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Airfare Q&A: How can I cancel or reschedule my flight without penalty?

Q. What if I want to change or reschedule my flight?

Be sure to contact the airline prior to the scheduled departure date, or be prepared to forfeit the value of your ticket and all money associated with it.

What happens next depends on the type of ticket you have purchased. Typically, the most inexpensive tickets, and most common tickets, are nonrefundable and nontransferable. Unfortunately, in most cases if you need to change a nonrefundable ticket, you will be subject to a hefty change fee. The change fee varies by airline; most major carriers charge $100, depending on the airline and the exact restrictions of your ticket.

However, if you have purchased a ticket with a more flexible airline such as JetBlue and need to reschedule or change your flight, you may not be subjected to such steep change fees. JetBlue, for example, charges only $20 for changes made online, and $25 for changes made with a reservations agent, plus any applicable difference in airfare, for all of its tickets across the board (which are sold one-way, nonrefundable, and nontransferable). Southwest does not have a change fee at all; travelers can apply the money spent on the original ticket to a new flight for up to a year without a change fee.

Q. What if I need to cancel my flight?

The same rule applies to cancellations as changes: Make sure to contact the airline prior to the scheduled departure date, or risk losing the entire value of the ticket on both the major and low-fare carriers.

In general, the major airlines’ cancellation policies are similar to one another, but if you are unsure about your ticket, it is best to call the airline with specific questions. In most cases, if you cancel your current ticket and purchase a new ticket with a higher price, you will be charged a change fee of $100 (price varies by airline), in addition to the difference between the two tickets (if applicable).

Many of the major airlines will allow you to cancel your original ticket and fly stand-by on another flight the same day; however, you will likely be charged a change fee of between $50 and $100.

If you cancel a JetBlue ticket prior to the scheduled departure date, however, you will receive a travel credit valid for one year, and be subject to a $25 fee. If the cancellation results in overpayment for your flight, the remaining balance will be credited for future travel, valid for one year. You also have the option of flying standby on any flight departing on the same day as your originally scheduled flight without penalty.

Southwest will not refund nonrefundable tickets, but will allow travelers to apply the money spent on the original ticket to the purchase of a new ticket without an extra fee (for up to one year).

Q. Under what circumstances can I either get a refund or make a change without penalty?

Airlines will sometimes change their rigid policies in the event of an emergency, usually on a case-by-case basis.

During the Florida hurricanes of summer 2004, all of the major and low-fare airlines waived their change fees, allowing passengers to reschedule flights by a certain date without penalty. In the event of “force majeure” or an “act of God,” in which the airline cancels a flight, travelers will often be issued an involuntary refund.

If a member of your immediate family dies, airlines will sometimes waive their change fees or refund some of your money, provided you present them with a death certificate or memorial service confirmation. You may be charged with a processing fee, however.

If you or someone in your immediate family is in the military, and is called to active duty prior to traveling, some airlines will issue a refund or will allow changes without fees if presented with a copy of the military orders.

The most important thing to remember is that if your travel plans are likely to change, purchase a refundable and/or changeable ticket. Once you have purchased a nonrefundable ticket, your options are severely limited. If you have purchased a nonrefundable ticket, and cannot travel due to a death or serious illness in the family, it’s a good idea to contact your airline and make your case. The worst thing they can say is “no.”

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