The most flexible airline and hotel loyalty programs for pandemic (and post-pandemic) travel

Oct 7, 2020

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Travel flexibility is more important than ever during the coronavirus pandemic. Country by country and even state by state restrictions can change on a dime, so being able to cancel or change your award flight or hotel night is a huge benefit. Thankfully, most travel companies have already modified change policies in response to the pandemic, but some are still better than others.

In this article, I’ll walk you through the most flexible loyalty programs. For this article, we’ll define “flexible” as programs that let you cancel tickets at the last minute without pay a fee. Here, I’ll focus on travel companies that have the best ongoing change and cancellation policies, but I’ll mention their coronavirus policies too. Use this information to find the best miles to use for your next redemption.

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In This Post

The most flexible airline miles

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)
A number of airlines have gotten rid of change fees — these are the best change polices. (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Airlines have had a long history of charging huge change fees on award travel — thankfully, that’s starting to change. Here’s a quick look at the most flexible airline miles. Each of these has pros and cons, so read through each option to find which is best for your travel needs. We’re focusing on standard (i.e., not coronavirus) cancellation policies. All of these airlines have extended coronavirus cancellation policies as well.

Southwest Rapid Rewards — the best of the best

Southwest Boeing 737s lined up at Baltimore/Washington International Airport. (Image by Edward Russell/TPG)
Southwest Airlines has an extremely flexible change policy. (Photo by Edward Russell/TPG)

Travel flexibility and Southwest go hand in hand. For years, the airline has boasted no change or cancelation fees on all paid and award tickets.

Award tickets can be canceled up to 10 minutes before departure. If you pay with points, they are refunded to your Rapid Rewards account when you cancel. This is especially useful if a flight’s cost goes down — change to the lower-priced flight and you’ll get the price difference back. Check your Southwest bookings regularly to see if you’re eligible for a partial refund.

The same goes for cash bookings. You can change or cancel your flight at any time. If you cancel a flight, the cost is returned to you as Southwest travel credit. Alternatively, you’re only liable for paying the fare difference if you move to a more expensive flight.

Related: Second to none: Here’s what makes Southwest’s generous change policies so good

United MileagePlus — waived fees for domestic flights

ALBUQUERQUE, NM - SEPTEMBER 28, 2014: A United Airlines worker services a United Express Embraer 170 passenger aircraft parked on the tarmac at Albuquerque International Sunport in New Mexico. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)
United recently removed change fees for award tickets. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

United was the first of the Big 3 to remove change fees permanently. Even after the coronavirus pandemic is over, United will continue to allow customers to change or cancel domestic flights (both paid and award) for free. This includes flights to Peurto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. This applies to both paid and award tickets. When you cancel an award flight, the miles are redeposited into your account.

Additionally, the airline will waive redeposit fees on international award flights canceled more than 30 days before departure. A $125 fee will apply to international award flights canceled within this 30-day window.

That said, you can change or cancel all award United flights through Dec. 31, 2020, free of charge, due to the coronavirus pandemic. This applies to all domestic and international flights, so there’s no risk in preemptively booking holiday travel during the pandemic.

Related: United permanently eliminates most change fees, adds free standby option

Delta SkyMiles — no change fees (for the most part)

Delta planes at SLC
Delta introduced a great new change policy. (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Delta recently revamped its loyalty program to remove almost all change fees for award tickets. You won’t pay change fees for canceling and changing award tickets before departure. The only exclusion is basic economy tickets (including awards) — these are still not eligible for changes or cancelations. This permanent change applies to all domestic U.S. flights, including flights to Peurto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Like United, Delta waives all change fees through the end of the year in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

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

American Airlines — no change fees for domestic and short-haul international

American Airlines Boeing 777 at LAX
American lets you change or cancel domestic tickets for free, with one exception. (Photo by FG/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

Like Delta and United, American got rid of change fees for U.S. domestic flights and flights to and from Canada, the Caribbean and Mexico. As you’d expect, “domestic” also includes flights to and from Peurto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Again, these are permanent changes that aren’t restricted to coronavirus travel dates. After the pandemic, long-haul flights can be changed for free when changing at least 60 days out from the departure date.

Web Special awards aren’t included in this change policy. Instead, they’re covered by the policy that governs changing or canceling long-haul international awards. This is fine if you’re canceling far out, but not great for last-minute changes. Likewise, basic economy flights are not eligible for free changes once the airline’s coronavirus waiver expires.

As you’d expect, all American flights can be changed or canceled for free through the end of the year due to the pandemic.

Related: Choosing the best credit card for American Airlines flyers

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan — waived fees on all flights

(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
Alaska is also waiving change fees on all flights. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

Following the industry trend, Alaska Airlines is getting rid of change and cancellation fees on all flights, excluding Saver fares. This applies to both international and domestic flights and will continue indefinitely. The airline is also waiving change and cancellation fees on all flights — including Saver fares — through the end of the year due to the pandemic.

