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How to avoid losing money with 'no-fee' United flight changes

May 18, 2020
3 min read
United 787-10 Dreamliner Polaris Premium Plus Tour
How to avoid losing money with 'no-fee' United flight changes
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Editor's Note

This post was originally posted in April and has been updated and republished. 

Through July, United Airlines is offering customers an opportunity to book tickets for future travel without change fees. As of now, tickets booked through July 31, 2020 — for travel on any date — can be changed without the usual $200 reissue fee.

That sounds like a win-win on the surface. United can raise some much-needed cash, while customers can lock in travel at a great rate with the flexibility to make adjustments as needed, given the uncertainty surrounding future travel. But the airline included an especially restrictive policy in the terms and conditions, significantly limiting this option's appeal.

As United explains in the terms and conditions, you'll end up forfeiting any residual value if you change to lower-cost flights. In the example below, I booked a flight for $98.10 and selected new flights for $83.10 — while the $200 change fee was waived, the difference in cost of $15 would have been lost, had I completed the change.

Of course, losing $15 in value is preferable to paying a $200 change fee, but there are plenty of situations where you'll end up at a significant disadvantage. Take, for example, this $1,435 one-way first-class flight from Newark to Honolulu. If I later decide to change my date and/or origin and destination, and the new fare is, say, $435, I'll forfeit that $1,000 difference.

Fortunately, there's now a workaround. If you cancel a flight, rather than change it, you can choose to receive an electronic travel certificate (ETC) for the full value of the original booking. Then, you can use that ETC to rebook your new flights, and the residual value will remain on the certificate, which you can use towards the cost of a second flight in the future.

I selected the ETC option, and my credit arrived in my email instantly. And, thanks to United's recently extended expiration policy, certificates are valid for 24 months from the issue date; I just need to redeem mine by April 13, 2022, for travel anytime in the future.

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While the above ticket was booked with a credit card, I was also able to receive an ETC refund after canceling a flight I booked with an existing travel certificate. In that case, the option didn't appear online, but a phone agent was able to make the request, and the new ETC was in my inbox just four days later.

Although tickets booked under the current flexible policy are intended to lose value if changed to a lower-cost flight, this is a reasonable workaround. Still, in line with the current terms and conditions, United could always choose to require customers to return to their original reservation to make changes, eliminating the option of an ETC.

Featured image by United's latest initiative should further limit the number of passengers traveling in middle seats. Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.