Want to avoid airline cancellation fees? Here’s what to know before you book your ticket 

In the miles-and-points community, we talk a lot about the importance of flexibility. Usually, we’re talking about the flexibility of transferable points or being flexible with your travel dates. But one thing that’s easy to overlook is the value of booking with a travel provider that is flexible.

Some airlines have change or cancellation fees that can be more expensive than a cheap ticket. So if your plans change, you could lose your money. But there are lots of things you can do to minimize the chance you’ll be stuck throwing away the cost of a ticket. It starts with knowing the rules before you book your flight.

There is a U.S. law that requires airlines to allow consumers to cancel within 24 hours of booking without penalty or to hold a reservation at the current price for 24 hours without payment. This law is generally interpreted to apply only to paid flights but most airlines allow free cancellation within 24 hours of booking award flights as well. This applies only to airfare booked directly with the airlines. If you book nonrefundable travel with a third-party site (Priceline, Orbitz, etc.), the rules might vary, so do your research first.

Here are tips for avoiding fees and a brief overview of the major U.S. airlines’ change and cancellation penalties.

Most airlines will charge you a fee if you need to change or cancel a flight. (Photo by Vova Shevchuk/Shutterstock)

Tips for getting a cancellation fee waived

Just because airlines charge excessive fees for changes and cancellations does not mean that you have to pay them. There are plenty of situations where you can get the penalty waived or refunded.

Unfortunately, Southwest is the only major U.S. airline that doesn’t have change or cancellation fees. And while each airline’s policy is different, these tricks can help you avoid nasty fees when your plans change.

Wait to see if the flight schedule changes

If your arrival or departure time changes by a significant amount, you should be able to get a refund or change your itinerary without penalty. But the definition of “significant delay” varies widely depending on the airline and they don’t make it easy to understand.

Usually, the delay will have to be more than an hour or cause you to miss a connecting flight for you to be entitled to complimentary changes or cancellations. So if you’re going to have to cancel your flight regardless, you could wait to see if the schedule changes. Also, if you’re getting close to your travel date, make sure the fees don’t increase the closer you get to departure before trying this strategy.

Provide proof of  a qualifying unplanned event

Most airlines will waive change fees or refund tickets in certain cases. Events like jury duty, military orders, a death in the family or severe illness could be covered under the airline’s policy.

But you’ll need to provide documentation and the specifics of what qualifies and what doesn’t are different for each airline. So if you’re not sure if your unplanned event qualifies for a refund, contact the travel provider.

You could also get extra coverage by paying for your flight with a card that has travel insurance benefits.

There’s no getting out of jury duty, but thankfully, most airlines will be willing to work with you. (Photo by ehrlif/Shutterstock)

Book a (more expensive) refundable fare

It can be a good idea to purchase refundable airfare if your plans are likely to change. But the cost of a refundable fare can be many times the cost of a nonrefundable ticket.

This isn’t always the case, so check the price difference for your dates, destinations, etc. to see if it makes sense.

Change your travel dates instead of canceling

Most airlines charge the same fee to change or cancel a flight. But if you’ve booked award travel, you might be able to save by changing your award ticket instead of canceling it.

Sometimes you can make changes to award tickets for free. For example, American Airlines allows you to change your award flight date or departure time without a penalty. Your origin, destination, and award class will need to stay the same. 

Earn airline elite status

For most folks, this will be the most difficult way to avoid fees because there aren’t many easy ways to earn airline elite status. But if you can get it, some airlines are generous with their most loyal customers. For example, if you have JetBlue Mosaic or Alaska MVP Gold status or higher, your change or cancellation fees will be waived.

This isn’t true for all airline elite levels.

Major U.S. airlines’ cancellation and change fees

Here’s our guide to the major U.S. airlines’ domestic cancellation and change fees. If you have an international flight, the fees will vary and generally be much higher. Also when you’re changing a flight, you will pay for any increase in the fare or taxes. All of these airlines allow free cancellation within at least the first 24 hours of booking.

Bottom line

When your travel plans change, the airlines will try to make you pay. You won’t always be able to avoid change or cancellation fees (unless you’re flying with Southwest), but you can get the fees waived in some situations.

If your flight time changes significantly or you have certain unplanned events (jury duty, severe illness, etc.), you should be able to get the fees waived. But each airline’s rules for these events are different, so do your research and contact the airline.

Knowing each airline’s policies can go a long way in reducing unwanted fees. What do you do to avoid or reduce outrageous airline fees?

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