Airlines now get one-fourth of their revenue from fees, and one of the biggest is a charge of up to $200 to change or cancel a ticket.
The fee galls consumers who find themselves with an unexpected need to change their travel plans. In some cases, the fee is more than the price paid for the ticket.
When all the receipts are counted, it is likely that consumers paid the airlines more than $3 billion in fees to cancel or change a flight in 2015. That is triple what they paid in change fees in 2007.
Avoiding these hefty fees will take a bit of planning before you book your flight. Once you pay for the ticket, you’re at the mercy of the airline. Experts have some tips:
Grace period: If your flight is at least seven days away, federal regulations require airlines to give passengers 24 hours to change their mind at no cost.
Airlines can let passengers hold a reservation at the quoted price for 24 hours before paying, as American Airlines does, or let them cancel without penalty for 24 hours, as most other carriers do.
Exception airlines: Southwest Airlines doesn’t charge change fees. If you cancel at least 10 minutes before the flight, you can use the ticket’s value for another flight, but you could owe more money if the new flight has a higher fare.
Alaska Airlines lets passengers change or cancel for no fee if the flight is at least 60 days away.
Ticket types: Refundable tickets cost more — sometimes substantially more — but they might pay off if you have any doubts about your ability to make the trip.
Also, some airlines offer bundled fares that include a free ticket change. The Works from Frontier Airlines costs more than a basic ticket, but includes a free change. You also get free bags and priority boarding. And it is refundable.
“Refundability is better than [a free] change because you get to say, ‘I don’t want to go.’ ” says George Hobica, founder of airfarewatchdog.com.
Time your purchase: You should book your flight ahead of time because fares rise closer to the flight, but if you book many months in advance there is a greater chance that a crisis at work or an illness could cause you to miss the trip.
Wing it: Finally, “You hope and pray your flight is severely delayed or canceled,” Hobica says, because you are entitled to a refund if the airline can’t honor your ticket. He says you should demand a refund even if the flight’s schedule has changed significantly — if the departure time changes by several hours or a nonstop becomes a one-stop.