Forget paying steep Wi-Fi or baggage fees. These days, beyond getting charged for an ever-expanding list of extras – from seat upgrades to priority boarding to airport lounge access – we're also paying for severe weather-related disruptions and cancelations. And when our plans suddenly change, we're often hit with unexpected out-of-pocket change fees, or worse, the entire cost of nonrefundable tickets. To add fuel to the fire, with the threat of terrorism and the Zika virus, today travelers face uncertain travel conditions that can change quickly.
Still, regardless of the reason you need to modify your trip, there are strategic, pain-free ways to pivot your plans without paying a hefty fee. We caught up with industry experts to bring you 10 simple and smart ways to avoid spending a small fortune when you need to rearrange your plans on the fly.
Choose a Flexible Carrier
If you're concerned that you'll need to change your flight down the road, pick an airline that waives change fees should you need to modify your departure date. George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, highlights Frontier Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines as ideal carrier choices to dodge sky-high change fees, which can cost $200 for domestic flights and $500 for international routes, depending on the carrier, route and fare purchased. Interestingly, Frontier Airlines' "The Works" bundled fare option gives travelers free checked baggage, complimentary seat selection and the opportunity to fully refund their ticket (as long as travelers do so 24 hours in advance) for purchasing a $49 package, Hobica explains. And if you compare that cost against a steep change fee, you may be better off investing in the more flexible fare option.
Alex Matjanec, CEO of MyBankTracker.com, echoes similar sentiments, pointing out that "Southwest Airlines is known for not charging any change fees" and "Alaska Airlines will waive change fees as long as changes are made at least 60 days before the flight." That said, when you fly with Alaska, you can incur a $25 fee for same-day flight changes or a $125 change fee if you change your flight under 60 days prior to departure, so make sure to read the fine print. Delta, United and American, for example, charge $50 to $75 same-day change fees, depending on the carrier, and much higher service fees for other changes, depending on the class of the ticket, the departure date and other individual fare rules.
Make Your Reservations Early and Adjust Accordingly
To increase your odds of changing or canceling your itinerary without a penalty, tweak your plans within 24 hours of making your reservation to avoid incurring a charge, says Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir.com. "After that, the airlines all have fees for changes. Check with your airline on what their individual policies and fees are. Some allow lower fees if you make changes more than 60 days out from travel and bump you to a higher change fee when you are within 60 days of your departure date," Klee says.
Matjanec also suggests securing your reservations early to account for unforeseen events. "Booking several months in advance means that the flight schedule can change as the departure date comes closer. You can reject the schedule change and insist on a different date that fits your own schedule," he adds.
Invest in the Right Travel Insurance
Whether you opt to invest in insurance will likely depend on a wide range of factors, including the length, cost and risk associated with your trip. But if you want to minimize your chances of paying more should you be affected by unforeseen circumstances, make sure you're covered. Though traditional travel insurance policies do not cover canceling a trip regardless of whether the traveler is in danger of visiting a country at risk of an outbreak (think: the Zika virus, for example), more extensive packages typically allow you to cancel your trip for any reason, so make sure to read the fine print before making your selection. "This list of reasons may vary by the travel insurance policy," Matjanec says. Policies that include "any reason" coverage will likely cost more, he adds, though they can be worthwhile.
Keep in mind the cost of coverage can vary widely depending on the plan you select and the place that you're visiting. A basic plan from Allianz Global Assistance listed on InsureMyTrip.com starts at $20 for a trip to France, while basic coverage for a trip to Nepal starts at $27 from Travel Guard and goes up depending on the plan type and coverage selected.
Klee recommends considering the "cancel for any reason" option, particularly if you're purchasing a nonrefundable ticket and you're planning to travel to an international destination with an unstable political climate. In this scenario, you might want to ensure you're covered by a more comprehensive travel insurance policy.
To compare options available, check out reputable websites like InsureMyTrip.com and travel insurance providers like World Nomads. And when it comes to picking the coverage that's best for you, consider criteria such as health factors and the cost of a medical evacuation if you're traveling somewhere remote, plus the extra protections you might need if you paid for expensive flight seats, hotels or a cruise vacation.
Use a Credit Card That's Protected
"Always book your travel reservations with a credit card, preferably one with a comprehensive suite of travel perks," Matjanec says. "Many credit cards, such as those with Visa Signature and World MasterCard logos, come with various travel protections such as trip interruption and trip cancelation coverage," he adds, emphasizing that by using these credit cards, you can receive reimbursement in the event a cruise, train, airline or car rental company denies a reservation change or full refund.
Remember the 24-Hour Rule and Other Cases for Reimbursement
When it comes to seeking reimbursement, the key is understanding what consumers are entitled to receive. First and foremost, the U.S. Department of Transportation mandates that carriers allow free changes and refunds within 24 hours of booking a reservation. Beyond this rule, if your flight schedule has changed and your flight is severely delayed (say, from a morning to evening departure time), you can ask for a refund if the new time no longer works for your schedule, Hobica explains.
