What You Should Know about Change Fees and Holiday Flights

Some of us already know about painful change fees – but there are some new wrinkles you may not be aware of that could hit you where it hurts during the holiday season: in your wallet. Knowing what you can and can’t do could save you real money so check out the following news and tips before you shop for Thanksgiving or Christmas flights.

Is this the worst fee ever?

What’s New with Change Fees

Change fees have been around for a while but they keep getting more expensive. These fees apply to almost any and every change made to a non-refundable ticket after the initial purchase  which can include changing the flight or the day of the flight or canceling the ticket altogether.

Cost of change fees vary: As of May, the four legacy carriers – American, Delta, United and US Airways bumped up these change fees for U.S. flights to $200 (and it’s even more expensive for international ticket changes). Discount carriers charge less but still impose significant fees. The only airline without a change fee is Southwest.

Southwest: The No-Show Penalty

While Southwest won’t charge for changes, it recently instituted a new no-show policy. If you fail to show up for your flight, you will pay a financial penalty. The good news is, you can avoid this fee by simply making a phone call to cancel up to 10 minutes before take-off. If you won’t make your flight, make that call.

Shopping Strategies

During the holidays, it will be a tight squeeze on most planes (this is especially true at Thanksgiving) which means even those who are willing to pay a change fee might not find a seat available on another flight. Couple of things to bear in mind before shopping for holiday flights:

Get on the same page: If you are shopping for the family, be certain everyone agrees on travel dates and times for the flights. This may sound simple but this lack of attention to detail has derailed more than a few trips.

Look for easy flights for families: If shopping for a family with children and/or seniors, you might want to forgo possibly cheaper flights with a stop or two in favor of direct flights. With a non-stop, there is at least one less chance of being stranded by bad weather or other problems.

Reminder: Flights can and do leave as much as 10 minutes or so before the scheduled take-off time. Do not be late – and make sure everyone in your travel party knows to be in the gate area at least 20 minutes before departure. [Editor’s note: During the holidays, I’d be there 30 minutes early]

The 24-Hour Change Fee Escape-Hatch

Thanks to the Department of Transportation, all U.S. airlines must allow you to change your mind within 24 hours of purchasing your ticket, allowing you to make any changes (or cancel altogether) without paying a change fee. This may not sound like much but a few short years ago, there was no such protection.

The Refundable Ticket Escape-Hatch

There is a reason refundable tickets are so expensive – you can cancel or change them, get your money back, and there are no worries about paying a change fee. Think over your circumstances carefully, including health considerations and the ability to travel on certain dates; then do the same for all members of your traveling party. Weigh the odds and ask yourself if buying non-refundable tickets is worth the risk.

The Insurance Escape-Hatch

Look into air travel insurance but read the policy – including all the fine print – before you buy. It won’t be worth a dime if it doesn’t cover what you need it for. And no, not all policies are the same! [Editor’s note: FareCompare does not recommend any specific insurer or policy.]

Elite, Credit Card, Bundle Escape-Hatch

Three ways to get out of change fees may include the following:

  • Having elite status on your airlines
  • Using an airline-branded credit card
  • Buying a bundled fee, which can sometimes include no change fee

The perks of  the above can vary from airline to airline but if you have status or a card or are considering bundling up a few fees, make sure you know what it entitles you to.

Same-Day Changes

Some airlines let you change tickets on the same day for a discounted fee (and this is after the 24-hour post-purchase period has passed). Both American and United for example charge $75 for this service but there are restrictions including flying within 24 hours of the original scheduled flight and you must fly the same departure and arrival cities.

Do Not Count on Illness as an Excuse

No one plans on getting sick but if you do – and you need to cancel a flight – you may be out of luck. Many airlines will not refund tickets, explaining “that’s what refundable tickets are for.” One carrier that might is United which sometimes refunds tickets in the event of the death of a traveler or “certain illness situations” but even in this case there is (usually) a $50 processing fee. Please, take especially good care of yourself in the weeks before your flight!


Published: September 19, 2013