How To Deal With The Ridiculous New Airline Change Fees

The big news in the travel industry this week was that United and US Airways raised the cost of changing tickets from $150 to $200. This means that if you need to change your ticket for any reason prior to departure, whether you got stuck in traffic on the way to the airport or your pet goldfish died, you’re going to have to pay a little bit more.

Gouging? Probably. Expected? Definitely. As airline prices continue their slow appreciation over the years decouple from the actual inflation rate, they’re turning to more and more ancillary fees in order to gain revenue. We saw it in baggage fees and in-fight meals and entertainment. Ticketing fees were bound to increase.

Rather than get angry about the fees, let’s focus on moving forward. Change fees only apply when you need to change your ticket, so the first thing that passengers can try to do is book the right ticket. A little-known rule when purchasing tickets is that the airlines have to give passengers 24 hours to cancel or change a reservation. At American Airlines you can put a ticket on hold until midnight the next day. United will let you cancel a reservation at no charge within 24 hours. And online travel agents like Orbitz and Expedia will cancel most reservations within 24 hours if you call their customer support and carefully draw out your complaint.How does holding or canceling a reservation empower a passenger? It lets you find the right ticket, book it, think about your schedule over night and finalize your itinerary. Not a week goes by when I don’t have one or two tickets on hold at – it’s both a failsafe and a backup if the price changes the next day.

Once booked, it behooves a traveler to know your schedule. We’re in an era of ultra-long security lines, mergers and sequester delays, so plan ahead and get to the airport early. On the flip side of that equation, if the airline is delayed because of bad weather or a mechanical issue, the leverage transfers to the passenger. Take a look at the departures board and try to get on an alternate flight on the same airline. Usually the passenger change fee is waived if the airline is experiencing irregular operations (IRROPS).

In the worst case when you actually do miss your flight, your options are fairly limited, but a little known rule that is still in effect on some airlines might save you some time. Called the flat tire rule, this loophole might let you change your itinerary to a later departing flight at little or no cost – but you have to know how to frame your complaint. Consumer writer Chris Elliott has a series of great articles on the topic, which varies by airline. You can read the thorough reporting here.

As with most changes to ancillary fee pricing, it’s important to note that these changes only apply to everyday travelers on deeply discounted tickets. One could logically get around these fees by purchasing semi flexible or fully refundable fares, or by reaching the top tiers of an airline’s elite program. But 95% of passengers won’t have the time or financial means to make this investment, especially when fully flexible fares are often 2-3 times the cost of an economy ticket.

Unfortunately, your best bet to avoid change fees lies in carefully planning your itinerary and executing on the day of departure. In the worst case, you’ll get to the airport a couple of hours early and will need to visit the pretzel counter at Auntie Annies.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user dykstranet]