How to change or cancel flights during the pandemic

a group of people performing on a counter: Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

© Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

  • A surge in COVID-19 cases across the US is encouraging would-be travelers to cancel their holiday flights.
  • Four major US airlines have eliminated change and cancel fees permanently, while others have travel waivers to make it easier to cancel when plans change.
  • Most airlines won’t offer a refund, however, unless a flight is canceled or there is a schedule change, so flyers should be strategic when they cancel. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The airline industry’s hope for an air travel resurgence during the holiday season may be dashed as some travelers are looking to avoid flying amid a coronavirus surge. 

Rising COVID-19 cases and new lockdown orders from governors across the US that limit how many people can be at Thanksgiving dinner are forcing travelers to rethink their holiday plans. And for some, that means staying off of airplanes, despite the industry’s push to show that flying is safe

For those looking to stay home, airlines are being more flexible this year out of any year prior when it comes to changing plans. In the US, four major airlines eliminated change and cancel fees permanently in an effort to increase bookings despite the ever-changing landscape of the pandemic. 

American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and Alaska Airlines have done away with the fees, normally a huge revenue driver, while others have waivers to allow limited changes with restrictions. 

But even though airlines are using words like change and cancel, the policies often have restrictions about which travelers are often unaware. While there might not be a change fee, for example, customers will have to pay any difference in airfare.

Here’s what you need to know about changing or canceling a booking as coronavirus continues to impact travel.

Four major US airlines are eliminating change and cancel fees for domestic and limited international travel

United Airlines was the first major international airline to eliminate change fees over the summer for its flights within the US or to the Caribbean and Mexico. Passengers with economy tickets and above, excluding basic economy, can make changes or cancellations as many times as they’d like. 

Award ticket holders can similarly make changes or cancel their flights. In order for the miles to be redeposited without a fee, however, the passenger must cancel greater than 30 days from the day of departure. 

Passengers with basic economy tickets who book or have booked their flights before December 31, 2020, are able to change their flights under United’s earlier change fee waiver. 

Travelers can rebook or cancel on United’s website, mobile app, or by calling 1-800-864-8331.

American Airlines’ new policy is a bit broader and includes the US, Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean, as well as all “long-haul international” trips that originate in North or South America, though American hasn’t yet defined which routes classify as long-haul international. Ticket holders in all classes except basic economy can make changes or cancel their flight without a fee if they’ve booked after August 31.

Passengers who also bought a ticket before September 30, 2021, for travel between March 1 and December 31, 2020, regardless of cabin class, can make a one-time change for free under American’s existing travel waiver

Travelers can rebook or cancel on American’s website, mobile app, or by calling 1-800-433-7300.

Delta Air Lines is allowing customers with tickets booked between March 1 and December 31, 2020, to change their flights with no fee for up to a year after they’ve purchased. Tickets purchased before April 17, however, can be extended until December 31, 2022. 

Beginning in 2021, Delta passengers with flights within the US, Puerto Rico, and US Virgin Islands can make changes or cancel without a fee, except for basic economy passengers. 

Travelers can rebook or cancel on Delta’s website, mobile app, or by calling 1-800-221-1212.

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Alaska Airlines is also permanently eliminating change fees to its domestic and international destinations for all fares except “saver” basic economy. Passengers with a saver ticket, however, can make changes or cancel if they’ve purchased before December 31, 2020. 

Travelers can rebook or cancel on Alaska’s website, mobile app, or by calling 1-800-252-7522.

While change fees are waived, travelers will still have to pay a fare difference in most cases for all airlines.

Most US airlines are waiving cancel and/or change fees for flights to any destination

In addition to American, Delta, United,  and Alaska, all major US airlines adjusted their policies to allow flyers to book or cancel flights. 

JetBlue Airways, Allegiant Air, Spirit Airlines, Frontier Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Spirit Airlines, and Sun Country Airlines have all issued flexible travel policies to allow for changes.

