With the airline business in disarray, the pandemic upending travel plans right and left, and cancellations way up, it's no huge shock that four airlines--United, Delta, American, and Alaska Airlines--all recently announced they're permanently eliminating change fees.
As United CEO Scott Kirby noted in a video statement, "When we hear from customers about where we can improve, getting rid of this fee is often the top request." It's clearly a sensible move to chop the charge, typically $200, and keep customers happy.
But how happy exactly should customers be exactly? While additional flexibility is clearly a positive for travelers in the era of Covid, as Scott's Cheap Flights founder and "Chief Flight Expert" Scott Keyes explained in a recent email to site members, the change is actually a lot less generous than it first appears for three reasons.
1. It doesn't apply to basic economy.
"The new policy doesn't apply to basic economy tickets. You have to pay for main economy in order to benefit," Keyes explained. "It's like if Best Buy implemented a new policy of free exchanges on new TVs, but only if you bought their more expensive models."
If you routinely spring for slightly more expensive tickets anyway, the latest announcement from the airlines will benefit you. But if you're a bargain flyer, sorry, you're out of luck.
2. It only applies to some international flights.
Whether this change applies to you doesn't just depend on how much you paid for your ticket, but on your destination as well.
"On United and Delta, the policy doesn't apply to international routes. On Alaska, it does. And on American, it only applies to international flights to Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean," Keyes clarified.
3. No fees don't mean you pay nothing.
Not slapping an additional $200 fee on a harried traveler trying to get from point A to point B safely during a pandemic is nice, but it doesn't mean that same traveler won't have to shell out extra if she is forced to change her plans. If your new ticket is more expensive than your old one, you don't have to pay a fee, but you do have to make up the difference.
"If your new flight is cheaper, the policy varies airline to airline. On 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)," Keyes wrote.
Also, if you need to cancel your trip entirely, this new policy won't help you. "It's reasonable to read that airlines have axed change fees and assume that means you can now get a refund if you want to cancel a ticket. If only!" cautioned Keyes. "The new policy allows you to switch flights without a penalty, but unfortunately it doesn't entitle you to a free refund."
So go ahead and celebrate the end of change fees, but do so modestly. While cutting the hated penalty is a step in the right direction, it's hardly carte blanche to fearlessly book flights and change them whenever and however you need.