While exact terms differ depending on airline and other factors, nonrefundable tickets in their most basic sense are “final sale” airline tickets that cannot be returned for a full refund after purchase.
Depending on airline policy, most fares marked as fully refundable can be canceled before the scheduled flight time for the full value of the ticket. Your method of payment will be credited by the airline at no cost to you. Some refundable tickets require the purchaser to pay an airline service fee in order to process the refund, so you won’t end up getting reimbursed for the full cost of the ticket.
Nonrefundable fares, on the other hand, cannot be returned for a full refund. Some nonrefundable fares can be canceled or changed for a partial refund in the form of an airline flight voucher, but rarely can you receive cash or credit card reimbursement for a canceled nonrefundable fare. However, even if a flight voucher is offered, airlines generally hit passengers with hefty change fees or other processing charges if they wish to cancel or change a nonrefundable ticket.
Yes, it’s completely legal for airlines to sell nonrefundable fares. Plane tickets are perishable products with a set shelf life and their price fluctuates according to supply and demand, purchasing windows, and other unpredictable variables. If every passenger was able to cancel for a full refund at any time, airlines would have to raise their prices across the board to account for this increased risk. This is also why nonrefundable fares are often the cheapest tickets offered by an airline.
Passengers attempting to cancel a nonrefundable fare might receive a partial airline voucher in return, but rarely will they see a cash or credit card reimbursement and typically large fees will be deducted from the original value. This can depend on airline policy as well as other factors like airline loyalty status and the particular fare class purchased, and there are always exceptions.
Some deeply discounted fares, like those labeled basic economy, don’t allow for any changes or cancelations once a ticket has been purchased regardless of circumstances.
The United States DOT’s 24-hour rule prohibits airlines from penalizing passengers for cancelations or changes made within the first 24 hours of booking as long as the ticket was booked at least seven days before the scheduled flight and was booked directly with the airline. Many OTAs (online travel agencies) have similar rules.
As mentioned, in many circumstances you can cancel or change a flight for free within 24 hours of booking, so if you realize you’ve made a mistake and need to alter or cancel your ticket within 24 hours of purchasing, you won’t be charged.
Depending on specific policy, some airlines will take extreme extenuating circumstances into account when determining cancellation or change fees. Events like the imminent death of a loved one may be enough to convince an airline to waive a change or cancellation fee, but the process isn’t easy and passengers often have to present hard evidence like a death certificate to claim their refund.
If your airline significantly alters your flight time (typically this means moving it at least one hour before or after the scheduled time at booking), your nonrefundable fare might qualify for a waived change or cancelation fee. This also applies to flights canceled by the airline and flights that experience delays exceeding the time stated in the airline’s refund policy. In the event that your airline unexpectedly changes or cancels your flight, a representative will most likely contact you with options for changing or canceling your ticket for little or no charge. If they don’t, you can always call the airline and ask for a refund directly.
If all else fails, it can’t hurt to call the airline and plead your case. Sometimes you may get a sympathetic agent.
Passengers with nonrefundable fares who miss their flight for reasons beyond their control like bad weather or delayed connections typically aren’t charged a rebooking fee. They might, however, be issued a standby ticket on the next available flight with no guarantee that they’ll make it to their destination on time or via their original route.
Passengers with nonrefundable fares who miss their flight for reasons within their control like oversleeping, mixing up departure times, or something more serious like an expired ID, are more likely to have to pay a change fee to reschedule their flight. Many major carriers have an unwritten “flat tire” rule that provides late passengers with a standby slot on the next available flight, granted they show up to the airport within two hours of their missed flight’s departure and have a reasonable excuse, especially if they call the airline ahead of time to warn them they’re not going to make it. All of these scenarios are generally more subjective, though, so it’s always a good idea to try to plead your case and work something out with an airline representative directly no matter the situation.
If passengers have a history of routinely missing flights on purpose, airlines might refuse to waive change or cancelation fees for missed flights regardless of circumstances.
In most cases, it’s better to cancel as soon as possible, rather than be a no-show, as you might be able to negotiate a partial airline voucher in return. Even if it’s short notice, it’s usually more advantageous to speak with an airline representative about your cancelation than simply scrap the ticket.
The best strategy for obtaining a refund for a flight you know you can’t make varies significantly by airline, so make sure to read all the fine print before confirming your nonrefundable fare purchase. Southwest, for example, allows passengers to cancel their reservation up to 10 minutes before their scheduled departure for a future flight credit in the full amount of the ticket price to be used anytime within a year of the original booking date.
Date change policies also differ greatly depending on carrier, fare class, airline loyalty program status, timeframe, and other individual variables. Rescheduling a nonrefundable fare to a different date is usually possible, but it most often comes with a substantial penalty charge. For passengers in some deeply discounted fare classes, like basic economy, rescheduling a nonrefundable fare is not allowed.
The cost of changing or canceling a nonrefundable ticket runs the gamut from free to upwards of $750 depending on airlines, route, fare class, timeframe, loyalty program status, and other factors. And note you’ll pay the change fee plus any fare difference between your old and new tickets.
For example, if you booked a domestic Delta flight for $450 and the fare of the flight you want to change to is only $200, rebooking would net you a $50 refund after the change fee ($250 fare difference - $200 change fee = $50). If you booked an international flight on American for $500 and the flight you want to change to is $600, you’ll pay the $100 fare difference, plus a change fee that could be up to $750, which means you might pay $850 in total.
Here’s a breakdown of major airline policies, including both legacy carriers and low-cost or budget airlines. Note that different rules apply to award travel (i.e. flights booked with airline miles instead of money), so make sure to do your homework before purchasing your flight.