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FAQ About Changes to Flights and Tickets

by Edward Hasbrouck, author of "The Practical Nomad"

All airline schedules are subject to change. Airlines are constantly cancelling, changing, combining, rerouting, and rescheduling flights. And some travelers often want to change their own plans, flights, and schedule, even after buying tickets. Bankrupt airlines, low-fare airlines, and airlines that are struggling to avoid bankruptcy are especially likely to make drastic changes to their routes and schedules, in an attempt to find a recipe for profitability. Following is some information about what might be possible in such situations, how to arrange it, and what it might cost. You should consider these issues carefully before you buy any airline tickets.

These answers to FAQ's describe common policies and travel industry practices, but each ticket has its own set of rules. Similar tickets sold by different travel agencies may have very different rules, and airlines often have incomplete information and provide inaccurate advice about the rules of tickets purchased from travel agents. If you have any questions, do not rely on this Web page: consult the travel agency from which you bought your tickets (or the airline, if you bought your tickets directly from the airline), for the exact rules of your specific tickets.

What happens if I no longer want to go to certain destinations, or to fly on certain airlines, after I have bought my airline tickets?

Don't count on being permitted to change your route, destinations, or airlines without penalty, regardless of what happens -- even in the event of illness or injury, natural disaster, war, or terrorist incident. Neither airlines nor travel agencies are required to offer refunds or waive refund or change penalties or fees in such cases, and many insurance policies exclude coverage for costs that result from war, terrorism, or government orders. Once tickets are issued, changes of route (sequence of cities and connection points), destinations, and/or airlines can generally be made only at substantial cost. In order to change your route, destinations, or airlines after buying your tickets, you may have to buy new tickets and/or forfeit the amount you have paid for non refundable tickets that you choose not to use. With "load factors" (the percentage of seats filled with paying passengers) increasing, and more flights entirely full, there may not be any space available on an alternate flight.

What can I do if I want to change my plans?

  1. Some airlines have made special rules for changes to tickets in the event of war, a "security alert" by the USA government, illness or injury, etc.. Airlines are not required to do this, or to make any exceptions to their normal cancellation, refund, and change rules. These special rules do not apply to all airlines, situations, all tickets, or all routes. Check with the airline for any special rules that may apply to your tickets, or any exceptions to normal rules that the airline may have made.
  2. Many tickets permit date changes, as long as you stick to the originally ticketed airlines and routing and there is a flight with space available on your desired new dates. (In general, as I discuss in my FAQ on consolidators and discounted international tickets, consolidator tickets purchased form a travel agency are more likely to permit date changes than are tickets purchased directly from the airline or at a published fare.)
  3. If you are no longer interested in visiting a particular destination, the most economical option is often simply to revise your dates to minimize your stay there. Depending on the flight frequency and schedules, you might be able simply to change planes and continue on, without having to leave the airport, but if flights are less frequent or fully booked you might have to spend one or more nights in transit. Check with your travel agent (or the airline, if you bought your tickets directly from the airline) for schedule options and the date change rules, fees (if any), and procedures for your specific tickets.

What if an airline changes its routes or discontinues flights because of war, terrorism, bankruptcy, strike, weather, or other events?

  1. An airline is required either to fly you between the destinations specified on your ticket, or to give you a full refund. If the airline is still operating, and still serves the cities specified on your tickets (even on a different route, or by way of different connection points), the airline will usually arrange to transport you on alternate route. This may also require a change of dates, depending on how often alternate flights operate and how many seats are available on them.
  2. If an airline discontinues all service on any route to a specific destination, and you have tickets to that destination, the airline will often "endorse" your ticket to another airline, and arrange for that airline to transport you for all or part of the journey. Arrangements to have tickets endorsed to an alternate airline, in the event of cancellation of service to a destination on your route, generally must be made directly with the airline on which you have tickets.
  3. In some cases an airline may offer to reroute your tickets to an alternate destination, especially if they have discontinued service to your ticketed destination. You are not obligated to accept such an offer, but it is preferable to accept alternate transportation than to seek a refund and buy new tickets. Obviously, an airline is extremely unlikely to discontinue service to their own hub airport, if they are still operating at all, or to offer refunds, rerouting, or endorsement of tickets to other airlines on account of events in their home country.
  4. For a refund, you need to request a refund through the travel agency or airline from which you purchased your tickets, and wait for the refund request to be processed. This process usually takes several months, so you won't have the refund money immediately to use to buy new tickets. Note that the face value of your tickets is typically the official "published fare". If you bought a discounted ticket, the amount you paid, and thus your refund, may be substantially less than the official fare printed on your tickets. Note also that airlines can take up to a year to process refunds, especially for consolidator tickets. If the original tickets were on the cheapest airline and route, new tickets will probably cost more. For all these reasons, you are generally better off trying to get the airline to fly you on an alternate route, or to an alternate destination, or to "endorse" your ticket to another airline that still serves your desired destination, rather than submitting your tickets for refund and buying new tickets.

