How to cancel an airline ticket without paying change fees


Canceling an airline ticket is a fairly straightforward process, right?  You simply go online or call the airline and cancel the booking.  If your fare is nonrefundable (as the least expensive tickets are) you will have to pay a change fee later in order to apply the value of your original ticket to a new reservation.  It’s not rocket science, and this is exactly the process airlines want you to follow.

But what if there were a better way, where you could avoid paying the change fee, or maybe even get a full refund?

It’s possible to use the airlines’ own rules to outsmart them, and this is what I’ve been doing for the last decade as I’ve flown around the world for pennies on the dollar.  Here are a few recent examples of how I’ve been able to get nonrefundable tickets refunded by following a very simple strategy:

Ticket 1: DC to Portland

I was supposed to be in Washington, DC for a weekend last month, but got sick and wasn’t able to go. I had separate tickets booked for each direction. The outbound was a mileage ticket, so I was able to cancel without penalty because of my elite status. But the return was an inexpensive one-way ticket from DC to Portland. The cost of this ticket (about $150) was less than the change fee the airline would have charged me ($200) so I was looking at a total loss.

But knowing airline rules as I do, I didn’t cancel that return ticket, even though I knew I wouldn’t be using it. On the day of the flight’s departure, I checked the flight status, and my first flight (from DC to Newark) was running late. I kept checking, and the delay got longer and longer, eventually to the point where I would have missed my connection. In the airline industry, this is called irregular operations, and ticket rules go out the window. Because of the delay and would-be missed connection, I was able to get this nonrefundable ticket fully refunded.  I was on the west coast, not in DC, but the airline had no way to know that, so I was able to exploit the rules to my advantage.

Lesson: Even if you know you’re going to cancel a ticket, wait until the last minute to do so. Check your flight’s status, and if there’s a delay or cancellation you should be able to get a full refund, even on a nonrefundable ticket.

Ticket 2: Portland to Hong Kong

I had several end-of-year mileage runs booked so that I could retain my United Airlines 1K elite status. But with United’s recent devaluation of its frequent flyer program, the incentives to take these trips had dropped considerably. I wanted to cancel a trip to Hong Kong, but was looking at a $300 change fee on a $660 ticket. So following the example of my DC to Portland ticket above, I waited.  And while the flights were all on-time for the Hong Kong trip, I noticed that my first flight (to San Francisco) was oversold.  I went to the airport that morning as if I had every intention of flying to SFO and on to Hong Kong, volunteered my seat, and received a bump voucher of $300.  Getting bumped is another form of irregular operations, where the ticket rules can be bent or broken.  I was then able to parlay the bump into a full refund for the entire Hong Kong ticket, receiving the $660 refund and keeping the $300 voucher from volunteering my seat.  The takeaway: I spent an hour and a half at the airport and received a net benefit of nearly $1,000 instead of having to pay a $300 fee to change my ticket.  This was a win for United too, as they were gong to book me on Delta flights that day to get to Hong Kong, which would have cost them far more than refunding my original ticket.

Lesson: Look for any opportunity to do the airline a favor – such as getting bumped – to push your ticket into irregular status, where the rules apply less firmly, if at all. 

Next time you need to cancel an airline ticket, don’t just shut it down before exploring unconventional options like these. You may find that you’re able to beat the airlines at their own game, saving you money in the process.

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About the Author

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Ryan has been a travel expert for more than ten years. His journeys have taken him to all six inhabited continents, including living in the Middle East and backpacking across Australia, Asia and Europe.

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