Another important consideration is whether you have access to an involuntary refund. "If the airline makes a change to their schedule that affects your ticket more than three hours earlier or later than you were scheduled to depart, this is considered an 'involuntary' schedule change and means that the airline has to allow refunds and changes to your ticket without penalty," Klee explains.
Another way to get a refund: if you purchase your ticket and then find a significantly lower fare with the same carrier, Klee says. Though this isn't a frequent occurrence, oftentimes the airline will let you adjust your ticket and you will receive credit for the difference in the fare cost, which can be applied to a future ticket, he explains, emphasizing that going through this process is "only worth pursuing if the fare is quite hefty, as you’ll still be required to absorb the change fee."
Know Your Rights in an Emergency Situation
"Legitimate emergencies such as a serious illness or other situation might qualify you for a waiver," Klee explains, though he cautions that there are no guarantees, and these scenarios qualify you on a case-by-case basis. "Sometimes the airlines will extend a waiver if you can provide documentation for the cancelation (a doctor's note, for example)," he explains.
Know When It's Cheaper Not to Travel
"Sometimes, it is cheaper to not board the flight than to deal with change or cancelation fees," Matjanec says. If changing your flight will cost you $200, and your flight was initially priced at $200, you'll end up paying $400, he explains. "If you can look again and find the flight for less than $200, you're losing less money by skipping the initial flight," he adds. "Because airlines may cancel the rest of your flights when you do this, it's best to use this strategy on one-way flights or the last leg of your round-trip flights."
Klee echoes similar sentiments, pointing out that in some situations, your best bet is "to cut your losses and forfeit your ticket altogether." With a standard change fee with legacy airlines priced at $200, "if you can find a ticket for under $200 on your own and roll the value of your existing ticket (minus any penalties) into a credit for future travel, that's a savvier strategy," he says. Whether you can receive credit for a future flight depends on the carrier you select and your fare purchased, but typically airlines will provide you with with a credit or refund when you cancel your reservation online or call a reservations customer service representative for assistance.
Understand the Associated Risks With the Places on Your Itinerary
"Airlines are not unreasonable," Klee says. "When there are forces at work outside the control of travelers, they will usually make efforts to accommodate changes and cancellations," he explains, pointing to the Zika virus as an example. "Because the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and World Health Organization have indicated Zika is an international health concern, the airline industry has been generous with cancellations and ticket changes for any high-risk travelers," he says. Travelers who are in the "high-risk" category because of pre-existing medical conditions have been able to cancel their Delta, United and American flights to Zika-impacted areas, though many companies and hotels are offering fee-free cancelations on an ad hoc basis.
Pick the Right Train Tickets and Car Rental Policy
"With train tickets, there is generally no fee for changing your reservation. However, refund fees may apply for certain train tickets," Matjanec says. And there are certain tickets that cannot be refunded, he adds. For example, if you purchase a coach or business-class ticket on Acela Express, you may receive a refund 24 hours ahead of your departure time or pay a 10 percent fee for refunding your ticket fewer than 24 hours in advance of your scheduled departure time. Meanwhile, if you book an Acela Express first-class seat or a non-Acela business-class seat, you'll incur no refund fee for canceling your ticket before the scheduled departure date.
When it comes to changing your car rental reservations, policies vary by company, Matjanec explains. "Some car rental agencies will allow changes to your reservation without any fees (you may be refunded or charged for returning the car early or late, respectively), including Dollar, Alamo and Enterprise," he says, noting cancellations tend to be free when made with a 24- to 48-hour notice, otherwise fees can apply. He suggests making a reservation for longer than you need the car and returning the vehicle early to maximize savings. "You’ll probably avoid any late fees and be refunded for the difference," he says.
Remember, Policies Change According to Airline and Fare Purchased
"People are not always aware that changes (and even cancellations) to airline tickets can be made with most airlines within 24 hours of booking a ticket," Klee says. "This is a very narrow window, but it's a handy option when you need it." And while most airlines (including legacy airlines United, Delta and American) allow you to pay a much lower price for same-day flight changes, others offer different policies, so it's important to read the fine print.
"JetBlue has an interesting fare structure: a sliding scale that allows change fees ranging from zero up to $150, depending on which fare category you buy into, the price of the original ticket and when you make the change (more than 60 days from travel is a lower fee, closer to travel dates is higher)," Klee explains, noting that the only carrier that doesn't impose any change fee is Southwest. Unlike other carriers, should you need to change your plans, you'll pay the difference in fare, he explains, emphasizing the caveat: If you book a new flight close to your departure date, you could end up paying a significant cost difference when demand is high and only pricey tickets are available.
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Keep in mind that many airlines with premium-priced tickets do offer free changes or full refunds, Matjanec says. "If you don’t know the exact date that you need to fly, it may be worthwhile to pay a little more for the higher fare class because the price difference may be less than the cost of a change/cancellation fee," he adds.