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Airline Change Fees: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

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A final report from the Obama administration’s National Economic Council (NEC) documented the steep rise in hidden and surprise charges, as well as how they impact the economy. Not surprisingly, airline fee revenue was part of the equation — specifically, the fact that “de facto mandatory” baggage and change fees soared to an estimated $22.5 billion in 2015.

Basically, much like hidden “resort fees,” these charges aren’t optional — they’re imposed on you no matter what. Why the lack of transparency? People are more apt to purchase things that appear cheaper, even if they know they’ll pay more down the line.

Unfortunately, most travelers — be it business or leisure — are all-to-familiar with the no-choice-fees paradigm, including when it comes to airline change fees. Typically, it costs about $200 to change or cancel non-refundable airfare on major airlines (American, Delta and United), and often much more when it comes to international flights (think $450 or more). The fees are generally a bit less on “non-legacy” carriers.

Here’s the lowdown on how you may be able to dodge them.

An important loophole

Most travelers attempt to cancel flights within 24 hours of booking. However, they may not realize regulations from the U.S. Department of Transportation state that as long as you purchased a non-refundable ticket at least seven days in advance of flying, you’re able to change or cancel your reservation within 24 hours of booking, cancellation fee-free.

The downside

Even if you do want to change your flight within the 24-hour booking window, doing so makes it subject to a potential fare difference. Note: a fare difference is the difference between the fare you already purchased and the fare for the new flight you booked. Since airline prices fluctuate in the blink of an eye, changing a flight could potentially end up costing more. On the plus side, that cost would not be compounded with change fees provided the change occurs in the aforementioned window.

However, these rules don’t necessarily apply to frequent flyer tickets.

Other potential loopholes

If you’re looking to save on cancellation and change fee penalties, there are a couple of other potential loopholes worth noting.

  • Flying Southwest – Southwest never charges a change fee. However, you may have to pay a fare difference in air fare if there is one.
  • American Airlines let you put tickets on hold for 24 hours without paying for them. If you pay for the ticket rather than place it on hold, a 24-hour change/cancel fee applies. If you book and think you may need to cancel, American’s “add-on” fee then allows for cancellation as well as the cost of a checked bag at the time of booking. (It’s a notably more nominal fee.)
  • Other airlines are beginning to enlist more lenient change/cancel policies, too. Look into the policies for individual airlines before booking.
  • Involuntary refunds are refunds that happen when an airline won’t carry you for any reason, or if your flight is delayed more than a certain amount of time. Again, these rules vary by airline, so check with the carrier before booking.
  • Major schedule changes prior to departure may cause airlines to issue a refund. That’s true whether there’s a significant time change to the flight, a layover is longer than originally stated or the flight changes from non-stop to having one or more stops. However, policies vary by airline. What’s more, the airline is unlikely to initiate the refund — you’ll probably have to ask for it.

By: Jennifer O.

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