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Can you change a flight without penalty?

Four major airlines — Delta, United, American, and Alaska — announced they were permanently eliminating change fees, but there are loopholes. Here are some of them.

The airlines are hurting, with demand still 70 percent below where it was this time last year.
The airlines are hurting, with demand still 70 percent below where it was this time last year.Michael A. McCoy/Getty Images

The airlines are hurting, with demand still 70 percent below where it was this time last year. They’ve slashed prices and introduced extensive cleaning procedures, and recently four major airlines — Delta, United, American, and Alaska — announced they were permanently eliminating change fees, all in an effort to woo back weary, leery travelers. In the Before Times (pre-COVID), if you needed to change your flight, it would typically cost $200, plus any fare difference. Not anymore.

Sounded good to us, but we checked in with flight-savings guru Scott Keyes, founder and chief flight expert at Scott’s Cheap Flights, an e-mail subscription service that alerts members to the best flight deals. (Note: We are members, along with some 2 million others.) Should we celebrate?

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“On balance, this is a positive move for travelers, but it’s not nearly the panacea that airlines would have you believe,” said Keyes. “There are still too many carve-outs and exceptions in the fine print. I see this development as more of a first step than a major milestone.”

According to Keyes, here are some of the loopholes.

The policy doesn’t apply to basic economy tickets.

“If you’re someone who dogmatically avoids basic economy tickets, then change fees are a thing of the past for you,” said Keyes. “But if you pack light and are loyal to the cheapest fare available, airlines aren’t interested in making your life easier.”

Scott Keyes, founder and CEO of Scott's Cheap Flights.
Scott Keyes, founder and CEO of Scott's Cheap Flights.Oscar Garcia

The policy applies to all domestic flights, but only some international.

The new no-fee change policy for international flights varies by airlines. On United and Delta, the policy doesn’t apply to any international routes. On American, it only applies to international flights to Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean. Kudos to Alaska and Southwest, which have no-change-fee policies on all flights, domestic and international.

You still can’t cancel a flight without paying a penalty.

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Need to cancel a flight, not simply change it? That’ll still cost you. “The new policy allows you to switch flights without a penalty, but unfortunately it doesn’t entitle you to a free refund,” said Keyes. “For that, you’d have to buy a much more expensive refundable fare.”

You’ll have to pay the fare difference.

If you change flights and the new one is more expensive, you’ll still have to pay the difference. What if your new flight is cheaper? “The policy varies from airline to airline,” said Keyes. “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,” said Keyes. “Let’s hope Delta and Alaska don’t follow their lead.”


Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com