How to avoid airline change and cancellation fees on paid flights
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When the airlines need to change their plans, passengers are rarely offered any compensation, but when travellers must change or cancel their own reservations, huge fees can apply.
In this post, I’ll offer some tips on how to minimise or avoid fees and look at the current change and cancellation policies for popular carriers in the U.K.
Look at fees when you choose an airline
For decades, airlines have gotten away with charging outrageous change and cancellation fees because most passengers fail to consider them when they purchase their tickets.
Low-cost carriers that advertise those unbelievably cheap fares can have some of the highest fees. One of the ways they can advertise such bargain-basement fares is that they make their profits from ancillary fees like checked baggage, oversize cabin bags and change and cancellation fees. Passengers are enticed by the headline fare without realising how much they could be forced to pay if they need to make any changes to their bookings. While many airlines are waiving change fees during the coronavirus pandemic, Ryanair usually charges up to £100 per person to change a flight, plus any fare difference when the price of the new flight is more than the old flight.
Full-service airlines will generally have more generous change and cancellation fees and policies, though to compete with low-cost rivals, they have been introducing basic economy fares that have increased restrictions, including for changes and cancellations.
Pick the right sort of fare
The cheapest fares with most airlines are usually non-refundable. If you can’t travel and you can’t change the ticket to dates that work for you, you won’t receive any money back for the flight you can’t use, so you’ll forfeit it.
Try and predict when picking the fare if you will need to change or cancel it. If it’s for an event that is unlikely to change (like a wedding or significant birthday booked well in advance), you may feel comfortable booking a cheap, non-cancellable ticket as there’s almost no chance you won’t be taking the trip.
On the other hand, if the trip is subject to change, perhaps because a passenger is experiencing ongoing health problems or your employment situation is likely to change, you may wish to pay more for a ticket that can be changed or cancelled free of charge. If you don’t end up making any changes to the ticket, sure you might have paid more than you absolutely needed to, but if you do need to make changes or cancel the trip, you’ll be glad you have that flexibility.
If I’m booking a £20 sale fare for a weekend away in Europe and I can’t end up taking the trip, I just say goodbye to that £20.
Remember the 24-hour rule
By law in the United States, airlines must offer free 24-hour holds or full refunds within 24 hours of booking so long as the flight is more than seven days in the future. So if you’re booking a flight directly with the likes of United, Delta or American Airlines you can refund your flight if you change your mind within 24 hours of booking it.
In the United Kingdom, British Airways, Ryanair and Virgin Atlantic all allow free cancellations within 24 hours of booking. Norwegian only allows changes at no cost within four hours of booking the flight. For example, if you immediately notice in your confirmation email that a name is spelt incorrectly. Always check the details of a booking after you have made it. However, if that Norwegian flight is to, from or through the U.S., the 24-hour rule applies.
Easyjet allows you to cancel within 24 hours but does charge a fee for this — £33 per person online, which increases to £38 per person if you wish to cancel by phone. Jet2 usually does not allow free cancellations unless the ticket conditions allow it (i.e. if you have paid for a more expensive fully flexible ticket). However, if you have made a genuine error with the spelling of a passengers name, Jet2 will allow you to change up to three letters of a name online for free — you must contact the airline within 24 hours of making the booking. Changing more than three letters may be allowed by calling the airline, though it says it will only consider genuine errors, not attempts to change to someone else’s name.
Don’t pay a cancellation fee until you have to
If you book a flight and you later need to cancel the trip, you shouldn’t pay that cancellation fee any earlier than you must. You never know when the airline might announce a schedule change, delay or flight cancellation that will entitle you to a refund without paying the fee. Sometimes weather or other events disrupt flight schedules in advance, and airlines issue change fee waivers as well.
During the coronavirus pandemic, airlines have given passengers the option to cancel their own flight and receive a voucher for travel at a later date. Those passengers aren’t entitled to a full refund if they choose to cancel their own flight. However, if the airline cancels your flight before you do, you are entitled to a full refund. If you think there is any chance your flight might not operate, it’s always best to wait as long as possible before you cancel your booking in the hope that the airline does first.
Check if the change fee is more than the cost of a new ticket
It sounds crazy, but the change fees for your ticket could be so expensive that it could be cheaper to just buy a new ticket. Remember, change fees are a key way that low-cost airlines make money on those cheap fares.
If you paid £30 for your flight originally but you need to change the date, even if the flight is still selling for £30 on your new date (so there’s no fare difference), the terms and conditions of your ticket may mean a £50 change fee to change to the next date. In this case, it would be cheaper to just purchase a brand new ticket for £30 on the new date and throw away the original ticket.
Do be aware though that if this is the first leg of a return ticket (with both legs booked together), not showing up for the first leg will cancel the entire ticket, so this strategy would only work where the ticket was a one-way booking (i.e. if the return ticket was booked separately on another carrier).
Have a good reason
Travellers can often have change fees waived in the event of illness, a death in the family or other extraordinary circumstances like a natural disaster. Just be prepared to offer documentation, as it has been a long time since airlines simply took passengers at their word.
