The coronavirus pandemic has put travel, and especially flying, almost completely on hold. Many countries have completely restricted entry from certain parts of the world or ask travelers to quarantine in a hotel before moving freely through their destination. Airplanes also have a reputation for being hotbeds of contagion. Even if you can travel, you might not want to, and even if you want to, you might not be able to. Plus, no one knows when the coronavirus-related restriction will end and travel will get back to the old normal. All this has led to thousands of canceled flights.
But if you’re still wondering what to about your travel plans, here are five things you should know about canceling a flight during the COVID-19 pandemic:
1. Many airlines have waived flight change and cancelation fees on flights to a growing number of destinations
As nations across the globe put travel restrictions in place, major airlines—including Delta, American, and United—have issued travel waivers, allowing travelers to cancel flights to many destinations without paying the usual hefty cancelation fee. Some airlines are also rescheduling flights at the same price even if the new flight technically has a higher price tag. Some are even waiving cancelation fees on all upcoming flights, regardless of the destination. Most of these exceptions apply to travel scheduled for April or May and booked before March 1, but some airlines have also implemented generous cancelation policies for tickets purchased now.
Delta, for instance, is allowing travelers who purchase a flight before April 15 to make multiple itinerary changes for up to a year. Also, customers of this airline who cancel flights scheduled for April or May will have two years to redeem their travel vouchers. This policy is the most generous, but other airlines are following suit. United is waiving change fees on all tickets purchased through the end of April, even basic economy fares. JetBlue is allowing customers who purchase tickets now to change their plans free of charge through October.
Southwest Airlines has never charged a fee to change a flight but does require customers to pay the price difference when the new flight is more expensive. In response to the coronavirus crisis, though, it is allowing customers to rebook without having to pay the additional cost of the new flight. This applies to travel booked through April 30. Also, the new flight must follow the same route and begin within 60 days of the original travel date.
Policies vary by airline, so check your airline’s website for details on travel waivers. If the coronavirus crisis extends from weeks into months and expands in scope, airlines will likely issue more travel waivers and perhaps be even more generous in their flight cancelation policies. In some ways, COVID-19 is making air travel more flexible.
2. Many airlines have extended voucher deadlines to give you more time to use them
It looks like it will be a while until we’ll have the freedom to roam the globe again. This has caused customers to complain about losing the value of soon-to-expire vouchers or even vouchers they may acquire from canceling a flight now. Would-be travelers who had booked in advance were especially concerned since flight vouchers are sometimes only good from the original purchase date, not the original travel date. Luckily, many airlines have extended voucher deadlines, both for recently issued vouchers and vouchers that would be expiring during the coronavirus crisis.
Some major carriers, such as Delta and United, have extended the life of travel vouchers set to expire in April or May until the end of the year. Southwest has also responded to customers’ complaints. The vacation airline has legions of customers who recently canceled spring break travel plans. To accommodate these travelers, vouchers issued for flights canceled in April or May will be good until June 2021, regardless of when the flights were originally booked.
This way travelers who missed their spring break trip this year can take it next year. But if you have “travel funds” with Southwest from a recently canceled flight and don’t see an extended deadline on their website, be patient. The company may still be updating things in their computer system to reflect the new policies.
3. To address the needs of travelers during the coronavirus crisis, airlines are making it easier to change flights online
As with almost any phone number related to the coronavirus crisis, airline customer service lines are overloaded, mostly with customers trying to cancel flights. Most airlines are asking customers who are traveling in the next 72 hours to call customer service to change their flight. As for other customers, they should change or cancel their travel plans online, either through the airline’s smartphone app or its website. Such privileges often were reserved for frequent flier members, but companies have opened the process to anyone.
Frontier, Allegiant, and other airlines have also put tutorial videos on their websites to walk would-be passengers through the steps of changing or canceling a flight online.
4. If you want a direct refund, wait for the airline to cancel your flight
Not surprisingly, airlines have canceled tens of thousands of flights because of the coronavirus pandemic. Many people don’t realize, though, that when an airline cancels your flight—whether on account of weather, a mechanical problem, or a global health emergency—you are entitled to a refund. So if your flight hasn’t been canceled yet, just wait. It could be canceled in the future. As the crisis continues, more flights may be canceled. Know, too, that even if the airline doesn’t’ cancel your flight, but does change the schedule substantially, they are required to give you a refund if you don’t like the new itinerary.
Be aware, though, that airlines would rather not have to refund your money, and so they will likely initially offer you a travel voucher and hope you don’t know how to ask for a refund. Many European airlines are currently offering travel vouchers that come with the guarantee that if they aren’t used in a year, customers will get a refund. But you can still ask for a refund directly, and the airlines must provide it. Both American and European travel authorities have reminded the airlines of their obligation to refund the cost of canceled flights.
5. When they cancel flights, airlines offer bonuses for taking vouchers instead of refunds
It could be in your interest to take a travel voucher instead of a refund. They may not advertise it, but some airlines are adding value to vouchers for flights they cancel. American is offering customers with a canceled flight a 20 percent bonus on vouchers, for example. Frontier was also enticing customers to initiate a cancelation by adding an extra $50 to their voucher when canceling the booking on their own. Check your airline’s fine print.
In navigating their way through the coronavirus pandemic, airlines need to provide customer service while trying to soften the blow of a huge financial hit. To satisfy a growing number of potentially unserved customers, flight cancelation and change policies will likely evolve along with the spread or containment of COVID-19. To stay informed, keep checking the website of your airline for the most up-to-date information on flight cancelations and policies.