Airlines’ change fees, rules return on some tickets


USA TODAY travel reporter Dawn Gilbertson traveled to Cancun, Mexico, to see how the coronavirus pandemic has changed spring break for 2021.


Ready to travel again?

Be careful when shopping for plane tickets: change fees and other fine print are back on some tickets – or will be soon.

With vacation travel strongly rebounding as more Americans are vaccinated against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, several airlines are eliminating travel waivers put in place when travel evaporated during the coronavirus pandemic. The waivers allowed travelers to change or cancel tickets without the usual penalties to give skittish passengers confidence to buy tickets. Alaska Airlines labeled it a “peace of mind” waiver.

American, JetBlue and Frontier’s pandemic waivers expired Wednesday, Spirit’s expires Sunday and waivers at United, Delta, Alaska and Hawaiian are due to expire on April 30. Allegiant Air has an open-ended waiver, and fellow budget airline Sun Country Airlines reverted to pre-pandemic change fees last summer. Southwest Airlines does not have a basic-economy fare and has never charged change fees. 

The good news for travelers is that those pricey change fees for many tickets are – in the words of airline executives – permanently gone, a positive byproduct of the pandemic. 

The bad news: The change fees and other penalties attached to cheaper tickets – those no-frills basic-economy tickets that took off in 2017 as well as tickets on budget carriers like Frontier, Spirit and Sun Country – are coming back.

Buy a basic-economy ticket for a domestic flight on American Airlines, for example, and it cannot be changed to a different date, even for a fee. Cancel it, and you won’t receive a travel credit as you did during the pandemic. The money will be gone.(Ditto on  United, Delta, Alaska and Hawaiian beginning May 1.)

Buy a “blue basic” ticket on JetBlue Airways, and you’ll pay $100 to change it, $200 if it’s an international flight. For a round-trip flight between New York and Orlando in late May, the change fee would be $100 on a flight that cost $156. Pay $207 round trip for the next ticket type, ”blue fare,” and change fees are waived.

Nab a $30 round-trip Frontier ticket from Denver to Las Vegas for a flight in mid-May, and you’ll pay more to change to change it, $39 or $59 unless you cancel more than 60 days before your trip.

Need to change that cheap $133 round-trip flight from Minneapolis to Los Angeles in July on Sun Country Airlines? You’ll pay $50 to $100 each way, depending when you make the change or cancellation if you do it within 60 days of your trip.

The return to pre-pandemic policies applies to travelers who buy tickets after the waiver expires. Those who purchased or purchase tickets before the waiver expires are covered by the pandemic policies regardless of travel date.

6 tips to deal with the return of change fees and other airline ticket  restrictions 

  1. Read the fine print on the type of airline ticket you’re buying. Airline websites detail the differences between basic-economy and regular-economy tickets, if only in a bid to get travelers to buy the pricier ticket. 
  2. If there’s a chance your plans might change, especially as the pandemic continues, consider buying a ticket with free changes, or, in the case of Frontier and Spirit, buying one of the perks packages that include free cancellation. 
  3. Buy your ticket by April 30 if you’re flying Delta, United, Alaska or Hawaiian, and you’ll still receive free changes or cancellations on basic-economy tickets. (Some carriers have even later dates for select international flights.)
  4. Include Southwest Airlines in your ticket search as the airline’s fares generally don’t show in online flight searches. The airline has never charged change fees and doesn’t have basic-economy tickets, so there are no surprises.
  5. Check out discounter Allegiant Air, which has an open-ended pandemic travel waiver for new ticket purchases. The Las Vegas-based budget airline is small and only offers flights a couple times a week on most routes, but if the airlines flies where you’re going, you don’t have to worry (for now, at least) about a fee to change your plans.
  6. With or without change fees, keep in mind that airlines still charge fare differences 

An airline-by-airline guide to pandemic waiver expirations and the return of (some) change fees and other restrictions

American Airlines

United Airlines

Delta Air Lines

Frontier Airlines:

  • Pandemic travel waiver for new tickets: Ended March 31
  • Change fees details: $39 or $59 depending when you change or cancel your ticket. No fee applies if the flight is changed or canceled at least 60 days before departure.

Spirit Airlines

Alaska Airlines

JetBlue Airways

  • Pandemic travel waiver for new tickets:Ended March 31
  • Basic economy restrictions:Travelers may change the airline’s “blue basic” tickets for a fee of $100 for domestic flights and $200 for international flights.

Allegiant Air

Sun Country Airlines

  • Pandemic travel waiver for new tickets: Ended summer 2020
  • Change fees: $50 to $100 depending when flight canceled or changed less than 60 days before departure.

Hawaiian Airlines

Southwest Airlines


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