Have you ever booked a flight and then later realized you can’t get the time off work, weren’t able to find a travel companion, or something else came up and you no longer wanted to travel? Unfortunately, some airlines charge hefty change/cancellation fees or only issue travel credits on non-refundable airfares, but there are a few cases that allow you to get a refund on a non-refundable ticket.
Update: In the wake of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), several airlines have waived change fees and updated refund policies. For more tips to get a refund for flights canceled due to COVID-19, read this guide.
How to Refund or Change a Non-Refundable Airline Ticket
The only way to guarantee you’ll be able to get a refund for any reason is to book a refundable airfare. However, these fares are astronomically high when compared to non-refundable fares. The main consumers of refundable airfares are businesses that need the ability to make multiple changes or refund a ticket and are willing to pay the premium. If you are traveling for leisure, you’ll most likely be purchasing a non-refundable ticket.
Here are some strategies to get a refund on a non-refundable airfare. More commonly, you may be able to change your flight for no additional fee or receive a credit towards a future purchase depending on the airline and/or the type of ticket you have purchased.
Free Cancellation within 24 hours of Booking
If you are booking a ticket for travel within, from, or to the United States, U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations state that you are entitled to a full refund on non-refundable tickets within 24 hours of booking as long as your flight is at least 7 days away—with no cancellation fee. Airlines are also allowed to hold a reservation for 24 hours, without payment, to satisfy this rule, but most will just make you pay first and refund after the fact if you change your mind. This rule applies to tickets purchased directly with the airline and does not apply to tickets booked via online travel agencies (OTAs) or other third parties, however, many of the major OTAs have similar policies. Some airlines and online travel agencies have even more generous policies than what is required by law.
For instance, Delta’s risk-free cancellation policy states that the cancellation request must be made by midnight the day after the ticket was purchased or midnight of the departure date, whichever comes first. Essentially, there is no advance purchase requirement to be eligible for a full refund within 24-hours of booking directly with Delta. Southwest seems to have the same no advance purchase required policy to be eligible for a refund, though their language is not as clear. Alaska Airlines' risk-free cancellation policy only applies to flights purchased at least 24 hours in advance of departure.
American Airlines allows you to refund any ticket within 24 hours of booking as long as you’ve booked at least 2 days prior to departure. American also offers a free 24-hour hold on select flights if you book seven or more days prior to departure. If your flight is eligible, this option will be labeled “hold” on the “Review and Pay” page. Your reservation and price will be held for 24 hours, which you can then purchase and have another day to cancel your purchase for free if your plans change. In addition, they have an extended hold option for a fee.
United’s 24-hour flexible booking policy is no different than what is required by the DOT, though they also offer a FareLock service on select flights for a fee. Purchasing FareLock will hold your reservation and price for the specified amount of time. Another option to hold an airfare for free is to choose “Other forms of payment” and then select “Pay in person” from the dropdown on United's payment page. This will essentially hold your reservation, without payment, for 24-hours. You’ll still be able to access your reservation and pay online as normal within 24 hours. After payment, you’ll still have the 24-hour grace period to cancel for free, giving you up to 48 hours total to think about your plans risk-free.
All other major U.S. airlines simply follow requirements set by the DOT. However, purchasing your ticket via an online travel agency can be beneficial when it comes to free cancellation. Many third-party sites such as Expedia, Orbitz, or Priceline offer free cancellation until end of day (varies between 10 and 11:59pm) the following business day after purchase, regardless of how far in advance you are purchasing your flight. This means you could buy a flight departing the next day and still be able to cancel it risk-free. Also, you can potentially purchase a ticket on Friday and have until Monday night to cancel your flight without penalty. This could be extended to Tuesday night if Monday happens to be a holiday.
Requesting a full refund for flights within 24 hours of booking is pretty straight forward. Just simply look up your itinerary on the booking site and look for a link or a button to cancel the reservation. Alternatively, you may call the airline or booking agency to cancel.
Refunds for Delays, Cancellations, and Schedule Changes
Many airlines have a special provision in their contract of carriage about “involuntary refunds”. This varies by airline, but it basically states that if an airline refuses to carry you for any reason, or if your flight is delayed more than a specified amount of time, you can apply for a full refund, even on a non-refundable ticket. These documents are a lot to read through, but I’ll provide links for the major US and Canadian airlines below.
- Air Canada’s contract of carriage
- Alaska Airlines’ contract of carriage
- Allegiant’s contract of carriage
- American Airlines’ contract of carriage
- Delta’s contract of carriage
- Frontier Airlines' contract of carriage
- Hawaiian Airlines' contract of carriage
- JetBlue’s contract of carriage
- Southwest Airlines' contract of carriage
- Spirit Airlines' contract of carriage
- Sun Country Airlines' contract of carriage
- United Airlines' contract of carriage
- WestJet’s contract of carriage
Of course, if the airline cancels your flight — and you choose not to be rebooked on a new flight — you are entitled to a full refund, even if you’ve booked a non-refundable ticket. If you have a ticket for a non-refundable flight that you can no longer take, and the DOT 24-hour rule doesn’t apply, you may or may not find it worthwhile to “show up” for your flight and hope it gets canceled or severely delayed. You do have to check-in for the flight in order to receive a refund for a last-minute cancellation or severe delay, but simply checking-in online may satisfy that requirement.