Consider your credit cards’ coverage
Related to the item above, make sure you keep in mind the trip cancellation insurance you could be eligible for with your travel rewards credit cards. For example, the complimentary travel insurance policy provided with The Platinum Card from American Express U.K. includes a generous trip cancellation benefit of up to £7,500 (with the same for changing a trip by cutting it short), which will be very handy if your airline does not want to change or cancel your flights without hefty penalties.
If you’re in the position where you’re able to use credit card trip delay or cancellation coverage, you’re probably worried about more than just airline change/cancellation fees, such as hotel reservations, plans made on the ground and much more. But it’s definitely nice to know that these protections do exist should you need them. Note you’ll need to pay for at least a portion of the covered trip with your card to receive this coverage.
If you aren’t covered by a policy included with a credit card, check the benefits of a stand-alone travel insurance policy. You may be covered for change and cancellation of flights, though excess amounts may be payable.
Cancellation and change policies by airline
Note that during the extraordinary coronavirus pandemic, most airlines have introduced generous change and cancellation policies which you can view here. The policies below instead relate to normal travel periods.
American Airlines — Has a $200 (£160) change fee on paid fares (other than full-fare refundable tickets) for domestic flights, and up to $750 (£600) for international flights. Same-day changes are $75-$150 (£60 – £120) in economy and free for business and first-class passengers on paid fares.
British Airways — BA has different fees for different fare types, classes and methods of changing and cancelling, and it admits “there is no one fee for changes and cancellations so you should check the change fees listed on your individual ticket”. As an example, if you purchase a ticket that allows changes or cancellation with a fee and you can do this online you’re looking at a £15 fee to do so.
EasyJet — This airline’s fees differ depending on whether the change is made more than 60 days before travel or fewer than 60 days and if the flight occurs during the busy summer travel season of 15 June to 2 September. The fees range from £25 (plus any fare difference) per person per flight for a flight or date change done online through to £52 per person for a flight change made less than 60 days before departure, through the call centre for a flight during summer peak season. Flights are generally not cancellable for a refund.
Delta Air Lines — Charges a $200 (£160) change fee for paid domestic flights (including to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico), and up to $500 (£400) for international flights. Same-day confirmed and standby changes are permitted for Delta SkyMiles Medallion elite members, but there’s a $75 (£60) fee for Silver Medallion members. No changes are allowed to basic economy fares.
Emirates — You can cancel Emirates fares for $200 (£160) per passenger. If you purchased a refundable fare this would be refunded to you as cash, however if you booked a non-refundable fare this would only be provided as a credit voucher. You can change your ticket for the same fee. Both these fees would not apply where you had paid for a more expensive fully flexible fare.
Etihad — Etihad now has a wide range of fare choices in each fare class, each with its own change and cancellation policy and fees. In general, the cheapest, most restrictive fares cannot be cancelled or changed at all, while the most expensive fully flexible fares can be changed and/or cancelled at no cost.
Lufthansa — If you wish to change the date of your Lufthansa flight or cancel and refund, you’ll be looking at a £45/€50 fee. A change of destination of is not permitted unless the fare rules of your ticket expressly allow this.
Norwegian — If you wish to change the name, date or refund of normal flights then you will need to pay £60 per person, per flight for short-haul flights and £110 per person for any long-haul flights, plus any fare difference for date changes. Flex and Premium fares can be changed or refunded free of charge.
Qatar — Some restrictive fares Qatar sells cannot be changed or refunded at all. However, where changes and cancellations are allowed under the terms of the fare, Qatar will usually charge $100 (£80) for a change and $75 (£60) for a cancellation.
Ryanair — Ryanair makes it both difficult and expensive to change or cancel a flight. Depending on your ticket type you will be hit with a change fee of between £30-£95 so it may be cheaper to just purchase a new fare instead. Ryanair’s fares are non-refundable though you can seek a refund of the fees and taxes only, subject to a £17 administration fee (which may be equal to or even higher than the fees and taxes were to begin with).
United Airlines — Charges change fees of $200 (£160) for domestic flights and as much as $400 (£320) or more for international itineraries. Same-day changes can be made for $75 (£60), but that fee is waived for MileagePlus Premier Gold, Premier Platinum and Premier 1K members.
Virgin Atlantic — Like British Airways, Virgin Atlantic has a wide range of change and cancellation fees depending on the fare type and class. The cheapest Economy Light fares cannot be changed or cancelled. There is a £30 per person fee to change or cancel a flight where the conditions of carriage allow changes or cancellations.
Wizz Air — Online, call centre and airport counter change fees for standard tickets are €30–-€40 (£27-£35). If you’ve purchased a flex fare this reduces to €12 (£10). Name changes are €45 (£40). If you wish to cancel your flight you’ll be charged €60 (£53) if you cancel more than 14 days before departure or €80 (£70) if it is less than 14 days before departure. With Wizz’s famously low fares, this may be more than the cost of the original flight, so it pays to check.
As airlines continue to introduce new fare types to compete with each other, their change and cancellation fees become increasingly complex. If you are booking the absolute cheapest fare, don’t expect that you will be able to change or cancel the fare in most cases. Also, remember your rights when it comes to an airline cancelling the flight themselves.
Additional reporting by Ben Smithson.
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