Airline Ticket Name Change or Transfer to Another Person?

TravelSort reader Eric writes “About 7 months ago I booked tickets for my girlfriend and me to Hawaii. Unfortunately, we are no longer together, so I want to travel with a friend of mine instead. I've called American Airlines and they say my girlfriend's ticket can't be transferred to anyone else and no name change is possible. Is there any other option or am I out the entire ticket cost?”

One of the most frustrating aspects of airline tickets, for anyone who has bought tickets for a family member or friend and then had that person unable to go, is the inability to do a name change or transfer the airline ticket to someone else. I'll give a bit of background on why this is the case, address Eric's question, and then give some tips on what to do to prevent having this occur.

Why Airlines Don't Allow You to Do a Name Change for an Airline Ticket or Transfer It To Another Person

While some airlines may lead you to believe it's for security reasons that you can't change the name on an airline ticket or transfer it to somebody else, there are no regulations that prevent this, and in fact name changes are accommodated by most airlines in some instances, such as marriages and divorces. See How to Change Name on Ticket Due to Marriage.

The real reason is revenue protection. As you know, airlines have fare buckets, with the cheapest fares selling out, then the next cheapest fares, etc. What used to happen, before the airlines enforced strict name change rules, is similar to what happens at many concerts or sporting events: Speculators would snatch up the cheapest tickets, then sell them at a markup closer to the date of departure. Obviously that was a problem for the airlines, who wanted to be able to capture the revenue associated with the most expensive last-minute seats and not lose out to the secondary market created by these speculators. By making airline tickets non-transferable, airlines are able to ensure that you don't turn around and sell that ticket you can no longer use on eBay or give it to someone who would otherwise have purchased a more expensive ticket.


Can You Change the Name on an Airline Ticket or Transfer It to Another Person?

There are certain times name changes that are officially allowed:

  • Spelling changes to correct an error
  • Changes to last names due to marriage or divorce
  • Changes to prefixes (Mr. to Dr.)
All of the above anticipate the original passenger flying, and simply correcting the name to correspond with their official ID. That doesn't help Eric, unfortunately, since he no longer plans to fly with his ex-girlfriend and wants to change the passenger.
How about unofficially? There are accounts of passengers who managed to get a sympathetic agent or manager to either refund the ticket with a cancellation fee, or, more rarely, change the name to another person, although usually this is actually a rebooking that incurs change fees and any difference in fare, so not just a simple name change. It doesn't hurt to try, however–be extra nice, acknowledge the airline's non-transferability rule, and try to find a sympathetic agent or manager who is willing to make an exception.
Now, some people would resort to illegal tampering and photoshopping of the electronic boarding pass, but I do NOT recommend this, for obvious reasons. 
It's probably not worth it for the cost of a Hawaii ticket, but for expensive international tickets, people have been known to do a legal name change in order to be able to use the ticket. Extreme and a hassle? Yes. But also legal, and could be economically worth it to some people.
Here are some other tips to avoid airline ticket name change and transfer issues and minimize expense:
  • Avoid buying a ticket for someone else, especially a friend, girlfriend or boyfriend. That way, if for whatever reason s/he isn't able to go or chooses not to go, you'll only have your ticket to worry about, not theirs
  • If you do buy a ticket for a friend and it's not a gift, try to settle upfront and get the friend to pay you for his/her ticket. In the event s/he chooses not to fly, s/he can receive a voucher (less the cancellation fee) for the ticket, which will be issued in his/her name
  • Non-refundable means exactly that. If you want the flexibility to get a full refund, you'll need to buy a more expensive refundable fare OR better, use frequent flyer miles so that you'll just incur cancellation and redeposit fees (or even avoid these if you're elite)
  • Always check your E-Ticket carefully after purchasing for any spelling mistakes. In the U.S. at least, you can cancel for a full refund within 24 hours of purchasing, or you may be able to get the name corrected for no charge within that period
  • Avoid doing a legal name change between purchasing an airline ticket and when you fly, if possible
  • If all else fails and you know you won't be able to use the ticket, change it for a date far in the future and monitor for any schedule changes, since a material schedule change will allow you to cancel the ticket without penalty. You can even make it more likely that there will be a schedule change by adding more connections and tight ones, but keeping departure and final destination the same.
Have any experience or tips to share about airline ticket name changes or transfers?
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