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Unless you pay significantly more for a refundable plane ticket, most fares are nonrefundable under normal circumstances. However, these are strange times we are living through, so it’s worth looking at some facts that can prove useful if you’re holding a ticket for a flight you want to change or cancel.
When an airline says that a ticket is nonrefundable, it doesn’t mean that you can’t cancel a ticket. It simply means that they are not going to give you all of your money back if you cancel. You are always allowed to cancel the ticket — but if you want to use the value of that ticket later, you’ll have to pay a change fee. These fees can range from as low as $125 for Alaska Airlines and as high as $200 for American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines.
Refunding a ticket can happen, but the stars have to be aligned exactly right.
When air travel is disrupted, airlines issue travel waivers. The most common examples are weather-related events such as hurricanes, volcano eruptions, winter storms and wildfires, to name a few.
These waivers give you more options and flexibility than you normally get with nonrefundable tickets. For example, if the airline issues a waiver, you can sometimes make changes without incurring those hefty change fees. Cancellations may be fee-free as well.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, most airlines offer a health-related waiver that allows you to purchase a nonrefundable ticket but receive a full refund of the cost if you book and cancel within a certain time frame.
For U.S. airlines, you can find the Delta, American, United, Spirit and Alaska airlines COVID-related policies here. Southwest Airlines doesn’t ever charge a fee to cancel; you can get a credit for your flight (with no fee) up to 10 minutes before departure.
» Learn more: How to change or cancel flights due to COVID-19
Your flight has been canceled
If your airline cancels your flight, you may be entitled to a refund of the cost of your ticket — especially if those flights go through the United States at any point. In many cases, that’s due to U.S. Department of Transportation requirements.
However, this does not stop airlines from pushing other options so that you don't seek a full refund. In many cases, they will offer a voucher for future travel instead.
To avoid giving refunds, American has sweetened the pot by adding a 20% value to the voucher, valid for one year, if you let them hold onto your cash.
Delta is giving you two years to complete your travel instead of the customary one year, so you have more time to use your voucher once things get back to normal.
Internationally, the rules can get a little more complicated. If you’re flying to or through the European Union, you will be protected by a regulation known as EU261. It stipulates that if your flight is within, departs from or arrives in the EU and you have not already received any benefits in the form of compensation, rerouting or assistance from the airline, you have some rights.
For example, if your flight has been canceled, you have the right to reimbursement, rerouting, assistance and compensation in many cases. For more information and specific scenarios covered by this regulation, see the EU’s official website, which is interactive and easy to follow.
» Learn more: What to do if an airline cancels or changes your flight
If your flights haven’t been canceled but instead have been delayed, you might also be entitled to a fee-free change or refund.
Delta does a great job of informing passengers through their app about schedule changes and lets you rebook from the comfort of the app, bypassing typically long phone queues or airport lines.
American doesn’t allow you to make changes that easily in the app but will allow you to cancel your ticket and get a full refund if the flight has changed by at least 60 minutes.
Considering the number of flights that are being consolidated and the changes that are happening right now, a time change of at least 60 minutes is certainly a possibility. If you’re looking to get your money back, watch out for a time-change email from your airline so you can stay abreast of your options.
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:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card