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Can I cancel or change my award ticket due to coronavirus travel waivers?

March 27, 2020
13 min read
Airplanes at LAX
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Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information.

The worldwide coronavirus outbreak is already having a massive impact on the travel industry, as airlines cut capacity, cruise lines are turned away from ports and most hotels provide relief to guests with nonrefundable rates. We've seen airlines and hotels begin to announce plans to adjust their elite status programs — including Qantas and Hilton offering straight-up status extensions for their loyal members.

The global pandemic has also caused notable disruptions to existing travel plans along with an important choice to make for those with future vacations: Should I still travel, or should I postpone or cancel my trip? This is an intensely personal decision though it also has financial implications, as many travel insurance providers — including the coverage offered by popular credit cards — typically don't cover nonrefundable expenses when you cancel or change a trip based on fear of a pandemic.

Many airlines have announced travel waivers to lessen this burden, but we continue to receive emails from readers, inquiring about whether these policies apply to award tickets. Canceling or changing award flights normally incurs hefty fees, but in light of the outbreak, many carriers are waiving these fees — as long as your trip falls within specific parameters.

Today, we are going to break things down so you know exactly what to expect if you're considering changing or canceling a trip you booked using your hard-earned points and miles.

What if my flight is cancelled?

Before getting into specifics for the major airlines, let's start with a key point: Do not change or cancel your flight until you need to. There are a few important reasons for this:

Long hold times

Airline customer service lines continue to receive a massive volume of calls, so unless your trip was scheduled to begin in the next 3-4 days, wait to call.

Uncertainty of outbreak

It's still unclear how long the coronavirus outbreak is going to affect travel, and many of the waivers below allow one-time changes only. You'd hate to change your flight to June (for free) and then need to make another, costly change if the situation isn't resolved by your new travel dates.

Possibility of cancellation

As you'll see below, some carriers are waiving cancellation and redeposit fees for award tickets, while others are not. However, if the airline cancels your flight to or from the U.S. — for any reason — it is required to offer you a full refund. Period. This is written into most airlines' contracts of carriage, and it's also a U.S. Department of Transportation requirement.

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READ MORE: You are entitled to a refund for your canceled flight, even if the airline says you aren't

However, many airlines are going to great lengths to encourage you to change your ticket rather than outright cancel it, and we've seen many instances where an airline's announced capacity cuts aren't actually reflected in the booking system. If you initiate a change or cancellation for a flight in late-April that's still scheduled to operate as of today — even if the carrier has said it plans to stop flying the route — you may not be eligible for a refund. If, on the other hand, you hold off until the flight actually shows as "canceled" in the system, you should be able to get all of your miles plus any taxes and fees back, without any additional cost.

Travel waivers for award tickets by carrier

If you want to cancel or change your award ticket due to coronavirus, current travel waivers may allow you to do that with no fee. (Photo by EVERT ELZINGA/ANP/AFP via Getty Images.)

We have a current list of airlines offering travel waivers related to the coronavirus outbreak, and we update that article regularly. As a result, we won't rehash the entirety of those policies here. Instead, we'll focus on how they affect award tickets — though bear in mind that this is a continuously evolving situation, so some of the below could change at any time.

Alaska Airlines

Alaska specifically references award tickets on its main travel waiver page, indicating the following:

  • Any award ticket purchased on or before Feb. 26, 2020 that includes travel through May 31 can be canceled or changed for free. Any cancellations will result in a redeposit of miles into your Mileage Plan account.
  • Any award ticket purchased between Feb. 27 and April 30, 2020, will also enjoy waived change and cancellation fees. Note that this applies to any dates of travel; it isn't limited to flights through the end of April.

In both cases, however, you must change or cancel your flight prior to the departure of your original flight.

Bear in mind too that Alaska MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75K travelers enjoy free changes and cancellations on all award tickets, so you'd be eligible to adjust existing flights after May 31 if you hold one of these statuses.

American Airlines

American's travel waivers have a couple of different layers. The first one waives change and cancellation fees for tickets purchased prior to March 1, 2020, involving flights through May 31, 2020. While not directly addressed online, an American spokesperson confirmed to TPG that the waivers "do include award tickets, and the miles would be reinstated to the member's account" in the event of cancellation. However, you must change your flight to begin travel by Dec. 31, 2020 or within one year of your original ticketing date, whichever comes sooner. You also would be subject to any fare difference if the new flights you select require additional miles.

If you do decide to cancel, it's worth noting that you need to have a phone agent manually reinstate your miles; it doesn't happen automatically.

The second change-fee waiver applies to new tickets booked between 4:30 p.m. Central Time on March 1 through 11:59 p.m. Central Time on April 30. However, per the terms and conditions, "AAdvantage award tickets are excluded." As a result, you aren't able to cancel or change any new award tickets booked during this timeframe.

Remember that American Executive Platinum travelers enjoy free changes and cancellations on all award tickets, including Economy Web Specials.

