New Airline Change & Cancellation Rules in the COVID-Era

Coronavirus has upended airline cancellation and change policies. Here's what to know to buy refundable plane tickets.

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The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we travel, and the way airlines handle changes and cancellations. Bowing to the new reality of ever-shifting traveler plans, many airlines now offer more flexible change and cancellation policies for most non-basic-economy fares.

In many ways, booking flexible travel is simpler now than it was before or during COVID. Airlines are fairly consistent in how they allow changes and cancellations, but airline change fees still run the gamut. There are still a few key factors to keep in mind when booking flights, and a few differences between airlines.

Industry-wide policies and important notes

Airline ticket policies range across companies, but there are a few standards to count on.

Basic economy

Basic economy fares cannot be changed or canceled for free on any airline. This means that these fares should be avoided outright by any traveler who is not completely confident in their plans. As a rule of thumb, they are the least refundable airline tickets.

“Free” cancellations

Just because a fare can be canceled without incurring a fee does not mean you will get your money back. In most airlines, in most cases, canceling a flight will result in receiving a voucher or credit with the airline that usually expires within 12 months.

What does this mean? Travelers shouldn’t book several flights, planning to cancel all but the one they expect to take. Doing so will result in receiving a large sum of expiring credits on a specific airline.

Fare differences apply to changes

A similar caveat applies to the elimination of change fees. Travelers must still pay the fare difference between the original ticket and the new one, regardless of change fees. This can be especially important for changes to flights at the last minute, since close-in fares can cost much more than those booked several months in advance.

Some international fares are excluded

Most main cabin fares on U.S. airlines originating in North America do not carry change or cancellation fees. However, American, JetBlue and United exclude some international routes from this allowance. Make sure to check the specific terms of your ticket when purchasing an international flight.

Change and cancellation policies, broken down by airline

Here is what you can expect from the different airlines in regards to change and cancellation policies on basic economy and main cabin/economy fares.

Airline

Change and cancellation policy

Alaska Airlines

Saver (Basic economy): Nonrefundable and non-changeable.

Main cabin: No change or cancellation fees.

American Airlines

Basic economy: Nonrefundable and non-changeable.

Main cabin: No change or cancellation fees for flights originating in North America.

Delta Air Lines

Basic economy: Nonrefundable and non-changeable.

Main cabin: No change or cancellation fees for flights originating in North America.

Frontier Airlines

All fares: Change and cancellation fee applies if done less than 60 days before departure.

  • 60 or more days before departure: No fee.

  • 7 to 59 days before departure: $49 fee.

  • 0 to 6 days before departure: $79 fee.

Hawaiian Airlines

Main cabin basic: Nonrefundable and non-changeable.

Main cabin: No change or cancellation fees.

JetBlue Airways

Blue basic: $100 change or cancel fee per person for flights entirely within the U.S., Caribbean, Mexico and Central America. $200 fee for all other routes.

Blue (Main cabin): No change or cancellation fees when done online, but a $25 fee applies on changes and cancellations made over the phone.

Southwest Airlines

No change or cancellation fees on all fares.

Spirit Airlines

All fares: Change and cancellation fee applies if done less than 60 days before departure.

  • 60 or more days before departure: No fee.

  • 7 to 59 days before departure: $49 fee.

  • 3 to 6 days before departure: $79 fee.

  • 0 to 2 days before departure: $99 fee.

United Airlines

Basic economy: Nonrefundable and non-changeable.

Main cabin: No change or cancellation fees for flights within North America and the Caribbean. Fees apply for other international flights.

The bottom line

Airlines adapted quickly to the pandemic, first offering change and cancellation waivers to those whose plans were affected and eventually eliminating these fees for many fares.

The big exception is basic economy fares, which in general cannot be changed or canceled, period. Also, budget airlines like Frontier and Spirit do not offer free change or cancellations unless done well ahead of time.

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