Travel is still a little uncertain — here are the most flexible airline miles to use

Aug 20, 2021

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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 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 airline loyalty programs on an ongoing basis instead of just those with pandemic-related measures. For our purposes, we’ll define “flexible” as programs that let you cancel tickets at the last minute without paying a fee.

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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 737 in Houston
Southwest Airlines has an extremely flexible change policy.  (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

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 many flights

United wide body jet
United recently removed change fees for award tickets. (Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)

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 Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and applies to both paid and award tickets. When you cancel an award flight, the miles are redeposited into your account.

Shortly after making this change, the airline also announced it would stop charging change and cancellation fees on international award tickets to/from the U.S. and Mexico or the Caribbean. Further, all international award tickets originating in the U.S. are exempt from change and cancellation fees.

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

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

Delta Air Lines E-175 jet
Delta introduced a great new change policy last year. (Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

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. This permanent change applies to all tickets originating in North America, including all international destinations.

The only exclusion is basic economy tickets (including awards). These are not included in the new change and cancellation policy, but Delta is temporarily allowing these tickets to be changed or canceled without a fee through Dec. 31, 2021.

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 777-300 Aircraft
American lets you change or cancel domestic and most international tickets for free. (Photo by Nicolas Economou/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty 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. The airline later expanded this change and cancellation policy to cover all international tickets originating in North and South America.

Web Special awards aren’t included in this specific change policy. You cannot change these tickets, but you can cancel and have your miles reinstated for no charge.

Related: Choosing the best credit card for American Airlines flyers

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan — waived fees on all flights

Alaska Airlines Fly with Pride livery
Alaska is also waiving change fees on all flights. (Photo courtesy of Alaska Airlines)

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 award flights and will continue indefinitely. Additionally, partner tickets booked after May 1, 2021, can be canceled or changed for no fee.

Related: Maximizing redemptions with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

British Airways Avios — book flexible American flights on the cheap

British Airways planes at Heathrow airport
British Airways has a solid cancellation policy for American Airlines award flights. (Photo by Steve Parsons/PA Images via 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 great 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

Bottom line

It’s great to see airlines permanently make award (and paid) tickets more flexible. I think this is a key part of making travelers confident in getting back on a plane even though the pandemic keeps throwing us some curveballs that make it challenging to plan very far in advance with certainty. Keep these policies in mind as you book award tickets in 2021 and beyond.

Feature photo by David Slotnick/The Points Guy

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