There is also the schedule change loophole. If the airline changes their flight schedule and your flight suddenly changes departure/arrival time, length of layover, or switches from a nonstop to a connecting flight, you may be able to get a refund. A flight change of only a few minutes will usually not warrant a refund, but be diligent in checking your itinerary to make sure there aren’t significant changes, because the airline may not notify you that a schedule change qualifies for a refund. If you notice a significant change, call the airline and request a refund, explaining that the schedule no longer works for you.
Update: On April 3, 2020, the U.S. DOT issued an enforcement notice to airlines, clarifying that a prompt refund must be given to consumers who do not wish to accept alternative offers from the airline when a flight to, from, or within the U.S. has been canceled by the airline — even for flights canceled due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Another benefit some online travel agencies have is an offer to refund price drops if you book with them and the price drops on the same itinerary. CheapAir.com offers this service and will refund the difference (up to $100) in the form of a travel credit good for one year from the departure date of the original ticket. CheapAir does include a booking fee in its fares so you will likely be paying slightly more for your ticket on CheapAir than on other sites.
There are also insurance companies that sell cancel for any reason travel insurance. These are typically costly, but do offer more insurance than you can get with your credit card. Many credit cards offer some sort of travel insurance, but there usually has to be a qualifying reason for that insurance to be valid.
How to Change Your Flight Without Paying a Fee
If all you want to do is change travel dates or itinerary, there are certain airlines that allow this without paying a change fee. However, a fare difference will always apply, so you may still have to pay more if the airfare has risen since your original purchase. During certain circumstances, such as forecasted severe weather, most airlines will preemptively allow you to make flight changes free of charge within a certain time frame and will often not charge a fare difference.
Update: Due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many airlines are now allowing travelers to voluntarily change flights without an extra fee. Make sure to check your airline's specific policies before booking.
As with the schedule loophole listed above, if the airline changes your itinerary significantly due to a schedule change, you may be able to reschedule your flight to a more preferred flight schedule or even to a different date. Say you booked the connecting flight from Los Angeles LAX to New York LGA, because it was cheaper than a nonstop flight to JFK or Newark. If the airline changes your flight to include a long layover or a day flight becomes an overnight connection, you can try your luck at calling the airline and ask if you can be put on a nonstop flight from LAX to NYC instead.
Southwest Airlines has the best policy when it comes to flight changes. If you buy a non-refundable ticket on Southwest, you’ve essentially purchased a travel credit with them good for one year from date of purchase. If at any point, up to 10 minutes prior to departure, you decide you don’t want to take your flight, you may change or cancel the reservation for no fee.
You can either re-book any flight at the same time or keep the credit on that reservation (up to one year from original purchase date) for a future flight. It doesn’t even have to be the same route, you can change to a completely different itinerary if you wish. You can make as many changes as you want and can even receive a flight credit if the price drops on your flight and you re-book at the lower price.
Both Frontier Airlines and Sun Country Airlines have relatively new no change fee policies for changes made at least 60 days in advance of departure. Alaska Airlines also does not have a change fee for Main Cabin and First Class fares. JetBlue offers a refund in the form of a flight credit if you are able to re-book the same exact flight itinerary at a lower fare within 5 days of original purchase. Additionally, there are no change fees for Blue, Blue Plus, Blue Extra, and Mint fares, but if you are flying Blue Basic and want to change your flight, you will be charged $100-$200 per person depending on the route.
All other domestic airlines require you to purchase at least a Main Cabin or standard Economy fare in order to make changes to your ticket. Changes are simply not allowed for basic economy fares on major airlines such as Air Canada, Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, United, and WestJet — not even for a fee. The good news is that most of these airlines have eliminated change fees for standard fares originating in the U.S. With the ongoing pandemic, many airlines are also temporarily allowing changes for Basic Economy tickets booked within a certain date range, such as Delta's 2021 Basic Economy Changeability Waiver or Hawaiian Airlines' Basic Economy travel waivers. Make sure to take a look at your carrier's policies to see if your ticket qualifies for these waivers.
During initial booking, both Frontier and Spirit allow you to purchase a bundle or add-on that allows free flight changes for less than what a change fee would cost after booking. Frontier’s The Works bundle even makes your flight refundable, making it one of the most valuable options on Frontier.
In the unfortunate event of a death in the family or other extraordinary circumstances, you may be able to have change fees waived by the airline, even without insurance. In these cases, call the airline and explain your situation. Be prepared to provide documentation.
Using Frequent Flyer Awards to Avoid or Lower Change/Cancellation Fees
If you want your travel plans to be more flexible, another option is to book your flight using frequent flyer miles or points. Most frequent flyer tickets will have significantly lower fees for flight changes or cancellations than paid tickets. Some may even have no fees depending on your status with the airline. As usual when it comes to fees, Southwest has the best policy, which allows you to cancel award tickets without any penalties and all your miles will be redeposited into your account.