When you need to change an airline ticket
Many of your best airfare deals are “nonrefundable.” Once you pay, you don’t get your money back if you have to cancel.
Although the very cheapest advance-purchase tickets started out as completely nonrefundable, most big U.S. airlines switched to a policy that when you cancel a nonrefundable ticket for any reason, the airline will allow you to apply the cash value toward a future ticket, minus a fee.
Those fees were originally set a reasonable level of $25 to $50, but most airlines have upped them to the point that the fee can often exceed the cash value of the ticket.
Here’s how the airlines compare:
— Southwest alone allows you to apply the full dollar value of a cancelled nonrefundable ticket toward a future ticket.
— American, Delta, Hawaiian and United charge a $200 change fee for most nonrefundable fares and up to $700 for international tickets. And the new, very lowest “base” fares are truly nonrefundable.
— Air Canada, Frontier, JetBlue and WestJet charge sliding scales based on ticket price and how far in advance you cancel.
— Spirit does not provide for value retention at all on voluntary cancellations.
Sometimes stuff happens that require you to cancel your trip.
The one surefire way to avoid a cancellation loss is to buy trip-cancellation insurance (TCI). Typical TCI covers all cancellations, not just air tickets. And it usually includes a bunch of other benefits, including trip interruption and usually medical and miscellaneous small-ticket benefits.
Most travelers pay between 5 and 15% of the insured value, depending on the scope of benefits. But travelers 70 and over typically are charged a lot more.
The main problem with TCI is that it covers only specified reasons for cancellation — specific accident and sickness problems you and close family members face, plus specific problems at your destination. You can buy extra “cancel for any reason” coverage, but it usually costs more and pays only a fraction of your losses.
Alternatively, as you buy your ticket, almost all airlines offer to sell TCI covering the amount of your airfare. It’s less comprehensive than ordinary TCI, but it’s not age-rated, meaning older travelers can buy it at the same price as anyone else.
American, Delta and United offer full refunds in the event of your death or death of a traveling companion or close family member, call to jury duty or military service, and a few other cases. You must submit extensive documentation to support these claims.
I could not find similar language in other lines’ contracts of carriage, but some lines do offer refunds in those cases.
You can also sometimes game the system to get a full refund on a nonrefundable no matter the reason.
Once you have a ticket, if your airline cancels a flight or changes its schedule, in almost all cases it owes you a full cash refund. And that can work for even a minor schedule change that, on its face, wouldn’t substantially impact your trip.
Individual airlines apply different rules on how small a schedule change triggers a refund option: Frontier says three hours, Air Canada and Spirit say two hours, Delta and Hawaiian say 90 minutes, American says 61 minutes, and United says 30 minutes; Allegiant says “significant” delay without defining a specific time; Alaska, Southwest, and WestJet do not specify a time.
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