The COVID-19 crisis has thrown the travel world into disarray, and no one knows when everything will be back to normal. So when you’re contemplating future travel, you want to know that you can get a full refund if it’s still not safe to go, not just a credit toward a future flight.
Typically, there’s no way to get a full refund if you change your mind unless you buy an expensive nonrefundable ticket. But when you use points or miles to book an award ticket, you may have the option of a full refund if you decide not to travel for any reason. That’s because many of the U.S. airlines that run the largest frequent flyer programs have recently made their award cancellation policies much more flexible.
Here, we've ranked the programs in the order in which you should consider them if you're looking to book an award flight and get a full refund in the future.
Unlike many other airlines that began rolling out change fee waivers since the onset of the pandemic, Southwest never needed to change its policy. That’s because it never imposed change fees on points or paid bookings in the first place (Southwest has always allowed passengers to cancel award flights and receive a full refund of all of your points, taxes and fees).
You can earn Rapid Rewards points from one of several Southwest Rapid Rewards cards offered by Chase, or you can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards® points to your Southwest account from cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, Chase Sapphire Reserve® or Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card. Just note that once you transfer your Chase Ultimate Rewards® points to Southwest Rapid Rewards points, you cannot move them back.
United’s MileagePlus program is now pretty solid for getting refunds on fares booked with miles, thanks to news announced at the end of August 2020 that United would no longer charge change fees for most domestic flights (basic economy fares are excluded).
That means most domestic fares, whether paid for in cash or United MileagePlus miles, are now no longer subject to change fees. However, if your new flight is more expensive than the original flight you booked, you’ll have to pay the additional cost.
Additionally, United doesn’t charge any award redeposit fees for cancellations made more than 30 days before departure.
United Miles are available from several MileagePlus cards issued by Chase, and United is also a transfer partner of the Chase Ultimate Rewards® program.
» Learn more: Card review: United Explorer card from Chase
American’s temporary COVID-19 policy: We’ll start with the good news: Any award ticket purchased on or before Dec. 31, 2020, will not have a change or cancel fee.
After Jan. 1, 2021: Now for the bad news: If you’re booking flights for 2021 and beyond, tread carefully when booking award tickets that might get canceled. While most customers can cancel their trip 60 days or more before travel and have their miles reinstated for no fee, the deal is not so good if you cancel within 60 days. And in a world of COVID-19, 60 days is a long time — a lot of itineraries can change within that time period. If you wait to cancel within seven days of your flight, you’ll have to pay up to $150 to have your award reinstated (you may pay less, depending on your status with the airline).
If you’re willing to change your flight rather than cancel it outright, you’re in a good spot. As of August 2020, American removed change fees for all domestic and short-haul international flights, for Premium Cabin fares and most Main Cabin fares (basic economy is excluded). That policy applies not just to cash bookings, but AAdvantage award tickets as well.
Delta Air Lines
Delta’s policy for canceling reservations booked on miles is generally not great, though Delta has temporarily improved it since COVID-19.
In normal times, if you need to cancel an award ticket, you’ll typically be charged an award redeposit fee of $150. It’s even worse for procrastinators; if you try to cancel within 72 hours of the original flight time, there's no refund for you, period.
Delta’s temporary COVID-19 policy: For tickets purchased between March 1 and Dec. 31, 2020, Delta allows you to change your ticket without an award redeposit fee (or a change fee, if you paid in cash) for travel within a year from the date you purchased the original ticket.
If you really planned ahead and bought a ticket before April 17, 2020 (for travel anytime between now and March 31, 2021), Delta also waives change and award redeposit fees.
Also of note: Award redeposit fees are waived for Diamond and Platinum Medallion members, pandemic or not.
You can earn Delta SkyMiles through one of the many American Express SkyMiles cards, or transfer American Express Membership Rewards points to your Delta SkyMiles account (this transfer is not reversible).
» Learn more: NerdWallet’s best American Express cards
The bottom line
In this age of uncertainty, points and miles have become even more valuable due to their flexibility. By understanding which frequent flyer program is currently offering the easiest refunds, you can book the award flights that you need to take, while still avoiding penalties if you have to cancel your trip for any reason.
The information related to Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card has been collected by NerdWallet and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this card.
How to Maximize Your Rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2021, including those best for:
Airline miles and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card
Flat-rate rewards with no annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Premium travel rewards: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card