Delta Air Lines

Like American, Delta's travel notice includes waived change and cancellation fees for all flights departing in March, April and May 2020. It also includes new tickets purchased between March 1 and April 15 for any travel date. If you redeemed SkyMiles for your flight, you are covered, per the following FAQ:

What if I paid for my original trip with miles?
The same rules apply whether a flight is booked with cash or miles. For award flights that qualify for a change fee waiver, we are also waiving the mile redeposit fee.

We did have a reader reach out regarding a Basic Economy award ticket, and a Delta spokesperson confirmed that these are included in the waiver as well.

RELATED: How to survive basic economy on Delta

This is among the most generous of these travel waivers, as free cancellations on award tickets are typically reserved for high-tier Platinum and Diamond Medallion members.

JetBlue Airways

New York-based JetBlue has a smaller international footprint, but it was among the first to implement a waiver of change and cancellation fees for new reservations, including those in Blue Basic. This has been updated a few times since the initial announcement (you can view the most up-to-date information on this page), but the following policies are currently in effect:

  • Existing reservations: Waived change and cancellation fees on all tickets with travel through May 31, 2020 (customers can rebook travel through Oct. 24, 2020)
  • New bookings:
  • Waived change and cancellation fees on tickets booked between Feb. 27 and Mar. 5 for travel through June 1, 2020
  • Waived change and cancellation fees on tickets booked between Mar. 6 and Mar. 31 for travel through Sept. 8, 2020

Unfortunately, these waivers don't explicitly address flights booked using TrueBlue points. However, a JetBlue spokesperson confirmed that they are, so TrueBlue members can change or cancel their flights booked with points without penalties.

Remember too that JetBlue Mosaic members enjoy fee-free changes and cancellations on all tickets (excluding Blue Basic flights).

Southwest Airlines

Southwest's hasn't issued a formal fee waiver related to coronavirus — simply because the carrier already allows award tickets to be changed or canceled without penalty. If you're looking to cancel an upcoming flight booked with Rapid Rewards points, you can do so for free and get all of your points back (along with a refund of taxes and fees). Alternately, you can change it without any fee, and while this would normally be subject to any fare difference, the carrier is even waiving those additional costs if you're scheduled to travel through April 30 and can change your flight to one within 60 days of your original date of travel.

Visit Southwest's coronavirus updates page for full details.

United Airlines

United's travel waiver related to the coronavirus outbreak follows a similar pattern: Customers will pay no change or cancellation fees on flights that depart through May 31, and if your flight was booked between March 3 and March 31, this waiver covers all travel dates. While you would need to pay a fare difference if your new flight is priced higher than your original one, the policy indicates that "no residual value will be given" if the new flight is priced lower.

Like other carriers, this flexible policy doesn't explicitly address award tickets. However, when TPG reached out to the airline, a spokesperson confirmed that you could change tickets booked with miles for free, as long as they fell during the applicable booking and/or travel windows outlined above.

Although this policy initially didn't apply to canceling award tickets — meaning that you'd still need to pay a redeposit fee depending on your United Premier elite status — the carrier finally updated its policy as of March 30, 2020. If you're scheduled to travel through May 31, 2020, you can now cancel your award tickets and have your miles redeposited for free.

If you're scheduled to fly on a later date, our advice from above remains: Wait to cancel your flight booked with miles. If United ultimately cancels your flight, the airline is required to refund your miles along with your taxes and fees.

It doesn't hurt to ask

Even if your flight isn't directly covered under a published travel waiver, you may be able to find a sympathetic phone agent. (Photo by aluxum/Getty Images.)

Of course, a rapidly-evolving situation like the coronavirus outbreak is bound to create some gray areas, and TPG staffers have already experienced this in our own interactions. TPG Senior Editor Alberto Riva asked to waive the $125 redeposit fee for an award ticket he had booked with United miles in Swiss business class from New York-JFK to Zurich in late March — which the United phone agent agreed to after speaking with a supervisor. TPG Senior Editor Jasmin Baron faced a similar situation changing an award ticket booked using Alaska miles for her mom to fly back from the Philippines, but when she explained her circumstances, the phone agent waived the change fee.

We've also received reports from TPG readers indicating that itineraries that should be eligible for free changes are having fees added on, so if you're in a similar situation, you may need to call to resolve the discrepancy — and unfortunately, wait times may be quite long. You could try an airline's international customer service numbers or use the automated system to request a call back (if available). This could also be a great opportunity to leverage an elite phone line — though some data points shared with TPG indicate multiple-hour waits for an agent with some U.S. carriers.

Remember to stay calm and be respectful, especially if you're asking for an exception to the published policies. A phone agent may have the discretion to waive change and cancellation fees on award tickets, but being rude is a surefire way to prevent that from happening.

Bottom line

The coronavirus outbreak continues to grow, and the major airlines continue to update their travel waivers. If you have an award ticket booked for travel through May 31, you should be eligible to change or cancel it without a fee, though the exact details vary — and could change in a day or even an hour. Your best bet is to monitor the travel alerts page(s) for the airline(s) on which you have travel booked, and feel free to bookmark our own coronavirus hub page for up-to-date information on the disease's impact on the travel industry.

Featured image by Alberto Riva