United expands no-change-fee policy just 10 days after introducing it

Sep 9, 2020

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Last week, most major U.S. carriers announced that they’re permanently eliminating change fees.

United got the ball rolling on Sunday, Aug. 30 with industry-jolting news that it’ll say goodbye to most change fees. The remaining dominoes fell during the rest of the week.

American and Delta matched on Monday, Alaska announced its news on Tuesday and Hawaiian joined the pack on Thursday. Of course, Southwest has famously been the sole U.S. carrier to never charge change fees.

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Though each airline promised to eliminate change fees, the details differed by carrier. United’s announcement excluded basic economy tickets, as well as all international flights.

Well, just ten days later, United is expanding the eligibility. Beginning Jan. 1, 2021, you won’t be on the hook for a change fee if you’re flying domestically or to Mexico and the Caribbean, as confirmed by a United spokesperson.

Basic economy tickets are still excluded, as are flights to other international destinations. In addition, if you end up switching to a cheaper flight, you won’t receive a future travel credit for the fare difference. That means that if you go from a $2,000 round-trip ticket to Hawaii to a $150 one-way shuttle flight, you’ll be out $1,850. (When moving to a more expensive flight, you’ll still be on the hook for any additional fare.)

Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

Expanding the no-change-fee policy shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. When United made its announcement last week, it was the first of the Big 3 U.S. network airlines to do so. By the end of the week, each carrier’s no-change-fee policy had some unique benefits and exclusions.

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

American’s policy was largely the most generous of the Big 3. It includes domestic flights, as well as those to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. In addition, the Fort Worth-based carrier will credit the difference when switching to less expensive flights.

As Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group, quipped, American effectively told United: “I’ll see you, and I’ll raise you.” On the other hand, Delta’s no-change-fee announcement felt hurried and was missing some of these key details, including whether award tickets are included and what happens when switching to a cheaper flight.

Now that United had time to evaluate the policies of its network competitors, I’m not surprised to see the carrier add more international destinations to the waiver. In the hyper-competitive airline industry, “it’s often a zero-sum game,” Harteveldt told TPG. It remains to be seen whether United will relent and offer credits for less expensive flights.

Related: The wild 48-hour timeline that led to airlines permanently eliminating change fees

Harteveldt explained that eliminating change-fees on long-haul international flights is much harder because the airlines need their partners to agree. That same logic is likely why UA isn’t adding Canada to the list of destinations without change fees.

Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

United has a transborder joint venture partnership with Air Canada. As such, the airlines would need to agree to the no-change-fee terms for all codeshare flights, something Air Canada may not be excited about.

Only time will tell what other improvements United (and the other carriers) make to their no-change-fee policies. One thing’s for sure, though. If Delta announces even more generous terms to its no-change-fee policy, expect both American and United to match, or at least revise their policies once again.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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