No Yes, with conditions No

 

In This Post

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 American, Delta and United tickets purchased before the end of the year, including basic economy tickets, don’t carry a change fee. However, assuming these global waivers don’t get extended into 2021, then basic economy will revert to being non-changeable and non-cancelable in January.

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

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.

Delta and United are the strictest when it comes to applicable regions. Both carriers’ policies only includes travel between the 50 U.S. states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

American’s is the most flexible of the Big 3. AA includes the same regions as Delta and United, and tacks on Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean as well.

Are award tickets included?

At this point, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see Southwest beat the others. 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.

American’s new policy covers all AAdvantage award tickets, as confirmed by a spokesperson for the airline. Web Specials are covered under the global fee waiver that’s been extended through the end of 2020 — and will be included in the new policy going forward.

As of Sept. 22, Delta’s no-change-fee policy will include domestic award tickets, excluding those booked in basic economy.

Of the Big 3, United arguably has the best deal for changing or canceling awards. There won’t be change fees for award flights within the U.S. United is also eliminating the redeposit fee for any itinerary canceled more than 30 days before departure, a savings of up to $125 per ticket.

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 that 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. 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 photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy

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