What if I miss a connection?

You might have to pay a change fee or an additional fare, or buy a new ticket to continue your journey, regardless of the reason you missed the connecting flight. (Yes, even if it was the airline's fault!) See this separate article from my blog on how to minimize the cost of missed connections.

Can I get a refund for my tickets if I no longer want to use them?

  1. You might be eligible for a refund of the airfare. You might not. Most airline tickets are now completely nonrefundable (except for the taxes, as discussed below). Check with the place from which you purchased your tickets. As long as your ticketed flights are still operating as originally scheduled, neither airlines nor travel agencies are required to waive their normal processing fees or refund penalties if you change your plans because of fear of war, terrorism, or anything else.
  2. Most airlines' terms and conditions require the airline to provide a full and unconditional refund -- even if the ticket was otherwise completely nonrefundable -- if you refuse to accept a change in the scheduled flight time -- no matter how slight -- after you have bought your ticket. This applies only if the schedule is changed. If the schedule remains the same, but the flight actually departs or arrives late (or early), your nonrefundable ticket remains nonrefundable. But if you present yourself to check in, and are told, "By the way, your flight is now scheduled to depart 3 minutes later than the time on your ticket", you are entitled to say, "That's not acceptable to me. I demand all the money I paid for this ticket back, without any airline penalty." (If you purchased the ticket through a travel agency, you may still have to pay any penalty or refund fee charged by the travel agency, which could be substantial.) If you want to change, rather than cancel, your tickets, getting a refund is useful only if there is still time, and still seats available, to buy new tickets for less than what it would cost to change the old ones. But in many cases, particularly with completely nonchangeable tickets (which are increasingly common), refusing to accept a schedule change may be your only way to avoid a 100% penalty. If you want to do this, make sure you don't do anything that could be construed as "acceptance" of the schedule change, such as responding, "OK". Let them know immediately that the change is "unacceptable". You may need to point them to the specific language in their tariff, but that should be easy, since they are required to have their tariff available for inspection at every place where tickets are sold. (If the tariff is available only in electronic form, they are also required to assist you in retrieving and searching it.) Typical language is this from Rule 240 of Northwest Airline's General Rules: "SCHEDULE IRREGULARITY:... IF NW IS UNABLE TO ARRANGE ALTERNATE AIR TRANSPORTATION ACCEPTABLE TO THE PASSENGER, NW SHALL REFUND THE FLIGHT COUPON(S) FOR THE UNFLOWN PORTION(S) IN ACCORDANCE WITH RULE 260 (REFUNDS-INVOLUNTARY).... SCHEDULE CHANGES:... WHEN A PASSENGER WILL BE DELAYED BECAUSE OF A CHANGE IN NW'S SCHEDULE, NW WILL ARRANGE TO: ... REFUND IN ACCORDANCE WITH RULE 260 (REFUNDS-INVOLUNTARY)."
  3. You might be eligible for a refund (again, even if your ticket is otherwise nonrefundable) if you refuse to permit yourself or your luggage to be searched, if you refuse to "produce positive identification" on demand, or if the the airline refuses to transport you. But some airlines (starting with Northwest) have begun to change their rules to prohibit refunds of nonrefundable tickets in such cases. So check the airline's rules before you ask for a refund, or before you buy a ticket, if you aren't sure the airline will be willing to transport you.
  4. If you don't actually fly, regardless of the reason and regardless of whether the fare is refundable, you should be entitled to a full refund of all the taxes included in the price of your airline ticket. Government's in different countries have interpreted this differently. in Canada, for example, the government has required airlines to refund taxes on unused tickets, while in the USA the Department of Transportation has accepted airlines' arguments that transportation tax is payable on the "sale" of the ticket, even if no transportation is provided. And more and more airlines fail to provide a breakdown of the taxes and surcharges included in ticket prices, so it can be hard to tell how much of what you have paid is tax, and how much is "fuel" or other "surcharges" that actually are part of the fare, and are always kept by the airline. It's even harder to tell which of the taxes are payable on the sale and which are payable only if you actually travel, whether the airline has passed the taxes on to the government, and if so, to which government(s). The only way to find out is to submit your tickets for a refund of the taxes whenever you aren't able to use them -- even if the fare is nonrefundable. If you don't like this situation, complain to the relevant government agencies.
  5. If you decide to submit your tickets for refund, (1) cancel your reservations before your scheduled travel date, (2) save your original physical tickets or e-ticket receipts and documentation of cancellation of your reservations, and (3) contact the airline or travel agency from which you bought your tickets for refund instructions.

