How to cancel a flight without the hefty fee

Little-known rules give air travelers an opportunity to cancel their reservations and receive a full refund. This came about as part of a larger package of new consumer protection laws regulating the airline industry. 

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/File
A Delta Air Lines jet takes off from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va.

You book a flight to your cousin's wedding in Tampa, only to realize in horror a few hours later that you booked it for the wrong weekend.

You spot a killer grab-it-now-or-lose-it-forever fare to San Francisco that would be a perfect weekend getaway for you and your sweetie, but he's stuck in an all-day meeting at work - which means you won't be able to ask him until tonight, when it will be too late!

Or, if you're like me, you live in Chicago and really, really want to go to the Foo Fighters concert in Los Angeles, but you're not sure if you'll be able to get tickets, and if not, well, then you'd rather visit Denver in October, when the aspens are changing color.

Scenarios like these used to put airline passengers in a difficult spot with hefty change and cancellation fees, but legislation rolled out back in January 2013 gives air travelers a little-known opportunity to cancel their reservations and receive a full refund. This came about as part of a larger package of new consumer protection laws designed to unmask the hidden fees and unfair policies that historically have been attached to airfares.

How does the airline reservation cancellation policy work?

You don't have to stress if travel plans change right after you book!

When you book a flight, you have 24 hours to cancel for a full refund. So if you discover a scheduling error, find a lower fare elsewhere, or simply decide not to go, so long as you're in touch with the airline within that 24 hour window, you won't have to cough up a cancellation fee.

Our Editor-In-Chief, Brad Wilson, put the rule to the test himself, and notes that the cancellation option was not easy to spot.

"The airlines do NOT publicize this for obvious reasons," he says, "but it’s an incredibly valuable free option if you aren’t sure of your plans but are afraid of losing a good fare – just book it and then if your plans change in the subsequent 24 hours, cancel."

The exception to this rule used to be American Airlines.  They would allow you to hold a reservation for up to 24 hours, without paying for it, but if you purchased a reservation outright and decided to cancel within 24 hours, you were out of luck. Not anymore -- they changed their policy earlier this year!

Travel editor Mark Jackson's favorite airline for canceling flights is Southwest Airlines. "They'll allow you to cancel your flight for a credit up to 10 minutes before takeoff. You won't receive the money back to your credit card,  but you'll get a credit for future travel, and it's flexible enough that I love the policy."

Last minute flights are also exempt from the 24-hour cancellation policy. You must book your departure at least one week ahead of time to qualify for the 24-hour window under the law.

What if you just need to change your itinerary?

Switching flights can be costly on United ($200, up to $400 for international itineraries), American ($75-$150), and Delta ($200). The law doesn't directly address changes vs. cancellations, and the airlines are sticking to the letter of the law.

Delta has recently instituted new Basic Economy fares designed to directly compete with ultra-low budget airlines like Spirit. These tickets are not changeable for any reason at all, so while they're super cheap, but you better hope nothing changes in your travel plans. American and United are expected to add Basic Economy fares this year as well.

In the meantime, you can still get out of a change fee by canceling according to the airline's terms and conditions. Simply rebook a different flight once the cancellation is complete.

What else is in the law?

The 24-hour cancellation window is not the only consumer-friendly change in the law. Here are some other good-to-know facts about fees for booking your next flight:

  • All taxes and fees must be disclosed in advertised fares.
  • Baggage fees must be disclosed at the time of booking.
  • The same baggage allowances and fees must apply through each leg of your journey.

You can read the USDOT's entire press release here:
U.S. Department of Transportation's Expanded Airline Passenger Protections Take Effect

This article first appeared in Brad's Deals.

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