Why you should wait to change or cancel your flight if you want your money back

Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, and has been updated with the latest information.

Although the COVID-19 vaccines are effective at preventing serious illness and death from the delta variant, breakthrough infections — largely with mild symptoms — appear to be increasingly common.

If you’re reconsidering travel due to the spread of the variant, you may have a few options — especially since many airlines have abolished change and cancellation fees altogether on all but basic economy tickets.

However, just because the airlines are waiving change fees doesn’t mean you’ll get a refund if you elect to postpone or cancel your trip. Instead, you’ll likely be given a voucher for future use with the carrier.

So what if you do indeed want your money back? Well, I’ve got good news. You are entitled to a refund for your canceled flight — even if the airline says you aren’t. And this may be possible when an airline makes a significant adjustment to its schedule as well.

But, here’s the thing: the airline is on the hook for a refund only when it cancels your flight or makes a significant change to your schedule or routing. And that’s why it pays to hold on to your reservation until the airline does just that.

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In This Post

Types of flight changes

Before explaining why it pays to be patient when it comes to canceling your flight, let’s review the two types of modifications that can be made to your travel plans.

Voluntary changes

A voluntary change refers to — you guessed it — any modification that you decide to make, regardless of the reason. Say you want to leave a day earlier for Chicago or take a later flight to Atlanta; those would both be considered voluntary changes.

Related: You are entitled to a refund for your canceled flight — even if the airline says you aren’t

Likewise, if you decide to cancel your ticket because you’re no longer comfortable traveling or what you were originally traveling to experience is closed or modified (again, regardless of the reason), that’d also be considered a voluntary change.

Until recently, these voluntary changes typically came with major fees. However, most of the major U.S. airlines have removed these added costs.

Involuntary changes

So what’s the difference with an involuntary change? Well, those are changes made by the airline. That could mean that an airline canceled your flight or changed the timing of your flight (which is referred to as a schedule change). This could also mean switching you from a nonstop flight to a connecting itinerary or even adjusting the airport for your layover.

Photo by Susan Stocker/Sun Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Likewise, if your flight is delayed significantly or canceled on the day of departure due to weather, operational issues or other last-minute problems, that’d also be considered an involuntary change.

In this scenario, you still want (and plan) to take your flight as originally booked. However, there has been some kind of change that will prevent you from doing so.

Why it pays to wait until the last minute to cancel your flight

So, you’ve decided that you no longer want to fly — due to your own comfort levels or ongoing travel restrictions. The next thing to do is to wait and be patient. Don’t call your airline and cancel your flight right away.

Related: When is it time to call your airline?

Why? Because if you called your airline now, you’d be making a voluntary cancellation of your reservation. In that case, the airline has no obligation to refund your ticket, no matter the reason you’re nixing your plans to fly.

But, with airlines around the world still modifying their schedules (and some suspending operations entirely), there’s a high chance that your upcoming flight or your first trip of 2021 will be canceled by the airline or otherwise changed to a different routing — often a much-less-convenient one.

And when that happens, it’s considered an involuntary change.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

And that’s your key to unlocking a full refund for your flight. Once the airline cancels your flight, then the DOT protections I discussed in my guide to getting a refund for your canceled flight kick in.

Related: Why you should think twice before accepting an airline voucher — even with a bonus

Airlines are continually updating their schedules due to the ongoing pandemic. In some cases, these changes or cancellations happen a few weeks before your scheduled departure, though some airlines are only canceling flights at the last minute (within 48 hours of departure). And if you’re looking for a refund, you’re only eligible when the airline makes the first move.

If you instead voluntarily take a voucher before your flight’s canceled, you can’t convert it into a refund if your flight does indeed get axed later on.

An example of this strategy in real life

TPG senior editor Nick Ewen has had to cancel a handful of trips due to the pandemic, and one experience from August is a clear-cut, real-world example of why it pays to wait. As he described it:

In late spring, when we had hope of a return to normalcy in the travel world, my wife, daughter and I had planned a long-weekend trip to Connecticut in late September. The return flight was booked using existing JetBlue vouchers, but the outbound was a brand-new ticket on a nonstop Southwest flight. Of course, with the continually-expanding restrictions on visitors to the Northeast, we decided to cancel the trip … but since this would be a voluntary change, we’d be left with travel funds (or the ability to convert them to Rapid Rewards points, which is now expired).