Who should I contact if I need or want to make changes, or if the airline has cancelled or changed the flights I was supposed to be on?

  1. Often it is easiest to contact the airline on which you are ticketed to fly. As long as they are still operating, they will usually take care of necessary changes for you, even if that requires "endorsing" your ticket to another airline. But the ticketed transporting airline is not necessarily the airline contractually obligated to do these things. So don;t be surprised, and don't assume they are lying (although they might be!) if they say you have to deal with some other airline.
  2. Each ticket, even for flights on multiple airlines, is issued by a single airline identified, somewhat confusingly, in the "issued by" box (even when the ticket is actually issued by a travel agency and not the airline itself). That "issuing" or "validating" airline may not be the one form whom you thought you were buying the ticket, may not actually be operating any of your flights, and may not even have its codeshare on any of them. But it initially gets all your money and is responsible for parceling it out to the transporting airline(s) as well as for fulfilling your contract of carriage. If the ticketed transporting airline won;t or can;t accommodate you, it's usually the validating airline you have to deal with to make any necessary changes. If you have a set oif tickets for several flights, perhaps on different airline, they may have been issued as one ticket or as several tickets, validated on the sam or different airlines. The problem is that most ticket sales Web sites, including those both of airlines and of travel agencies, fail to tell you which flights will be ticketed separately or which airline (not necessarily any of the operating airlines or those whose flight numbers appear on the flights) will issue your tickets. In the USA, Department of Transportation regulations at 14 CFR 399.83 require the airline to give you an actual ticket, which would show all of this information and more, but that rule is routinely violated and has never been enforced. Always demand a ticket when you pay, not just an itinerary or confirmation showing that you have some sort of ticket(s) for certain flights. If you have an e-ticket, what you want is a complete copy of the "Virtual Coupon Records", or at minimum the "passenger receipt coupon". If the airline won't give you one, make a formal complaint and enforcement request to the Department of Transportation.
  3. If your ticket says soemthing like "REFUND ONLY THROUGH ISSUING AGENT" or "REF ISS AGT ONLY" in the "ENDORSEMENTS" box, you may have to request a refund through the agent form whom you purchased it, rather than through an airline office. In some cases, changes to tickets may require you to refund one or more tickets, and buy a new ticket or tickets. However, airlines often lie to passengers about their relationships with travel agencies and agents, and about the refund value of tickets. Never buy new tickets, in the expectation of being able to get a refund for your original tickets, without checking first with the agency from which you purchased your original tickets. No matter what an airline office may try to tell you, any change to tickets not requiring a refund can be made directly by the issuing airline. The travel agency from whom you bought your tickets might (or might not) be able to help, and if it's feasible and you have time it's generally best to contact the issuing agency first. but if an airline treis to tell you that yuo have to go through "your agent" to make changes to flights, they are almost certainly lying to you and engaging in a deceptive practice in violation of US law. A travel agent is legally an agent of the airline(s), not your agent. When a travel agent issues a ticket, they do so as an agent of the airline. The airline is the "principal" -- the legal entity whith which you have a contract of carriage, and which has a legal duty to fulfill that contract. Even when is are issued through an agent, every ticket plainly shows that it is "issued by" an airline, not an agent.
  4. See the chapter on air transportation in The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World for more on changes, refunds, and dealing with airlines and travel agencies.

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