In March 2020, the pandemic halted travel around the world, leaving many would-be air passengers struggling to secure refunds as hard-hit airlines offered up travel vouchers instead.
But with travel cautiously opening back up in some parts of the world, many travelers are seeking clarity up front about what they’re entitled to if their trip can’t go ahead. Unfortunately, airline change fees, cancelled flights and ticket credits have never been so complicated. Airlines have introduced a patchwork of different policies to cope with the ongoing uncertainty—so here is some general some advice to follow when navigating flight changes.
What do I do if my flight gets cancelled?
If your flight gets cancelled, you’ll probably end up with one of five options: a refund; a travel voucher or credit; rebooking with a change fee; rebooking without a change fee and no charge if there’s a difference in fare; or rebooking without a change fee but with a charge (or maybe a refund or credit) for any difference in fare.
But which of those you can take will depend on what kind of ticket you bought, when you bought it, who you bought it from, and how you paid for it.
If the airline cancelled your flight, or changed the timing to the extent that they have to notify you about it, you should be able to cancel your ticket and get all your money back.
If you want to rebook, things could get complicated. Policies vary widely, but most airlines will move you to another flight without incurring change fees or fare differences if the cancellation is their fault.
If you want to change your flight on your own, by and large most airlines are being pretty flexible about that, with the general trend being that you can rebook the flight for another date without a change fee (or with reduced change fees compared with pre-COVID times), but you will probably have to pay any difference in fare compared with your original ticket cost. Sometimes you only get one free rebooking.
Some airlines—usually the nicer kind of full-service airline like Hawaiian Airlines—have discontinued change fees entirely. Others have done so on a temporary basis or for certain fare classes (usually not their “basic economy” kind of offer), while others still (often the low-cost carriers) still have them, but have in some cases reduced the cost.
Can I get a refund, or does it have to be vouchers?
If it’s the airline cancelling it, then you’re usually entitled to a refund. But there are certain situations where the airline is allowed to give you a voucher or travel credit instead.
There’s no hard and fast rule here. To start with, your consumer rights depend on where your trip starts and ends, and in some cases—like with European package tour regulations—it will depend on whether you bought anything other than just a flight.
It will also depend on whether you bought the flight directly from the airline, from a trusted travel agent, or from an online flight search site. If you have a trusted travel agent, use them by all means, but try to avoid buying tickets from online flight search sites or from anywhere else that isn’t direct from the airline—it adds another layer of hassle when it comes to getting refunds.
It will also depend on how you bought your flight: if you used a credit card, you can often get the credit card company to refund you, especially if the airline has promised a refund but not delivered in a reasonable time—reasonable according to the credit card company, that is. So it’s worth considering putting the charge on a credit card if you’re concerned about cancellation.
Many travelers spent much of last year waiting for refunds—has that changed now?
While it would be great to think that after a year of COVID-related travel disruptions, all airlines had foolproof systems in place to cope with customers who have had flights cancelled or delayed. However, that is still not always the case, and calling an airline could still leave you on hold for hours.
If you’ve had a flight cancellation recently, but the airline’s website couldn’t process the change or was otherwise buggy, it’s worth trying to contact the airline through one of their social media channels, preferably via direct message.
Airlines have got a little better—but not much—about taking forever to issue refunds and vouchers, but there isn’t really a hard and fast trend here either.
Airline by airline guides
Every single airline is different, and their websites change so frequently, so it's important to check the latest rules. Run a quick web search for [airline name] change policy or [airline name] ticket flexibility and you’ll be right there.
Overall, though: if you can, this is the time to spend a little more to get yourself out of basic economy or to fly with the airline that has a better reputation rather than the one that’s the butt of all the jokes.
For more information on COVID-19 and travel, check out Lonely Planet's Health Hub.
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