Help! I Don’t Know When to Fly: The Uncertain Travel Dates Dilemma

Maybe your daughter is about to have a baby. Maybe you’re tasked with setting up the big family reunion and trying to figure out when everyone’s available. Maybe you and the guys are planning a Vegas getaway but trying to navigate all the different work schedules is driving you crazy.

Uncertain Travel Dates Can Cost You

Uncertainty about dates can be costly, too, thanks to change fees that run as high as $200 per ticket (American, Delta, United). Is there a solution? Of course there is!

LISTEN: Rick Seaney’s changed a travel date or two in his time.

Tips for Booking Uncertain Dates

One or more of these ideas may help.

  • 24 hour purchase rule: If you see a good deal, go ahead and buy tickets – but only if you think everyone can agree on firm travel dates within 24 hours. A Department of Transportation rule requires airlines to provide a day-long grace period so people can change their minds without incurring a penalty.

Note: Most U.S. carriers let you make the purchase, and if you change your mind, provide a refund. American Airlines works it a little differently, allowing shoppers to simply hold tickets for 24 hours.

  • Lock in the fare: Back in 2010, Continental Airlines offered an optional fee-based service called FareLock and United kept it going after the merger of the two. It’s pretty simple: If you want to keep a fare you found beyond the first 24 hours, pay a fee that starts at $7 or $8 and United will hold it for three to seven days. This can be useful not only for those with uncertain dates but for gamblers who worry the fare may go drop dramatically during the week.

Note: American Airlines recently introduced its own version called Extended Hold which allows shoppers to put purchases on hold for three, five or seven days (from $7.99 to $11.99). By the way, the fee for both services is non-refundable.

  • Fly Southwest: It’s the only airline with no change fee. You won’t get a refund, but you will be able to use the tickets at a later date.
  • Miscellaneous perks or products: Some elite members of miles programs get change fees waived so consider flying a lot on a single carrier. If that’s not practical, consider purchasing flight insurance but pay attention to the fine print to be sure it covers what you need.
  • Buy refundable tickets: Not recommended for frugal flyers. Here are some examples of cross-country fares on two differ airlines that explain why..


  • Non-refundable: $466
  • Refundable: $666


  • Non-refundable: $326
  • Refundable: $1,289


Final thought: The price of a fare-holding fee sure beats a change fee but the best solution of all is knowing when you want to travel. Unfortunately, life has a funny way of changing the best-laid plans, doesn’t it?


Updated: November 11, 2015