Flight changes are a fact of life. Maybe you booked a trip home for the holidays back in September, then found out in November that you have to be in the office on Christmas Eve. Or just after clicking “purchase” on a ticket to visit friends in Chicago, they told you they decided to ring in the New Year in Orlando instead—and you're invited!
You may think you just have to suck it up and pay a big fat cancellation fee to make a change to your flight, but there are all sorts of ways to get around these fees that don’t involve springing for a fully-refundable ticket or racking up an insane amount of miles with a single airline to earn “elite” status. “There are a few things consumers can do to help their wallets when their plans change,” explains Liana Corwin, a travel expert at Hopper.
Below we’ve compiled the current standard cancellation fees on big airlines plus four ways to avoid paying a dime when, inevitably, life happens.
Flight cancellation fees on 10 major airlines
Southwest is the only major carrier that doesn’t charge a cancellation fee even if you cancel at the very last minute. With other airlines, typically you’re faced with a fee ranging from a low of $75 on Allegiant and JetBlue to a high of $200 on Hawaiian. Here’s a quick rundown of standard cancellation fees* for US flights on the big airlines:
Alaska Airlines: $125
Allegiant Airlines: $75
American Airlines: $200
Delta Air Lines: $200 and up
Frontier Airlines: $99 within two weeks of departure
Hawaiian Airlines: $200
JetBlue Airways: $75 to $200 depending on ticket price
Southwest Airlines: $0
Spirit Airlines: $90
United Airlines: Typically $200
(*These charges are rife with exceptions. For example, “basic economy” fares on American, Delta or United can’t be refunded by paying a fee. On the flip side, discount carrier Allegiant gives you the option of paying just $8 per segment to fully refund a flight, and Frontier lets you cancel for free if your flight is more than 90 days out.)
How to cancel your flight without paying
If you play your cards right, you can avoid these fees altogether and still get your money back. Here’s how:
Cash in on the 24-hour rule. The Department of Transportation’s (DOT) 24-hour rule is a godsend for every traveler who’s ever made a stupid mistake and can’t imagine paying a couple hundred bucks to make it right. The rule requires airlines to either hold flight reservations without payment for 24 hours or allow you to change or cancel a flight penalty-free within 24 hours of booking provided you booked at least seven days prior to the date of departure.
“The airline industry has been lobbying pretty hard over the last couple of years to overturn a lot of consumer protections, but the DOT's 24-hour cancellation rule still stands,” says Tracy Stewart with Airfarewatchdog. The regulation applies to all airlines selling airfares in the US (US-based and foreign) and third-party search sites like Travelocity.
Call your credit card company. The credit card you booked with may have trip cancellation insurance which entitles you to a refund if you’re cancelling your flight for a covered reason like an illness of injury.. Some even cover things like weather delays and issues that would result in changed travel plans, like getting laid off. With Chase Sapphire Reserve you’re eligible for up to $10,000 per trip, while the Citi AAdvantage covers up to $5,000 per covered traveler, per trip.
Hope for a flight delay or cancellation. If you have to cancel your flight outside of the 24-hour free cancellation period and don’t have a valid excuse, don’t cancel the trip until the last possible minute. There’s a chance the airline might announce a schedule change, cancellation, or delay that entitles you to a full refund.
Terms vary by airline, but if a Delta flight is delayed more than 90 minutes you can ask to cancel the ticket and are entitled to a full refund of any unused portion of your ticket. When it comes to schedule changes, a shift of 61 minutes or more on American (or two hours or more on United) gives you the right to request a full refund. You also get a full refund if your flight is cancelled.
Get on your knees and beg. Things get murky here, some airlines offer flight refunds if something serious comes up and you can no longer fly. We’re talking jury duty, a change in military orders, the death of your travel partner, or when you’re too sick to fly.
There’s no guarantee on these requests, as airlines consider them on a case-by-case basis and you’ll have to provide documentation. The customer service agent will likely review your loyalty to the airline and ask themselves how it would look if your story ended up in the news. In short? You might as well ask.