Vacations don't always go as planned. Sometimes unforeseen circumstances—like a tour that runs late or a family emergency—mean that you need to change your plans. Unfortunately, airlines aren't as flexible as most travelers. If you purchased a nonrefundable ticket, which is usually the least expensive, you'll have to shell out extra cash to reach your final destination. And don't expect these fees to disappear anytime soon: Airlines make nearly $2 billion a year from change and cancellation fees alone, so these costs are certain to stick around, and even rise.
How Much Do You Have to Pay?
Passengers change tickets for all sorts of reasons—and most of those reasons are subject to a fee. While most airlines don't allow name changes of any sort, if you need to book an earlier flight, modify the travel dates, swap an airport, or even made a mistake on your original reservation, you can expect to pay up to $250 to make a change. Our Airline Fees: The Ultimate Guide details how much each airline charges. In general, if you've purchased a nonrefundable ticket, expect a change fee to apply. Airlines across the board (except, notably, Southwest) apply penalties for modifying their lowest fare offerings.
What Other Fees Might You Be Charged?
Believe it or not, the airlines don't just make you pay the change fee if you want to alter your ticket. You'll also have to pay the increased airfare, if it applies. Even tickets that aren't subject to change fees require this extra charge. If your airfare is lower than the original itinerary on a nonrefundable ticket, though, most airlines won't offer you money back. Instead, they give you a flight credit that typically must be used within one year.
Also, beware of how you try to change your ticket. Virgin America, for example, charges an extra $25 if you don't use an online form; Spirit charges an extra $10 to speak with a person by phone or at the airport. And if you don't book your ticket with the airline, you might face additional penalties, such as Delta's $50 external ticketing fee for changing tickets that were purchased from travel agencies (online or otherwise) and codeshare partners, unless the change can be made on their website.
How Can You Avoid Paying Them?
Luckily, you do have a few options to avoid paying the extravagant fees, although most of them still require you to shell out some extra cash.
- Change your ticket as soon as possible: Some airlines, such as Continental, Delta, and United in the U.S., and British Airways and Lufthansa abroad, offer a 24-hour window where you can amend or cancel a booking without penalty. This is probably the best option, since there is no extra fee, but it requires you to closely inspect your ticket after purchasing, and is not that helpful if your travel plans change after the 24-hour period has passed.
- Book a higher-class or refundable fare: While upgrading your ticket may cost you more initially, if there's any chance that you'll have to change your itinerary, it might be worth your while to book a refundable or non-restricted fare upfront. AirTran's business class; Alaska's full flex and first class; American's economy without restrictions, full fare economy, full fare business class, and full first class; Continental's full fares; Delta's refundable; Frontier's classic plus; JetBlue's refundable fare; Spirit's refundable fare; United's refundable fare; US Airway's refundable tickets; and Virgin America's fully refundable main cabin, main cabin select, and first class tickets can all be changed without any service fee (although you may have to pay the increase in airfare, if applicable).
- Fly standby: If your change of plans simply includes arriving at your destination a few hours earlier, flying standby is a much less expensive option. Standby rules vary by carrier, and a few still offer the option to travel on an earlier flight for free. You can also request a same-day confirmed seat for a small fee ($25 to $100) on Alaska, American, Continental, Delta, JetBlue, United, US Airways, and Virgin America. Elite frequent flyer members may not have to pay anything for same-day changes. Compared to their change fees, these confirmed seat charges are a significant discount. Of course, the downside is that flying standby on an earlier flight isn't a sure thing. A confirmed seat can only be offered if the flights aren't full, after all.
- Purchase travel insurance: There are many reasons to purchase travel insurance, but one of the benefits is that some plans will cover you for any reason, and reimburse you for change fees you might have to pay if your trip is interrupted or delayed. It's important to research which plan is right for you and your trip, but if you foresee any possibility of needing to switch your flights, then travel insurance is a great option.
Change fees may also be waived on a case-by-case basis in the event of natural disasters or impending weather conditions. During the February 2010 storms, for example, most airlines offered change fee waivers before the snowstorms hit. The recent earthquake in Haiti also resulted in passengers being able to rebook or cancel without penalty.
Have you been charged a change fee in the past? Have you been able to avoid one? Do you think the fees are fair? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!