Keeping track of what’s going on with airline fares these days is almost a full-time job.
That’s why I’ve turned to Scott Keyes of Scott’s Cheap Flights — whose full-time job actually is keeping track of airline fares — to help navigate through the turbulence.
In this guest post, Scott tackles the real story behind the recent wave of U.S. airlines dropping change fees. As usual, it’s a mix of good and bad — or at least middling — news for the consumer. But for all the uncertainty, we’ll take what we can get.
By Scott Keyes
Last week, four airlines—United, Delta, American, and Alaska—announced they were permanently axing change fees, which for domestic flights had typically been $200 (plus any fare difference). Hooray!
On balance, this is a positive move for travelers, but it’s not nearly the panacea that airlines would have you believe. There are still too many carve-outs and exceptions in the fine print.
Here’s why I see this development as more of a first step than a major milestone.
A Texas-Sized Loophole
The airlines were patting themselves on the back by burying change fees, but they left a glaring omission: the new policy doesn’t apply to basic economy tickets. You have to pay for main economy in order to benefit.
It’s like if Best Buy implemented a new policy of free exchanges on new TVs, but only if you bought their more expensive models.
If you’re someone who dogmatically avoids basic economy tickets, then change fees are a thing of the past for you. But if you pack light and are loyal to the cheapest fare available, airlines aren’t interested in making your life easier.
Applies to Only Some International Flights
Though all four airlines and Southwest are eschewing change fees on domestic flights (except for basic economy tickets), which international routes the new policy applies to varies by airline.
On United and Delta, the policy doesn’t apply to international routes. On Alaska and Southwest, it does. And on American, it only applies to international flights to Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean.
Free Changes Don’t Mean Free Cancellations
It’s reasonable to read that airlines have axed change fees and assume that means you can now get a refund if you want to cancel a ticket. If only!
The new policy allows you to switch flights without a penalty, but unfortunately it doesn’t entitle you to a free refund. For that, you’d have to buy a much more expensive refundable fare.
Differing Fare Differences
Though there’s no longer an additional fee, if you want to change flights and the new one is more expensive, you have to pay the fare difference.
But if your new flight is cheaper, the policy varies airline to airline. On Southwest and American, you’ll get the fare difference back (in travel credit), but on United you won’t get any form of refund if the new flight costs less. (Delta and Alaska haven’t announced their policies yet.)
United’s heads they win, tails you lose policy is a real jerk store approach. Let’s hope Delta and Alaska don’t follow their lead.
Free Same-Day Standby — Maybe
Let’s say you booked a flight home for Thanksgiving that departed Wednesday night, but you later decided it’d be better to leave that morning. When you check fares, though, the morning flights are $300 more expensive than what you paid.
Before you hand over your hard-earned bread, you could try your luck with a newly announced policy on American (starting 10/1/20) and United (starting 1/1/21): free same-day standby, even for basic economy ticketholders. It’s a gamble, of course, but if there’s an available seat on the plane come boarding time, it’ll be yours without having to pay any fare difference.
Be aware: you can only use the new free same-day standby policy to switch to an earlier flight, not a later one.
Temporary Covid Waivers Through December 31
Airlines across the U.S. already suspended change fees since the pandemic began, including for basic economy tickets.
Though airlines want to roll back that flexibility for basic economy starting next year, they’ve committed to waiving change fees on all tickets for the rest of 2020. The tiniest of silver linings in an otherwise atrocious year.
Southwest is Still King
As exciting as it was to see change fees die on so many airlines, let’s not lose sight of the no-fee OG: Southwest Airlines.
None of the latecomers do it as well as Southwest. Southwest doesn’t have change fees on any tickets; other airlines still have them for basic economy.
Southwest doesn’t have change fees for any routes; other airlines still do on many international flights (Alaska Airlines notwithstanding).
Southwest gives you the difference if you switch to a cheaper flight; United does not and Delta/Alaska haven’t said. Come at the king, you best not miss. Other airlines missed.
Check Before You Book!
I’m thrilled that airlines are getting rid of change fees. It’s the right thing to do, especially during a pandemic when travelers should be making their plans in pencil, not in pen.
My hope is that airlines continue down this path and plug some of the existing gaps by including basic economy, all destinations, and giving passengers back any fare difference.
One thing not to do: skim last week’s headlines and assume airlines across the board are matching Southwest. They’re not, and there’s still a lot of variation between the airlines’ seemingly similar no-change-fees policies. Make sure to check before you book.
Scott Keyes is the founder and CEO of Scott’s Cheap Flights