Beware change fees with award tickets
The cost to change or cancel award tickets can be steep
Rewards expert who writes the "Cashing In" reader Q&A column for CreditCards.com
Usually, if you succeed in booking an award ticket on a major airline, you feel a sense of accomplishment. Most airlines limit the number of seats they make available for awards, so if you are able to use your miles to fly, that can be an impressive feat.
But that feeling of accomplishment can quickly turn to dread if you have to change those airline award tickets. That’s because some airlines impose massive fees if you have to alter your schedule. That can quickly erode the value of the tickets you got with miles.
It also calls into question the practice of trying to score airline award tickets as soon as they come available, which is usually about 11 months ahead of the travel date. If you think there’s a possibility you might change, then it might be best to hold off going for those tickets until your plans are more firm.
Airlines' award ticket cancellation policies, fees
Here are the policies on award change fees from the major U.S. airlines:
Change or cancel, with 61 or more days’ notice: $75.
Change or cancel, with 60 or fewer days’ notice: $125.
MileSAAver award (lowest level), or non-American airline, change to origin or destination: $150.
Charging award type or canceling award: $150 for first ticket, $25 each for additional tickets.
All changes or cancellations: $150.
No change fees (but could pay more in fare).
Strategies to avoid fees
There are some ways to make changes to award tickets and not incur fees.
American, for instance, allows you to change your travel dates with no penalty, provided you are still using the same award type. If you have an AAnytime award on American (which costs more miles than a MileSAAver), you can even change your cities and incur no penalty.
And Southwest does not assess change fees on award tickets, though you may have to pay the difference in the fare – which will have probably risen since you got the ticket.
In addition, in some cases, elite-level frequent flyers on these airlines are eligible to have their change fees waived.
These fees raise the question of when is the best time to book award tickets.
Most major airlines (except Southwest) open up seats around 330 days in advance. While they initially have award seats available, they also occasionally open new award seats on flights depending on the flight’s popularity.
If you want to ensure the availability of an award seat on a particular flight, the best way is to grab it early. If you have more flexibility, it’s OK to wait.
But if you think you might change your flight later, getting a ticket early can be risky, because you’ll probably have to pay to change the flight.
Sometimes, though, you will get lucky: The airline will change the flight schedule, and if it’s a major change, you can opt to cancel the award ticket or change it for free.
Some reward travelers recommend calling the airline when changing your ticket and asking for the fee to be waived. In some cases, it has worked.
You can also check online for a place to request reimbursement for the fee. While you may not succeed, these are all worth trying (especially if you booked several tickets with points and have to pay $150 for each ticket canceled or changed).
Hidden card perks may help
Another consideration: If you have to change your tickets because of a major life event, such as a serious illness or injury or losing your job, any fees you might have to pay to change or cancel an award ticket might be covered by trip cancellation insurance that comes with many reward credit cards.
Check the details on the card you used for the tickets to see if that might help. If you have a high-end card that comes with a travel credit, you can also use that to help defray the cost of getting your points back.
It’s no fun to end up paying for what you thought would be a free flight. If you can solidify your travel plans before booking the ticket, you’ll save yourself the distress that comes with unexpected fees.
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