United’s new flexible booking policy could leave you out a lot of cash

Mar 31, 2020

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Update 5/18/20: This post has been updated to reflect the extension of United’s covered booking period, with change fees now waived on all tickets issued by May 31, 2020. Additionally, customers may have the opportunity to cancel an itinerary and receive an Electronic Travel Certificate (ETC) at no additional charge, allowing them to book multiple trips and avoid losing any residual value from their original booking. See this post for more details.

We’re all working to stay isolated right now — travel is clearly off the table for the time being, leaving many of us with more wanderlust than ever before. Fortunately, the airline’s current flexible booking policies have made it possible to plan for the future without much risk — or so it seemed.

As a United Premier 1K member, I try to book flights operated by United or Star Alliance carriers whenever possible, so I began thinking about booking trips to Hawaii, New Zealand and even the Island Hopper, and ticketing everything by May 31, 2020, so I could take advantage of United’s current policy of “no change fees for new bookings.”

But, hidden in the terms and conditions, is a very important note I nearly missed — while changes can be made without a fee, “If the new flight is priced lower… no residual value will be given.”

In other words, if I book a $1,000 round-trip to Hawaii by May 31, then later decide to change it to a $200 round-trip to Florida, United gets to pocket the $800 fare difference. In the past, I would have received an $800 travel voucher for the difference, after paying a $200 change fee. Yowza! I figured there was a chance I was misinterpreting the policy, but a United spokesperson confirmed that it was accurate.

Since the major US airlines tend to roll out fairly consistent policies, I checked in with American Airlines to see how the carrier was handling its own waived-fee policy, valid for new flights purchased by May 31. The same language doesn’t make an appearance here, though, and an airline spokesperson confirmed that, yes, if you book new flights with a lower fare, “the residual value would be issued back in the form of an electronic travel voucher.”

Delta, meanwhile, has a slightly different policy. If you choose new flights on the same dates, for the same origin and destination, you won’t receive a credit if the new fare is lower — in other words, you can’t take advantage of the policy to receive a credit if your fare drops.

However, a Delta spokesperson confirmed that other changes will result in a credit if the fare is lower, directing TPG to a note in the carrier’s terms and conditions, stating “For tickets where we are permitting a one-time change without a fee, the fare for your new flight will apply.  If the new fare is higher, we will collect the difference.  If the new fare is lower, we will issue a Delta travel voucher for the difference (very limited exceptions apply).”

So, what should you do? Assuming you don’t mind ending up with an American Airlines or Delta travel voucher if you move to a flight with a lower fare, I’d consider booking future travel with those carriers during the flexible booking period. If you’re planning to fly with United, meanwhile, I’d only book lower-cost tickets, so you don’t end up forfeiting a significant sum if you choose to take advantage of the waived change fee to move to cheaper flights. Unless United decides to relax this policy, of course, giving customers the peace of mind they really need.

Featured photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

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