Understanding Legacy Airlines' 24-Hour Hold and Cancellation Policies
Thanks to the US Department of Transportation, a great way to avoid airline fees is to make your flight cancellation or change within 24 hours of booking your ticket. However, major US airlines implement the DOT's rules differently, and the carriers' policies can be difficult to keep straight. Today, I'll cover the 24-hour hold and cancellation policies of American, Delta and United to help you avoid paying steep fees.
Note that we've also covered how to avoid airline change and cancellation fees, which covers a broader subject than today's micro-section. Make sure to check out the larger topic, though be aware that changing or cancelling tickets after the below windows expire typically have more caveats than hard rules.
Department of Transportation to the Rescue
The US Department of Transportation requires airlines operating flights within or to the United States to either allow a 24-hour hold on the quoted fare without payment or give customers a refund in the original form of payment if a cancellation is made within 24 hours of booking. In order to qualify for this protection, the DOT guidance says the reservation must be made more than seven days in advance of departure — though many airlines give the protection for tickets purchased even closer to departure.
Even with this apparently simple, spelled-out rule, legacy carriers have gone about complying with this policy in very different ways. Let's look at the policies the airlines have in place so you know how to best protect your wallet.
In 2017, American thankfully improved its 24-hour cancellation policy by falling in line with those offered by Delta and United (detailed below). As long as you are at least two days ahead of departure, you have up to 24 hours from the time of the ticket purchase to receive a full refund on your ticket. The policy also applies to AAdvantage award tickets made two days or more before departure. This means if space suddenly opens up and you want to book a speculative award, you can do so knowing that you can cancel within 24 hours and won’t have to pay a redeposit fee — so long as your flight leaves at least two days after booking. Customers will also no longer have to cancel and request a refund for tickets in two separate steps, streamlining a previously somewhat confusing process. Only tickets purchased directly with American qualify for the policy.
American also still has free 24-hour holds available online despite AA saying they would be disappearing. They do not always appear, but even if you take advantage of this you will still qualify for the 24-hour cancellation policy after you pay, giving you up to 48 hours to think about a prospective trip (for free).
This carrier's risk-free cancellation policy is its implementation of the DOT's rule. After purchasing almost any eTicket directly from Delta, you can cancel for a full refund as long as your cancellation request is made by midnight of the day after the ticket is purchased or midnight of the departure date of the first flight, whichever comes first. The cancellation request must occur before travel commences for the first flight.
Risk-free cancellation does not apply to travel agency tickets and bookings, paper tickets or partially-flown, reissued tickets. That said, I'll discuss later how you can still get a free cancellation when booking through online travel agencies.
Delta's risk-free cancellation also applies to SkyMiles award tickets and even Basic Economy tickets. Even though Delta has a policy of not allowing any changes or cancellations to award tickets within 72 hours of departure, reports indicate that the 24-hour cancellation policy wins out, and you should be able to cancel an award ticket for free within 72 hours of departure (as long as you are still in the qualifying 24-hour cancellation window). For example, if you book an award ticket 48 hours from departure, you still have 24 hours to cancel it without any fee. This lines up with reports on FlyerTalk, and it's another reason why Delta is a great option for last-minute award tickets. Keep this in mind if you're looking at any short-notice Delta award travel in the near future.
A 24-hour flexible booking policy allows United travelers to make any changes or cancellations to a reservation within 24 hours of purchase without incurring any change or cancellation fees. Unlike Delta however, United follows the DOT guidance, and this policy only applies to reservations made a week or more from departure. United also allows free cancellations of MileagePlus tickets booked within 24 hours, and basic economy tickets can be cancelled but not changed. There are a few more terms and conditions for United's policy:
- Applies to tickets booked at United.com, United City Ticket Officers or with the United Customer Contact Center.
- The 24-hour timeframe begins at the time your ticket is purchased.
- Requests for refunds will be credited back in the original form of payment with the exception of purchases made with a United Gift Certificate, which will be credited back in the form of electronic travel certificates.
- Group tickets and tickets purchased using Western Union, cash or e-certificates are excluded.
- Reservations that are being held but have not yet been purchased are excluded.
- Any FareLock fees paid to hold a reservation will not be refunded.
United also offers travelers the ability to use the FareLock service — pay an extra fee to keep the fare you found for three or seven days. This typically costs between $7 and $20.
Get More Than 24 Hours With United (For Free)
Sometimes we need more than 24 hours to decide on a trip because of a wishy-washy travel companion or a boss who won't approve vacation time right away. I don't want to pay a fee to use FareLock, so I use another trick with United to get up to 48 hours to change my mind. On the payment screen, select Pay in Person as the form of payment and then select Airport Ticket Office. After selecting to proceed, your reservation will be on hold and you will have until midnight CT the following day to pay for the ticket.
I took the above screen shot at 2am EST on Jan 10 giving me 47 hours to make up my mind. Regardless of whether you want to pay for the ticket or cancel it, all you have to do is log in to your account before midnight the following day and either select cancel or select a credit card payment option and pay as usual.
Booking With Online Travel Agencies
I typically steer away from booking flights with online travel agencies (OTAs) due to poor customer service and the fact that it's easier to contact the airline directly when things go wrong. That said, the ability to take advantage of many major OTAs' 24-hour cancellation policies can come in handy.
As United's 24-hour free hold policy specifically excludes flights booked within less than seven days of departure and American's policy within two days of departure, you could feasibly book with an OTA in these instances and still have the ability to cancel within 24 hours of booking. Things can get a little tricky depending on the OTA, but Priceline always makes it very clear right at the top if your booking qualifies for 24 cancellation. I looked up this itinerary on January 10, one day before departure:
I would feel comfortable heading down this path if I might need a last-minute flight and may have to also quickly cancel. OTA cancellation policies also typically give you until midnight of the day after you ticket, giving you up to 47 hours to cancel risk-free.
Airlines want to make as much money as possible — I can't blame them for that — and the policies they've enacted in recent years are becoming quite ingenious in ensuring that lackadaisical passengers will pay for not being thorough. You must complete your due diligence with the legacy carriers and other airlines which operate in the US to make sure you are indeed covered in case you need to cancel within 24 hours of booking a ticket.