The Worst Fee of All – And How to Avoid It

If you’re not familiar with the change fee, it’s time to learn especially now with many of us making expensive holiday flight reservations. You could avoid a nasty surprise. As much as $200 worth of nastiness.

LISTEN: Travel expert Rick Seaney hates nasty surprises.

What is an Airline Change Fee

If you buy regular coach or economy class tickets – as most of us do to get the cheapest tickets – any change made to your itinerary or tickets after you book your flights will cost you (with one airline exception, shown below).

Fee prices: The cost of change fees vary by airline; on the low end is the $50 ‘name change’ only fee charged by Frontier, while Virgin America charges $75 to $150 depending on the route. The highest change fee is $200, charged by American, Delta and United.

Exception: The lone U.S. airline with no change fee is Southwest.

Airlines can and do change fees from time to time with little or no notice; always check with them for the most up-to-date information.

How to Avoid a Change Fee

The two best ways to avoid a change fee involve acting fast or planning ahead.

1. 24-hour change-your-mind rule: Thanks to the Department of Transportation’s passenger protections, all airlines must give shoppers 24 hours to change their minds about a ticket purchase. It works this way with most carriers: Cancel the purchase within 24 hours of dinging your credit card and you get a refund.

  • Tip: American Airlines takes a slightly different approach: Shoppers reserve a seat for 24 hours without having to pay for it; but once that non-refundable seat is purchased, there are no refunds without a change fee.

2. Refundable tickets: If your dates are truly up-in-the-air it can be helpful to buy refundable tickets which incur no change fee.

  • Tip: These tickets are generally much more expensive than regular economy fares.

3. Travel insurance: It won’t necessarily be cheap but may be worth it. Only you know the answer to that.

  • Tip: You must read the fine print to be certain it covers what you need.

4. Credit cards: Your airline-branded credit card may cover you for change fees (and might just include other perks like a free bag or early boarding). Again, read the fine print.

  • Tip: Shop around; many credit cards have annual fees that can be expensive.

5. Southwest: As mentioned above, it is the only U.S. airline (that we know of) with a “no change fee” policy.

  • Tip: Be sure to compare airfares – plus factor in the cost of a change fee – to be sure this will get you the best deal.

Saving money on change fees – and airfares in general – is part of our DNA which is why we share this information. As airfare analyst and FareCompare CEO Rick Seaney often says, “Never spend a penny more than you have to.”

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Updated: November 12, 2014