Non-refundable. No changes permitted. $200 reissue fee. Airlines almost universally follow the #1 Klingon Rule of Business: Once you have their money, never give it back. It’s enough to make you think that if you ever need to make a change, you’re probably going to be stuck buying another ticket.
If you’re flying with Spirit or Ryanair, the above is probably true. With most other airlines, there are loopholes. Some loopholes almost always work, and some are at the discretion of airport or reservations staff. If you need to change or refund a ticket, the following are some options you may have. There are a lot of loopholes; I am only publishing the ones that usually work.
Weather Waiver: Airlines change their own schedules all the time due to weather, usually with little or no prior notice. However, when you need to change a schedule due to weather, airlines are sometimes surprisingly flexible. If there is bad weather in an area that makes travel either unsafe or likely to result in weather cancellations, airlines will often offer a “weather waiver” that will allow you to rebook travel to a later time. You generally can’t get a refund, but airlines will waive the $200 change fee. If you need to change a non-refundable ticket, this is the easiest way to do it. Call your airline and–without giving them your ticket details–ask whether a weather waiver is in effect for either your departure, arrival or connecting cities. If a weather waiver is in effect, the agent will make the change (and if it’s not in effect, you won’t end up with a note on your ticket that documents that you’ve been shot down). Presuming that a weather waiver is in effect, agents do not need approval to make the change. There is no phone booking fee for making changes over the phone, which is usually a much better method than over the Internet. Keep in mind that you may be able to make the change to a much later (or earlier) flight and you do not necessarily need to maintain the same routing. So, for example, if you’re connecting in Chicago (which is snowed in) but there is a nonstop to your destination (where the weather is clear), the agent can change you to the (usually more expensive) nonstop.
- Joe is flying from Chicago to Pittsburgh on American Airlines today. A major winter storm has socked western Pennsylvania and the Pittsburgh airport is not operating. American Airlines has cancelled Joe’s flight and proactively called him to reschedule. They offer several options. Joe, selecting the best of the available bad options, agrees to travel 2 days later on a flight connecting through New York-La Guardia. He isn’t happy that his nonstop flight today is changing to a flight with a connection 2 days later, but he doesn’t have much choice. The roads are a disaster so taking a bus isn’t a good option, and no other earlier flights are available with any other airline. Joe could alternatively have asked American to reroute him to a nearby city (such as Harrisburg or Philadelphia), to refund his ticket, or to postpone his travel to a later date than originally offered, and would probably have been able to do any of these.
- Mary is in Phoenix. She is scheduled to fly home to Boston tomorrow, but really wants to stay an extra day because she is enjoying the weather so much. Her US Airways flight home connects in Charlotte. She notices on The Weather Channel that severe thunderstorms are predicted around Charlotte, so calls US Airways and mentions this. While US Airways has not formally published a weather waiver on their Web site, they did distribute a memo to their agents offering them discretion to help prevent customers from being stranded if they call in concerned about this issue. The agent offers Mary a nonstop flight to Boston from Phoenix departing earlier on her originally scheduled day, which would avoid the predicted thunderstorms. Mary replies that the earlier flight won’t work due to a scheduled meeting, and asks whether she can fly out the next day instead, and whether there is anything available in the evening. The agent agrees, finds the appropriate flight, and changes the ticket for free. Mary enjoys her extra day in Phoenix and avoids potential weather complications with connecting in Charlotte.
Schedule Change: If the airline changes the schedule for your flights–even very slightly–you may be allowed to change to a different flight. You may need to persuade the airline that the schedule change will represent an added inconvenience, but you usually don’t have to fight very hard for the change. Agents usually do not need approval to make a change if a change is made is due to a schedule change initiated by the airline.
- Robert is traveling on a US Airways frequent flier award, and is scheduled to fly to Toronto on 12/23 at 3pm, overnight in Toronto, and then depart on 12/24 for Seattle at 7pm. His flight on 12/23 is moved up to a 6am departure. He actually wanted to travel from Toronto to Seattle on 12/23 in the first place, and didn’t want the Toronto layover. Based on the schedule change and newly available award inventory between Toronto and Seattle on 12/23, Robert contacts US Airways, explains that the layover in Toronto has been lengthened 9 hours, and asks to change to the flight on 12/23 instead because he does not want to stay in Toronto for so long. US Airways agrees to change the award ticket based on the schedule change. Note: A schedule change is the only scenario under which US Airways will ever change an award ticket that has already been issued, and on which travel has already commenced.
- Jennifer is traveling on a non-refundable United ticket between New York and San Francisco. She is traveling much later in the day than she wanted, on the last flight of the day, but she booked the ticket because it was the least expensive flight. United changes the schedule so her arrival time in San Francisco is 10 minutes later than the original time. Jennifer calls United and asks to move to the earlier flight based on the schedule change. The agent says “It’s only 10 minutes!” and initially refuses to make the change, but Jennifer explains that she will miss the last bus home if she arrives 10 minutes later, and will otherwise have to spend the night in the airport. The agent switches Jennifer to the earlier flight at no charge.
Flat Tire Rule: If you show up at the airport late–but within an hour of the scheduled departure time of your flight–many airlines will allow you to stand by for a later flight based on the “flat tire rule.” This is an informal rule designed to deal with situations like a flat tire on the highway, unexpected traffic, delays in rental car returns, etc. Airlines used to do pretty much whatever it took to get you home, but these days, they often charge significant extra fees and don’t make the process easy. Some airlines just keep your money and shrug their shoulders, forcing you to buy another ticket at the last minute walk-up rate. Elite members of frequent flier programs seem to have better luck with “flat tire rule” claims–the more you spend with an airline, the more forgiving they tend to be.
Too Sick To Travel: If you are feeling unwell and unable to travel as a result of your illness, airlines cannot legally transport you if this is due to a communicable disease. So, you should call and make it very clear, saying “I believe I have a potentially serious communicable disease regulated by CDC, and am not qualified to fly.” If they still insist you fly or lose your money, ask to speak with a supervisor who will usually grant a conditional change fee waiver. To prevent abuse of this excuse, you will generally have to present a doctor’s note when you check in proving that you were really sick enough to visit a doctor, or the airline will reverse the fee waiver. The airline generally only needs proof that you visited a doctor; after all, you weren’t in a position to know whether you had Swine Flu, a bad cold, or a phantom allergy attack.
Military Orders: If you are in the military or National Guard and are unexpectedly issued orders, airlines will almost always allow you to reschedule your trip. They will want to see proof of orders.
Jury Duty: If you are called to jury duty and the judge refuses to excuse you, airlines will sometimes allow you to reschedule your trip upon proof of jury summons.
Death: If you die before your trip, your estate may be able to claim a full refund from the airline. If you die during your trip, your estate may be able to claim a partial refund. If you die because the plane crashed, your ticket may be fully refundable.