PSA: Don't Cancel a Flight Weeks in Advance, Even If You Know You Can't Make It. Just today, a friend who booked an international flight months ago emailed me, saying he was thinking of cancelling a flight since he already knew he wouldn't be able to travel on that date. But here's why he shouldn't cancel.
Many Airlines Now Have Flexible Change Policies
Even if you purchased a non-refundable ticket, which most flight purchases are, many U.S. airlines have eliminated change fees for most of their fares, apart from their Basic Economy fares (see Alaska, American, Delta, United Airlines End Change Fees).
Many international airlines have also eliminated change fees, at least for now, during COVID-19. Note that these policies are for tickets booked directly with the airline, and that if you change to a flight where the ticket price is more expensive than your original fare, you will have to pay the difference in fare. You still must travel within your ticket's validity, typically within one year of purchasing the ticket, although airlines such as Qatar and Emirates have extended ticket validity to 2 years.
- Air France: No change fee to change to a new date (excludes group fares and allotments)
- British Airways: No change fees for tickets where travel is to be completed by 8/31/22
- Emirates: No change fees; tickets issued from 4/1/21 are automatically valid for 24 months and may be refunded
- Lufthansa: No change fees for tickets purchased after 8/1/21, except for Economy LIGHTEuropean Business Saver fares
- Qatar Airways: Change your ticket with no change fee; ticket validity extended to 2 years from date of issue
- SAS: No change fees up until 72 hours prior to departure for international tickets
- Turkish Airlines: No change fees for tickets purchased by 12/31/21 for travel until 3/31/22
Given that this friend is flying an international airline that has a no change fees policy, he can change to a date that he's more likely to be able to travel, as long as it's within the ticket's validity.
For Non-Changeable Tickets: Monitor for a Schedule Change or Cancellation
Let's say you're booked with an airline that, despite COVID-19, hasn't eliminated change fees. If you're months or weeks out from travel, don't cancel your ticket. Instead, monitor your flight closely for schedule changes or for the airline cancelling your flight. While airlines vary in terms of what they consider a significant enough schedule change to permit full refund back to your original form of payment, generally a 2 hour change will qualify. Another change that typically qualifies is if your flight itinerary adds a new stop or connection that wasn't in the originally booked itinerary. Also see Airline Schedule Change Refund Rules.
Since COVID-19 and the Delta variant have introduced quite a few schedule changes for many airlines, don't unilaterally cancel your flight, foreclosing the possibility of a refund. Instead, see if the airline itself changes or cancels your booked flight, so that you can recoup a refund.
Departing from the EU or Flying an EU Airline to the EU? You May Be Due EC 261/2004 Compensation
Another reason not to cancel a flight you won't be able to fly too early is that you may be able to recoup EC 261/2004 compensation over and above any refund. EC 261/2004 only applies to all flights departing from a European Union country or for flights on EU airlines to the EU (so flights on U.S. airlines or other non-EU carriers to Europe don't qualify).
Also note that no compensation is due if you were informed about the schedule change more than 14 days before your flight.
The most common scenario where EC 261/2004 applies is if you were only informed of the change or cancellation fewer than 7 days before departure. If that's the case, and if the offered rerouting means you'd have to depart more than one hour before your original departure time or arrive more than 2 hours after the original arrival time, compensation is due.
If you were informed of the change or cancellation 7-14 days before departure, you're due compensation if the new flight departs more than 2 hours earlier than originally scheduled or arrive over 4 hours later than the originally scheduled arrival time.
EU compensation depends on the length of the flight:
- Flight of <1500 km: 250 EUR
- Flight within the EU >1500 km; OR any flight >1500 km but <3500 km: 400 EUR
- Flight not within the EU >3500 km: 600 EUR
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