When you fly, chances are you almost always buy the cheapest ticket that serves your needs. And the cheapest tickets are almost always nonrefundable. Nevertheless, it’s sometime possible to refund plane tickets, even if they’re “nonrefundable”—with some caveats. You can often get at least part of the dollar value refunded as value toward a future ticket, and you can sometimes get the full value in cash.
How to Refund Plane Tickets: The 24-Hour Golden Rule
At the most basic level of refunding any plane ticket, there’s one simple Department of Transportation rule that all airlines that operate in the U.S. must follow. The golden rule: Anyone who booked at least one week in advance of departure has 24 hours from the time of purchasing the ticket to cancel it in exchange for a total refund—no matter what kind of airline ticket you bought.
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The idea of this consumer protection is to allow you to lock in what looks like a good deal when you spot it, while still providing a window of time for you to search for a better deal. Beyond that kind of cancellation, however, figuring out how to refund plane tickets is a lot more complicated, for a variety of reasons.
General Airline Rules for Refunding Plane Tickets
Canceling for an unforeseen reason of your own before starting the journey is called a “voluntary” refund, and the big domestic airlines in the U.S. and Canada do not have lockstep policies in how they all handle them. Airlines based in other parts of the world have similar but not identical policies: If you’re considering buying a ticket on one of them, check the fine print.
Airline Change Fees
The near-universal rule of ordinary “standard” nonrefundable tickets is that you won’t get cash back, but you can apply the dollar value of a cancelled ticket, minus a stiff change fee, toward the purchase of another ticket for future travel, usually within a year. Fee policies vary among the big airlines. The following fees apply to the lowest “general” or “Standard” coach/economy/ main cabin fares. Most lines offer a set of more expensive fares with fewer limitations. The best fee policy in North America is the Southwest refund policy:
- The generous Southwest refund policy allows you to apply the full dollar value of a canceled nonrefundable ticket toward a future ticket. Southwest is unique among U.S. airlines in offering this feature, and it—along with two free checked bags—is no doubt a big contributor to Southwest’s high ranking by travelers.
- American, Delta, and United, the ‘Big Three,’ handle cancellation refunds and fees similarly: The fee for most nonrefundable fares is $200 for domestic trips, and up anywhere from $200 to as much as $750 for international tickets.
- Air Canada charges $50 for changes more than 60 days in advance of departure; $100 for changes within 60 days, and $150 for a same-day airport change.
- Alaska charges a $125 change fee.
- Allegiant charges $75 per segment (double that for round-trip) for cancellations up to seven days in advance, with no retained value within seven days.
- Frontier has no change fees 60 days or more in advance, and then charges $79 up to 14 days in advance, and $119 for anything later.
- Hawaiian charges $200 for travel outside Hawaii but within North America, and $50 to $300 for international flights. Changes fees for within the Hawaiian islands is $30.
- JetBlue charges $75 for a ticket costing less than $100, $100 for a ticket costing $100 to 149, $150 for a ticket costing $150 to $199, and $200 for a ticket costing $200 or more.
- Spirit Airlines charges a $90 (online) or $100 (phone) change fee to retain value until seven days before your trip, with no retained value within seven days of departure.
- WestJet charges about $25 for North American tickets more than 60 days in advance of departure, and about $85 for changes within 60 days of departure. Fees are higher for European flight routes.
- All airlines treat the new, very lowest “basic economy” fares as truly nonrefundable; so use it or lose it.
In all cases, a traveler wishing to apply a refund credit toward a future trip must rebook at whatever fares are available at the time of rebooking, not at the original fares.
Occasional Work-Around: “Involuntary” Refunds for Schedule Changes
If your airline cancels a flight or changes its schedule after you bought a ticket, in almost all cases it owes you a full cash refund. That is, an involuntary refund.
And travelers looking to cancel or change a nonrefundable trip can sometimes use a schedule change to get a full cash refund. Frequent flyers sometimes use a minor schedule change as an excuse to refund a ticket for a trip they may very well decide not to take at all: Airlines often change schedules, and even a small schedule can sometimes be enough to justify a refund.
But individual airlines apply different rules on how “small” a schedule change triggers the option to refund plane tickets:
- Spirit says two hours
- Delta and Hawaiian say 90 minutes
- American says 61 minutes
- Air Canada and Alaska say 60 minutes
- United says 30 minutes
- Allegiant, Frontier, Southwest, and WestJet say “significant” delays without defining a specific time
American, Delta, and United also offer full refunds in the event of a traveler’s death, or death of travel companion or a close family member. They also cover call to jury duty and “certain illness situations.” Extensive documentation is required to support these claims—and you probably won’t be reimbursed until all of it is submitted.
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Bundled Travel Insurance
These days, just about every airline offers to sell you travel insurance at the time you buy your ticket. The initial offer generally includes cancellation coverage in the amount of the ticket price; the insurance usually costs between six and seven percent of the ticket value. Compared with conventional travel insurance, these policies tend to be more restrictive in the enumerated “covered reasons” for cancellation, concentrating mainly on sickness and accident.
A representative of Allianz, the insurance a majority of airlines use, said that the refund covers the entire ticket price, not just the cancellation or change penalty. But traveler have been known to report that when the time for reimbursement on a cancellation due to a medical problem or some other event comes, the insurance provider tried to get him to accept only reimbursement for the $200 change fee. So be sure to read into what your insurance includes, and then stand your ground when you make a claim.
More from SmarterTravel:
- The 10 U.S. Airlines That Charge the Most Baggage Fees
- 8 Tips for Sitting Together on the Plane Without Paying Extra
- 5 Common Travel Insurance Questions, Answered
Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2014. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.