In early August, I happened to log in to my Southwest account to check on the trip, and I was greeted with this:

Screenshot courtesy of Southwest Airlines

Our nonstop flight had been adjusted to a connecting flight with a nearly five-hour layover and a much-later arrival time. I was confident that such a schedule change would qualify me for a refund, and sure enough, a quick phone call resulted in my money back. Had I canceled my flight when I first knew that the trip wasn’t happening, I’d have a voucher toward a future flight. By waiting just a few additional weeks, I got nearly $350 back in my pocket.

Nick’s plans had changed, and as a result, he knew he wouldn’t be taking this flight. However, instead of jumping to cancel himself (which would’ve been a voluntary change), he held off and let Southwest make the first move (an involuntary change). And in Nick’s example, he didn’t even need a complete cancellation of his flight. A significant schedule change was enough to make him eligible for a refund — one that wouldn’t have been possible if he canceled first.

The same thing happened earlier this year with TPG’s Summer Hull, who had a big family trip to Banff planned for June. This trip included United flights from Houston (IAH) to Calgary (YYC). Her itinerary underwent multiple schedule changes in March and April but remained largely intact until May when United officially canceled and wasn’t able to offer any alternative flights. At this point, United actually proactively reached out and offered a refund, an option that wasn’t on the table until United had no real alternatives to provide.

Related: United is denying refunds, here’s how to get one anyway

Airlines wait until the last minute to process flight cancellations

In the pre-coronavirus era, airline flight schedules would typically be solidified a couple of months before departure. Barring a mechanical issue, weather delay or other unforeseen circumstances, chances were quite good that a flight would proceed according to schedule.

Not so anymore. With so much uncertainty still surrounding the pandemic, airlines are constantly adjusting their route networks. And as I mentioned earlier, many airlines are canceling flights just a few days before departure. Turns out, there are a few reasons for this practice.

John Grant, senior aviation analyst at OAG, explained that “it’s a matter of airlines wrestling with planning and resolving each day flying on a daily basis.” With schedules up in the air, it’s much easier to cancel flights when airlines have a better sense of their daily operations.

Related: Why do airlines cancel flights at the last minute?

Additionally, you might notice that your upcoming flight still shows up in your reservation, but it’s not available for sale to new bookings. This is a good indicator that your flight will inevitably be canceled. When airlines “zero-out” the inventory, they’re limiting how many people they need to rebook when the flight ends up getting axed.

Although airlines aren’t necessarily acting nefariously by waiting to cancel flights, this practice ends up working out to their benefit. Eager passengers who make voluntary changes before the flight is canceled aren’t eligible for refunds later on when the airline inevitably cancels the flight.

Once again, another reason to wait until the last minute to get a refund for your flight.

Best strategy to making free changes and cancellations to your flight

As noted above, most airlines eliminated change fees this fall, so if you know you can’t take a flight but want to reschedule it, there’s typically no point in waiting. However, obtaining a refund is an entirely different story.

Note as well that, while changes and cancellations are commonplace due to COVID-19 right now, this same strategy applies even when the pandemic ends — just like it applied prior to the virus’ emergence. If you’re no longer planning to take a flight and want a full refund, it always pays to wait until just before departure.

If your flight is canceled or significantly delayed — or the schedule is adjusted to a less-than-tolerable routing — you’d be eligible to get your money back because of the airline’s involuntary change.

Bottom line

Understandably, there are lots of people looking to postpone or cancel their upcoming travel plans giving the ongoing surge in coronavirus cases around the world. Many are taking advantage of the fact that most airlines have removed change fees permanently, and just about every other carrier is offering free changes in light of the pandemic.

But what if you want a refund? Well, you should wait until the airline cancels your flight or makes a significant change to your itinerary. That way, you’d be eligible to get your money back.

This strategy even applies outside of these unprecedented times. Lots of things can wreak havoc on an airline’s operation, including weather, mechanical issues or crew strikes. When those things happen, you’ll be able to get a refund if your flight ends up getting canceled.

So, never forget: It always pays to be patient.

Additional reporting by David Slotnick.

Featured image by Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images.