Airlines love charging fees, but the worst is when you need to change or cancel your reservation. These fees can end up eating up the entire cost of your ticket. It's not all bad news, though: some airlines have better policies than others. Let's break down which are the best and which are the worst if you're travelling stateside.
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We'll cover how this works with Australian airlines in a future Road Worrier column — but the fact there are only a handful of major airlines makes the process less challenging. If you're planning a trip to the US, you'll be faced with a lot more choices.
Let's start with a quick rundown of all the different policies for cancelling and changing flights. For our purposes, we'll just take a look at non-refundable tickets. Most airlines have more expensive tickets or loyalty programs that get rid of these fees, so if you tend to change your flights around often, those are worth a look. Every airline has their own name and class for these ticket types, but they're usually fully refundable without a fee, at the cost of a higher entry price.
For the rest of us, it's about the standard non-refundable ticket. On top of cancellations and complete itinerary changes, most airlines also offer smaller fees for "same day changes", when you miss a flight or want to catch an earlier flight on the same day. Pretty much every airline also offers a 24-hour full refund window for tickets if you change your mind right after purchasing them. In some cases, airlines will also refund non-refundable tickets in extreme circumstances, such as a death in the family.
With that in mind, here's a breakdown of all the major US airlines with their policies and fees:
As far as the best policies for changing flights goes, there is one very clear winner: Southwest. It doesn't charge anything to change your flight to a different day or an entirely different city altogether. Southwest will charge you the difference if your new flight costs more, but there aren't any other extra fees.
Next to Southwest is Alaska. If you change your itinerary more than 60 days in advance of your flight, it's free. However, once you pass the 60-day threshold, it will cost you $US125 to change. We'd venture a guess that most flight changes and cancellations come within that 60 day window. Alaska's $US25 same-day change free is also one of the better deals if you happen to miss your flight or just want to return home a little earlier.
There's a close battle for the worst amongst the bunch, with Air Canada, American Airlines, Delta, Hawaiian, United, and US Airways all charging a whopping $US200 to cancel a ticket or change your itinerary. These airlines also have the worst same day change policies, charging between $US50-$US75 to change your flight to another on the same day. Basically, if you're unsure about a flight, don't go with any of these airlines (or pay for their refundable tier of tickets).
Slightly below the worst are a few middling airlines, though when you also factor in the average ticket cost you'll probably find that changing your flight on any of these airlines is barely worth it. Frontier charges $US75, but considering it's typically one of the "cheapest" airlines, that means that will be a good chunk of your ticket. Notably, if you also paid for a checked bag or seat assignment, those fees are non-refundable in any way, so they won't get applied to another flight.
Spirit, JetBlue, and Allegiant all have similar policies and the same downfalls. Their ticket prices are so low that you'll likely only get $US50-$US100 back after you pay the $US75-$US120 fee. In the case of JetBlue, it's also a confusing mess that's dependent on how much you paid for the ticket to begin with. As the ticket price goes up, so does the cost of changing it, eventually topping out at a $US150 charge for any ticket over $US150.