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Purchasing airfare is often a guessing game, as you never know if you’re getting the best deal now or if the airline will announce a sale and offer a better price in the future. You might assume that you’re out of luck when a lower fare is offered later, but you’d be surprised to learn that there’s a way to get a refund when your price drops with several major US carriers. Today we’ll take a look at how to do just that.

Getting a lower fare within 24 hours of booking

You probably know that the US Department of Transportation (DOT) requires a 24-hour free cancellation window. If you purchase a ticket with an airline, you can cancel that ticket without any fees or penalties within 24 hours of booking. This rule applies to both paid tickets and award tickets booked with points or miles. So if you purchase a ticket only to find out that it’s now on sale for less, you should do the following:

  1. Cancel the old ticket and receive a full refund.
  2. Book an entirely new reservation at the lower price.

This is probably the easiest way to lock in a lower price on an already-booked ticket, though it only applies to price changes within 24 hours of booking. For more information, see TPG Senior Contributor Richard Kerr’s post on Understanding Airlines’ 24-Hour Hold and Cancellation Policies, and note that American Airlines has since improved its 24-hour cancellation policy.

Ticket refund policies for the six largest US carriers

Delta Boeing 777-200LR taking off (Photo courtesy of Delta Air Lines)
If the price of your flight drops, are you eligible for a refund? (Photo courtesy of Delta Air Lines)

However, once you get outside that 24-hour free cancellation window, you’re left at the mercy of the individual airlines. Let’s take a look at how the major US airlines handle price drops on existing tickets.

Alaska Airlines

Alaska offers a very limited price guarantee, a policy that was put into place for tickets purchased as of September 1, 2018. If you purchase a ticket online and you find a published price for the same flight from a third-party site within 24 hours, then you can fill out a form to request a refund of the difference. This policy used to apply to lower prices found at anytime before departure, but Alaska changed it earlier this year. However, if you purchased your ticket on or before August 31, 2018, you’re still eligible for the legacy policy, which allows you to use this link to request a refund.

As it stands now, it’s difficult to see why you would bother filling out a form when you can just cancel your ticket within 24 hours (per DOT requirements) and re-book it yourself to save the money. The only real advantages are not having to work with a online travel agency in the event of a schedule change or irregular operations and earning 3x bonus miles from your Alaska Airlines credit card. You can read Alaska’s full terms and conditions here.

American

American discontinued its lowest fare guarantee in 2016. If the cost of your ticket drops more than 24 hours after purchase, you’d need to pay the carrier’s change fees, so the price drop needs to be more than those fees to make it worthwhile.

Delta

Delta offers a Best Fare Guarantee that covers flights booked online and on its app when you find lower fares found on other websites. However, similar to Alaska, this only is available on the same day you booked your ticket. As the difference is at least $10, Delta will refund you that difference and give you a $100 voucher. For any changes outside of this window, you’d need to incur any change fees.

JetBlue

JetBlue will allow you to exchange your fare for a lower one found within a five-day window of purchase. The credit you receive will be good for one year, and it’s transferable to anyone. When it’s been more than five days since your purchase, you can still receive a voucher, minus a $75 fee. However, there’s never any fee for those who purchased a Blue Flex fare or those with Mosaic elite status. And remember, you can also earn Mosaic Status just by using the JetBlue Plus Card from Barlcays. While JetBlue doesn’t post this policy on any consumer facing web page that I could find, I did confirm it with one of their telephone representatives. There’s also this page for travel agents that details the policy.

Like Delta, JetBlue also offers a Best Fare Guarantee against finding a lower fare on a third-party website, though it’s again for the same day that you made your reservation. But rather than offering you a refund of the fare difference, it will just provide you with a $100 voucher towards future travel on JetBlue. Since the voucher is “issued within 24 hours,” it’s unlikely that you’ll have time to cancel your reservation and re-book it using the $100 discount.

Southwest

Southwest Airlines ticket counter with Priority check-in sign at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA). (Photo by Evan Didier via Flickr)
Southwest Airlines is one of the most lenient when it comes to ticket changes and refunds. (Photo by Evan Didier via Flickr)

Southwest has, by far, the most generous fare refund policy. Since Southwest has no change or cancellation fees, you can always re-book your flight if its offered at a lower price. If you paid for the fare with dollars, then you’ll receive a credit towards a future flight. The credit is valid for one year and can only be used in the name of the original traveler. If you paid with Rapid Rewards points, then you’ll receive a credit to your account of the difference in points, making all of the carrier’s award tickets fully refundable (as long as you cancel within 10 minutes of departure).

Just note that this process can be complicated if you’re a Companion Pass-holder and have a travel companion’s reservation attached to yours. In that case, you’ll need to cancel your companion, re-book the fare, and then re-add your companion. I’ve found that it’s always quicker and easier to just call Southwest to request the refunded points when you have a companion attached to your reservation. They seem to be able to accomplish this without having to cancel and reinstate your companion reservation.

United

To my surprise, I recently learned (from a suggestion sent to TPG tips) that United has an undocumented fare drop policy that will credit you the difference if your fare drops within 30 days of purchase. The refund comes in the form of a voucher minus an administrative fee of $50. There are even reports of the $50 fee not being applied or being waived upon request. You’ll have to call to request the voucher and hope your call is answered by an agent that is familiar with this policy. Don’t be surprised if you need to politely hang up and call back until you reach a representative that can help you.

Other ways to get a refund after a price drop

Of course, there are some other ways to get a refund if the cost of your flights decreases after booking, and these will generally work across all carriers, though it’ll take a specific set of circumstances for them to work in your favor.

1. Pay the change fee. Most airlines now have egregious change fees of $200 or even more, but it’s certainly possible that an expensive ticket could experience a price drop greater than the change fee. When the fare difference exceeds the change fee, it pays make the change and eat the fee.

Furthermore, there are some airlines that impose more reasonable change fees. For example, Frontier recently change eliminated change fees for flights 90 days from departure, and Alaska has a $125 change fee that’s waived for Gold and 75K Elites. If you redeem miles for a United award ticket and need to make a change to take advantage of a price drop, you’ll pay just $75 if you’re two or more months prior to departure (this fee is discounted or even waived for elite members).

2. Get a cancellation fee waiver, and re-book.  There are all sorts of situations where you might be entitled to a free cancellation and a refund. The most common is when there’s a significant change to the flight’s schedule. If your flight’s schedule has changed, and you can re-book you ticket for a lower price, just cancel the original reservation at no cost and receive a refund. For more information, read TPG Senior Contributor Richard Kerr’s post on How to Avoid Airline Change and Cancellation Fees.

3. Be re-routed to a less expensive itinerary. With many airlines, you should be able to get a refund of taxes and carrier imposed fuel surcharges in the event that your flight is switched to a carrier or route that has lower fees and taxes. This is what happened when American changed my award flight to Rome to remove segments passing through Madrid (MAD) on Iberia. I was ultimately refunded taxes and fuel surcharges that weren’t necessary for the more direct flight that I took, one that was operated by American. For more information, see my post on Travel Refunds: How to Save Money After Your Trip.

Bottom Line

Air travel almost always involves dynamic pricing based on supply and demand. One person may pay $200 for a transcontinental economy seat, while the person in the next seat has paid three of four times that amount. If it turns out that you mistime the purchase of your ticket and see a significant price drop, you may be able to get some of your money (or points) back, depending on the airline. Hopefully this post has given you some suggestions to make that happen!

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