Unfortunately, it’s not yet confirmed if this new change policy covers partner award tickets. That said, the coronavirus travel waiver covers them. I expect Alaska to announce more information related to this once travel resumes.

Related: Maximizing redemptions with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

British Airways Avios — book flexible American flights on the cheap

British Airways plane landing at LHR
British Airways has one of the best cancellation policies for American Airlines award flights. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

British Airways Avios offers excellent deals on flights and a great cancellation policy. While the airline lists a $55 refund and redeposit fee online, it’s only charged if you paid more than $55 in taxes and fees on a ticket.

All American Airlines domestic tickets booked with Avios are charged just $5.60 in taxes and fees. With that in mind, you’ll only forfeit the taxes charged and have your Avios refunded. Note that all changes must be made at least 24 hours before departure.

Unfortunately, these refunds take some time. I’ve personally waited almost a week for a refund to hit my British Airways account, so it can be frustrating. That said, I think it’s worth booking short American flights with British Airways if there’s a chance you’ll cancel. British Airways Avios are super easy to earn and the airline has incredible redemption rates for American domestic flights. British Airways’ American award pricing is often better than what you’ll find with AAdvantage for short flights.

Related: Cancel and refund a British Airways award ticket from just $5.60

The most flexible hotel points

Park Hyatt Chicago Exterior
Unfortunately, most hotels don’t have set cancellation policies. (Photo by EQRoy/Shutterstock)

Unlike airlines, none of the major hotel chains have made permanent changes to their change and cancellation policies. That said, most are already pretty flexible, but policies are inconsistent across hotels. We’ll focus on the hotel’s standard award night cancellation policy and make a note of the coronavirus cancellation policies as well.

World of Hyatt — most properties let you cancel 48 hours out

Most Hyatt properties let you cancel award nights for free so long as you give 48 hours notice during normal travel times. After this, you’re liable to pay one day’s worth of World of Hyatt points to cancel your stay. Unfortunately, the hotel doesn’t have a standard policy, so this may vary by hotel. With that in mind, always check the cancelation policy of the hotel you book with. You can view this at the top of the booking page when you pay with points.

Viewing Hyatt Award Cancellation Policy
(Image courtesy of Hyatt)

It’s worth noting that the hotel group is offering 24-hour cancellation through July 31, 2021. There are limited exceptions to this rule, so still double-check with your hotel before booking. However, all of the properties we’ve checked are offering the 24-hour cancellation policy through July 2021.

Related: Complete guide to current World of Hyatt promotions

Hilton Honors — also varies by hotel

Like Hyatt, Hilton doesn’t have a set policy for its hotels to follow for Hilton Honors points cancellations. However, in my research, most hotels allow free cancellation for points stays so long as reservations are canceled 24 hours before arrival. You can view each hotel’s cancellation policy on the booking page — you can find this at the bottom of the booking screen.

It’s worth noting that Hilton originally allowed all reservations — regardless of the hotel — to be canceled for free 24 hours before arrival due to the pandemic. This policy ended for new reservations on Oct. 1, 2020. Thankfully, reservations made before this date are still eligible for this blanket cancellation policy.

Related: 8 ways to maximize redemptions with the Hilton Honors program

Marriott Bonvoy — most hotels offer 24-hour cancellation

Marriott Bonvoy doesn’t have a set cancellation policy either, but we’ve found that most properties offer 24-hour or 48-hour free cancellation for Marriott Bonvoy award stays. You can view each hotel’s cancellation policy at the bottom of the checkout screen when you book a hotel stay. Additionally, the company guarantees 24-hour cancellation for most stays starting on or before Dec. 30, 2020. Note that this excludes prepaid cash stays.

Marriott Cancellation Policy for W Chicago
(Image courtesy of Marriott)

If you don’t cancel within the hotel’s cancellation policy, you may forfeit your points and be assessed an undisclosed fee.

Related: Now earn 5 free nights with the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card

I’d like to see hotels change this

As you can see, the Big 3 hotel groups we’ve discussed — along with other groups like IHG, Wyndham and Best Western — don’t publish set cancellation policies for award nights. I’d like to see hotels change this as we move through the pandemic. Flexibility is key for boosting travelers’ confidence. Likewise, hotel groups need to implement a set cancellation policy to streamline. Otherwise, consumers may be confused and opt to stay at an independent hotel with more flexible cancellation policies.

On top of this, many hotel companies have prematurely ended their blanket coronavirus cancellation waivers. To me, this is a bad move given the pandemic is speeding up in some parts of the world and the future of travel is uncertain. Hotels should adjust their cancellation policies accordingly as a show of goodwill to customers considering pandemic travel.

Related: The Critical Points: First to go were airline cancellation fees, next should be hotel resort fees

Bottom line

It’s great to see airlines permanently make tickets — both award and paid — more flexible. I think this is a key part of making travelers confident in getting back on a plane once the pandemic is behind us. Again, I’d like to see hotels follow their lead and make similar changes for award night cancellation. In doing this, hotels will also benefit from added travel confidence and make a better booking experience.

Feature photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

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