When purchasing a flight for a trip you have to take, cheaper non-refundable airfares are the way to go.
But, what happens if you cancel or change your flight due to unforeseen circumstances? Airlines require that you pay a hefty fee, but there are some loopholes and workarounds, says Airfare Watchdog founder George Hobica.
The United States Department of Transportation requires that, as long as you’ve booked a non-refundable ticket seven days ahead of your flight, you’re entitled to hold your reservation and the fare and change or cancel your reservation within 24 hours of booking without paying a cancellation fee (typically $200 on large carriers and up to $450 for international flights).
This means you get a 24-hour window after booking to either change the reservation or cancel it entirely. A change in the reservation could require the passenger to pay the difference in fares, but a change penalty will not apply. This applies to any airline selling tickets in the U.S.
To best take advantage of the 24-hour rule, book directly with the airlines, either online or by phone, instead of third-party Web sites.
Watch out for certain caveats with specific airlines:
American Airlines allows you hold your seat and the fares for 24 hours without paying for it. When considering booking a flight with American, do NOT pay for the fare and choose the 24-hour hold option instead. If you pay, you will be hit with a change/cancellation fee. American also sells fare “add-ons” starting at $68, which allow you to change your flight for free at any time, board first or check in a bag round-trip.
Southwest Airlines goes beyond the DOT regulation and allows you to change or cancel a reservation any time before flight time and get a credit for the full amount of your fare, which can be applied to future travel within a year of the original reservation. You’ll still have to pay the applicable fare increase.
Alaska Airlines now lets you change or cancel your flight for free within 60 days of departure.
Allegiant Airlines, notorious for nickel-and-diming its customers, is a bit more specific. Its rules state that you may cancel as long as your scheduled flight is at least 168 hours (seven days) away at time of booking.
Beware: the 24-hour rule is a little hazy when it comes to frequent flyer tickets. Most airlines oblige, but US Airways clearly states that the rule doesn’t apply to its mileage tickets.
Other Ways to Get a Refund:
Most of the traveling public is unaware of Rule 260 in airline contracts of carriage about “involuntary refunds,” which states that if the airline refuses to carry you for any reason, or if your flight is delayed more than a specific amount of time (like 121 minutes on American Airlines), or if your flight is canceled, you can apply for a full refund – even on a non-refundable ticket. For example, here is the rule for Hawaiian Airlines and United Airlines.
So, if you buy a fare you no longer can use and the DOT 24-hour rule doesn’t apply, you can avoid the change/cancel fee if your flight is canceled or severely delayed. It may not be worth your time to even show up to the airport, but you do need to check in for the flight for the rule to apply.
The Schedule Change Loophole:
You can get a refund if there’s a significant schedule change before your departure (for instance, a 9 a.m. departure is pushed to 6 a.m. the next day), or your new flight requires a much longer layover or overnight stay from a nonstop to a connecting flight. For example, here is American Airlines’ policy.
The airline may not notify you of a qualifying schedule change, so if you’ve purchased a non-refundable fare that you would like to refund, be sure the check the flight schedule to see if it has changed in any way. If it has, call the airline and request a refund, explaining that the schedule no longer works for you. Obviously, a change of just a few minutes won’t qualify for a refund.
And There’s Always Dying
In the past, if you had a verifiable illness or accident, with something as irrefutable as an emergency room admission, an airline would take pity on you and change or cancel your reservation without penalty. This doesn’t usually pan out these days, as too many people faked medical emergencies. So, now airlines will only issue a refund if you or a traveling companion on the same reservation dies — and only on presentation of the death certificate.