  • Allegiant Air is allowing a one-time flight change for existing bookings.
  • Frontier Airlines is allowing passengers with existing and new bookings to change or cancel without a fee for flights through January 7, 2021. 
  • Hawaiian Airlines is allowing passengers with new and existing bookings from March 1 to December 31 to change or cancel without a fee. 
  • JetBlue Airways is waiving change and cancel fees for passengers with new existing bookings until February 28, 2021.
  • Sun Country Airlines is waiving change fees for bookings greater than 60 days out. Travelers can also purchase a change fee waiver, which allows for a one-time change within 60 days of travel. 
  • Spirit Airlines is waiving change and cancel fees for bookings made until December 31, 2020. 

While the fee to change or cancel is being waived, travelers will still have to pay the fare difference in most cases for the flights to which they’re rebooking. 

Southwest Airlines hasn’t issued a travel waiver as all of its flights can be changed or canceled without incurring a fee. Changes made, however, do incur a fare difference and those canceling their bookings without holding refundable tickets have the funds go into a travel bank.

How to get a refund and not just a credit for future travel

Just because an airline is canceling a ticket, does not mean that travelers will get their money back. Most airline tickets are non-refundable meaning that even if the ticket is canceled, the airline will likely not give the money back to the customer unless certain conditions are met.

The policy is in place to prevent unnecessary bookings as well as prevent the airlines from losing money in the event of a mass cancellation event such as a pandemic. Airlines will instead keep the funds and allow them to be used on a future booking, encouraging customers to rebook for a later date and still fly with the airline. 

If airlines allowed for refunds during the COVID-19 pandemic, they would lose millions with no guarantee that passengers would rebook especially since the demand for travel is still low. 

When a flight is impacted by a schedule change, however, the traveler can request a refund. A schedule change is any change made to a flight by the airline and not by a passenger, including a change in the departure or arrival times, or aircraft type. 

Read more: Airlines constantly adjusting their schedules means you can easily change your flight for free or get a refund — here’s how

That’s why passengers who want cash instead of travel credit or a voucher should wait until the last minute to see if their flight ultimately ends up being changed, delayed, or canceled. Even a small flight delay on the day of departure can make the case but some airlines do require 24-hour notice for a cancellation or that the cancellation is made before the flight’s scheduled departure, so set an alarm as a reminder to cancel. 

If your flight has been changed previously, keep that in mind as the trip nears as a potential way out. For most major US airlines, a schedule change of an hour or two and even an aircraft change can be grounds for a refund.  

Standard travel insurance policies likely won’t cover coronavirus.

According to industry analyst for Ted Rossman, the regular policies that travelers can buy from their airlines won’t cover claims that cite coronavirus as the reason for cancellation. 

“The only travel insurance that would be helpful in that scenario is when you pay extra for a ‘cancel for any reason’ plan,” Rossman told Business Insider’s David Slotnick. “If you’re just canceling out of fear of traveling and getting sick, that’s not a good enough reason.”

Some policyholders who get sick before travel or having a compromised immune system may be able to successfully file a claim, but would likely require documentation from a doctor. 

Credit card companies offering cards with built-in travel insurance have also said coronavirus is not a reason to file a claim. 

Social media and airline websites and mobile apps can be used to change or cancel flights if waiting on hold isn’t an option.

With the influx of calls to change or cancel travel, wait times for airlines have been exceeding normal lengths and it can take hours to get an agent on the phone. Most bookings can be changed or canceled online via the airline’s website but for those who require special assistance and can’t wait multiple hours on hold, social media offers another option.

Airlines can assist with most booking changes or cancellations via their Twitter accounts over direct message or use a phone’s messaging service. Wait times may be similarly long but travelers won’t have to wait on hold to reach an agent. 

For international airlines without US phone numbers, social media may be the best way to get in contact with an airline. Some airlines also offer a live chat function on their websites for easy access to an agent, though wait times similarly may vary.  

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