Marathons The Basics Travel News

When to Cancel a Flight

Written by Charlie

The other day, I wrote about races that may be affected by the government shutdown and what you can do if your race/travel is affected. Someone asked me when it is best to cancel their ticket should they need to. I realize there may be other opinions on this, but I will give you the answer that I have operated by in my own ticket processes.

Cancel a flight
                                                                                  Southwest’s Policy – if only other airlines were so generous!

When to Cancel a Flight

When to cancel a flight – when booked within the previous 24 hours

cancel a flight

With most domestic airlines, you are able to cancel a ticket that was purchased within the previous 24 hours. While that does not seem like a lot of time, there are times that I have had to make use of this offer because my plans changed that quickly after booking the ticket. Here are the domestic airlines and their policies on canceling tickets within 24 hours:

  • American Airlines – AA will let you hold a reservation for 24 hours but not cancel. This does not require any type of money from you and acts as a courtesy hold for the 24 hour period (the price will not change on a held reservation). For more information, go here.
  • Delta – Delta has the most generous of “24 hour” cancelation policies because you actually have until midnight of the day after you made the booking. So, if I were to purchase a ticket at 1AM on Sunday, I have until 11:59PM Monday to cancel (really, midnight Monday, but I put that so there is no confusion as to whether it is Sunday or Monday!). This gives you at least 24 hours and up to 47 hours and 59 minutes to cancel. For more information, go here.
  • JetBlue – JetBlue allows you to cancel your reservation within 24 hours of booking provided it is greater than 7 days before your departure date. For more information, go here.
  • Southwest – Southwest will allow you to cancel within 24 hours of booking. For more information, go here.
  • United – United will allow you to cancel your reservation within 24 hours of booking. In addition, they also offer a service called FareLock that will hold a reservation (not ticketed or paid for) for 72 hours or 7 days. There is a charge for this service. For more information about FareLock, go here. For more information on United’s 24 hour policy, go here.
  • US Airways – US Airways will allow you to cancel your reservation within 24 hours of booking provided it is greater than 7 days before your departure date. For more information, go here.
  • Note: All of the policies above are for non-refundable fares as well as refundable fares.

So, if you have just ticketed that reservation, know that you will have sometime to cancel. Please note – these policies are for travel booked directly through the airline’s website. Most of the major online travel agencies have similar policies but check to be sure.

When to cancel a flight – when the 24 hour timeframe has passed

Unfortunately, most of the time that we do find a situation that requires us to cancel a flight, it is long after the time when we first purchased the ticket. Airline ticket pricing is such that many times we need to book well in advance to ensure the lowest price. What happens if you need to cancel after the courtesy cancelation time has passed? Unfortunately, it begins to get very expensive (even more so after fee hikes this year).

Before we look at each airline’s domestic policy, it is important to realize how most of the cancelation procedure goes. People often make the mistake that since an airline ticket is non-refundable it means they have lost all of their money when they cancel a ticket. Not so! It is true, they will not receive a refund in the full amount to their original form of purchase. Instead, they will receive a voucher with the airline to be used within one year of the ticketing date. The amount of that voucher is depending on the cancelation fee. So, if you have a $400 ticket and you cancel it (say on Delta), you will receive a voucher for $200 to be used on Delta (the $400 minus the $200 change fee). In reality, the airlines call these fees change fees because you are not actually receiving a refund but are preemptively changing your ticket to different dates/locations.

Note: This description deals with domestic tickets purchase directly through the airline.

  • American Airlines – AA’s change fee is $200 – more info
  • Delta – Delta’s change fee is $200 – more info
  • JetBlue – JetBlue’s change is tiered by date and price:  for cancelations made 60 days prior to departure – $75 / Within 60 days and a ticket value under $100 – $75 / Within 60 days and a ticket value under $149 – $100 / Within 60 days and a ticket value over $150 – $150 – more info
  • Southwest – Southwest charges no cancelation fee – they will redeposit the full amount into your Southwest account as long as the cancelation is made prior to take-off – more info
  • United – United’s change fee is $200
  • US Airways – US Airways change fee is $200 – more info

Now you know what you are facing with fees and they are not pretty! So, what do you do?

First of all – NEVER CANCEL YOUR TICKET BEFORE DEPARTURE! You are not going to get money back so there is no reason to cancel your ticket (really, change your ticket) before the departure. The reasons for that are:

  • Schedule Change – Airlines change their schedules all the time and they are bound to notify you of those schedule changes. Should a drastic enough schedule change occur (something around 90 minutes or so), you get to call up and either ask for a refund based on the change or switch your ticket to another date for no fee (there may be an increase in the fare cost, however). These schedule changes normally happen because an airline will sell tickets further out than their normal seasonal charts may exist (one of the reasons that Southwest and JetBlue release seats for sale only a few months out). So, as they begin to shift flights and times around, some flights will be left with schedule changes and this gives you your opening.
  • cancel a flight

    Weather – Many times there may be serious weather at either your departure or arrival city. You will not know that a month out (and they will not issue the waiver a month out either) so you wait until time gets closer (especially if your flight involves travel in the Northeast in the winter months). If the weather is serious enough, the airline will issue a waiver on the travel dates and you will be able to change your ticket within a specified series of travel dates for free. If your original flight is canceled or significantly delayed, you can get a refund.

  • Overbooked – If you have the time, you can always go to the airport on the day of departure and ask at the counter if the flight is oversold. If it is, you will still have to wait at the gate but you may be able to change the flight to a different time and date AND receive a voucher for your trouble!
  • Trip in vain – these three little magic words can be used if you actually go to the airport and their is a significant enough delay to your departure that you will miss the purpose of the trip. In this case, you tell them that it is a trip in vain and you will receive a refund. In fact, if you are at a layover airport and have a long enough delay that forces you to miss your race or something like that, you can still call and tell them you have a trip in vain and they will transport you back to your departure city (for free) and refund your money. I actually had to use this one time when I was sitting on the runway on the first flight and I knew we were going to miss my tight connection and throw the whole trip off. I told the flight attendant I wanted to get off and I went inside to call Delta and I was given a full refund.

So do not give up if you find yourself in such a situation that leaves you unable to go on your trip! In the worse case scenario, none of the above points go your way and you are forced to cancel the reservation (which can even be done after take-off many times) – you will still wind up with credit that can be used on the airline in the future (minus $200).

Avoiding the change/cancel fees

Unfortunately, there is not much you can do to avoid those fees (aside from those possibilities above). One of the best ways is to travel on Southwest – no change fees! Unfortunately, having an American Express Platinum card does not help you much here (they offer $200 credit towards airline incidentals each calendar year) since the amount of the change fee is taken directly from the value of the ticket (the one exception is United who charges you the $200 when you go to use the full credit of the ticket at a later date). The only other real way to avoid the fees is to purchase fully-refundable tickets – but you will be paying much more than the $200 in fee on a ticket such as that!


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About the author


Charlie has been an avid traveler and runner for many years. He has run in marathons around the world for less than it would cost to travel to the next town - all as a result of collecting and using miles and points. Over the years, he has flown hundreds of thousands of miles and collected millions of miles and points.
Now he uses this experience and knowledge to help others through Running with Miles.