Airlines generally don’t like it when you cancel a flight, and so they don’t make it easy. Fully-refundable tickets are often double the price of regular economy fares, and sometimes even refundable tickets will still have a cancellation fee.
If you think you might have to cancel your flight, this is one of those cases where it’s very important to read the fine print when booking your ticket, as cancellation policies can vary widely by airline and by the specific fare class you’ve booked.
So, if you buy a ticket and can't take the flight, how do you cancel it?
There’s an important rule that not everybody knows about: if you buy a ticket for a flight to or from the United States and purchased directly from the airline, you can typically get a full refund (or change the ticket) with no fees as long as you bought the ticket at least seven days in advance of the trip. This is true whether or not the airline is a US-based carrier; it simply has to be flying you to or from the US.
This is all thanks to a simple rule from the US Department of Transportation, which requires that airlines must “hold a reservation at the quoted fare for 24 hours without payment or allow a reservation to be canceled within 24 hours without penalty.” Most airlines offer the latter (and many do even when they also offer the first option).
It’s important to note that this 24-hour rule is only applicable when you book directly through the airline—not if you’re booking through an online travel agency (OTA). However, many OTAs, such as Priceline, have similar 24-hour cancellation policies.
Within this 24-hour period, you can usually cancel your flight directly through the website, or call the airline’s customer service.
A fully refundable ticket is usually quite a bit more expensive than a nonrefundable ticket...which is why most people don’t end up buying them if they’re looking for flights on a budget.
Depending on the airline, a refundable economy flight can sometimes be three times more expensive than a nonrefundable economy flight.
If your ticket is fully refundable, you can usually cancel your flight online. Look for a “My Trips” or “Manage My Flight” section of the airline’s website; the name will vary per airline. Otherwise, you can call the airline’s customer service.
If you purchased a nonrefundable ticket, sometimes that means you're totally out the money, and sometimes that means you can still use some of the value of the ticket for a future flight. In those cases, generally a cancellation fee will be deducted from the original cost of your flight and then any remaining value is provided as a credit/voucher that can be used towards the purchase of another ticket.
Exactly how much value you’ll retain depends on the fees, and those vary by airline. As soon as you know you won’t make your flight, call the airline immediately and talk to their customer service. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a representative having a great day who is super willing to help you out. Be polite, courteous, and gracious—a pleasant attitude can go a long way.
First, ask for a refund. Explain your circumstances, or look for a loophole. A friend once managed to get her entire flight from New York City to Brazil refunded because a hurricane in the previous week had disrupted so much air travel (it was completely unrelated to her actual circumstances).
If that doesn’t work, your best bet is to ask for a voucher or a flight change. Sometimes an airline will give you a voucher that you can use within a year.
Unfortunately, basic economy fares typically cannot be changed or canceled at all after the 24-hour grace period (if it applies). If you can't go, you'll lose the full value of the ticket. You can try the same method above for a nonrefundable ticket—work the charm and hope for the best—but most likely, you’ll lose the full value of the ticket.
If you think there's a good chance you may have to cancel your flight, you may want to book cancel-for-any-reason travel insurance. Different policies will have different criteria, so read the fine print. Cancel For Any Reason (CFAR) is an optional benefit that usually comes with an additional charge. Typically, this coverage is only available within the first 21 days of initial trip payment (sometimes less), and 100% of your trip must be insured, although you may actually not be covered for 100% of the trip. It depends on the specifics of your policy.
Most standard travel insurance will cover trip cancellation if there’s a good reason. For example, World Nomads will refund your flight if a doctor deems you medically unfit to travel, or if your travel partner or a close relative falls ill or dies. Allianz works in the same way, but again, policies vary widely.
Check your credit card’s travel protection. If you booked your flight via credit card, you may already be covered for trip cancellation (depending on your credit card’s policy). As with standard travel insurance, however, you may often need a good reason to cancel.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred, for example, comes with a $10,000 trip cancellation or interruption benefit, which covers all your pre-paid activities from flights to tours. This insurance covers death, illness, bad weather, “life actions” (like jury duty), and more. If there’s some other circumstance where you think you may have to cancel your flight, however, Cancel For Any Reason insurance is your best bet.
If a tragedy has befallen you (like the death or sudden serious illness of a loved one, or a major injury), airlines tend to be a lot more sympathetic to these issues. A friend recently managed to get a full voucher covering the cost of her international flight to Costa Rica by sending a private message to Delta on Twitter to explain that her mother was in intensive care. All she needed was a written letter from an ICU nurse to prove the illness, and this was all arranged via private messaging.
Similarly, calling up the customer service and informing them of the situation can go a long way. While airlines may have certain policies in place for bereavement, if you talk with a representative you may be able to come to some compromise.
Check to see if there’s a change fee. There’s always an option to reschedule your flight instead of canceling it entirely, so check out your airline’s policies ahead of time. For example, Southwest doesn't charge a change fee, so you could postpone the trip to a later date.
Other airlines’ fees will vary. Alaska Airlines’ change fee is $125, but if there’s a last-minute emergency, same-day changes are $50. Other airlines are not so generous. American Airlines will charge $200 on domestic flights, and up to $750 for international flights! This applies even if you’re flying first class, and you’ll still have to pay the difference in fare if the new flight is more expensive. Delta Airlines charges $200 in fees for domestic flights and up to $500 for international flights, plus the difference in fares.
If there’s been a nontrivial schedule change to your original itinerary, you can typically change or cancel your flight for free. For example, if you booked a flight to London with a two-hour layover in Paris and the airline changes your flight so that you have a six-hour layover and now arrive four hours later than originally scheduled, you can typically call the airline and ask to switch to a different flight. If they cannot accommodate you on a flight that works with your schedule, you can cancel with no fee. The rules vary by airline, but typically the time difference must be at least one hour; on some airlines the minimum is two hours.
The bottom line: Airlines don’t make it easy to cancel flights, but the 24-hour rule can help if you’ve just booked the ticket. There may also be some loopholes depending on your circumstances, and if all else fails, your credit card may offer some protection.