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Major airlines have canceled change fees—but a few loopholes could still cost you

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Four major U.S. airlines, Alaska, American Airlines, Delta and United, recently announced they were getting rid of a much-reviled travel expense: change fees. 

The majority of U.S. airlines typically charge a fee, about $200 for domestic flights on American, Delta and United and $125 on Alaska, when travelers need to change the travel date on non-refundable plane tickets. Southwest was the only U.S. airline that did not charge change fees prior to the recent policy updates. These change fees are levied on top of any difference in price between the previously booked flight and the cost of the new flight, which customers are also responsible for paying.

Airlines temporarily suspended change fees amid the pandemic, even for the lowest-priced tickets, and will continue to do so for all tickets purchased through 2020. But AlaskaAmerican AirlinesDelta and United announced that the elimination of change fees would continue beyond that, although the new policies don't apply to all fares and itineraries. (One caveat to be aware of is most airlines require your trip to actually happen within one year of booking.)

"It's a step in the right direction, but not the panacea airlines would have you believe," says Scott Keyes, flight expert and founder of Scott's Cheap Flights

There are still a lot of ways in which travelers could end up paying change fees. Here's a look at where these fees will likely apply. 

1. Basic economy travelers still need to pay

The biggest loophole for airlines — one the size of Texas, according to Keyes — is that change fees are still in place for those who purchase basic economy plane tickets. 

Basic economy is a class of ticket that airlines rolled out a few years ago that usually offer rock-bottom prices, but come with a lot of restrictions. Typically, you can't take any large carry-on luggage with you and you board the plane last. 

Generally, basic economy tickets can't be changed at all, but airlines have suspended those rules during the pandemic. Basic economy ticket holders have been allowed to change dates without penalty through Dec 31, 2020 on AlaskaAmerican AirlinesDelta and United

While Keyes says there's not any recent, reliable data on the number of passengers who buy basic economy versus main economy tickets, he believes it's a sizable portion of travelers, especially since the price difference can be more than $100 each direction in some cases.

In those instances, the airlines' new policies may actually wind up being a bad deal for those who buy more expensive tickets in order to save on change fees, Keyes says. Say you want to buy a flight on United from Newark to Houston on November 5. You can get a nonstop, basic economy ticket for $38, but most main economy tickets run $85 (prices as of Sept. 8). 

"If you think you may later want to change dates, it may be cheaper to rip up the basic economy ticket you have and buy a second one ($76 total cost) than buying an $85 main economy ticket that doesn't charge change fees," Keyes says. 

2. Most international routes aren't covered either  

Travelers who planned international vacations for the fall thinking the pandemic would be over are also probably out of luck. Some of the airlines are only dropping change fees on domestic flights and a handful of international destinations. 

Under the new policies, United and Delta will still charge fees to change international trips. American says it won't levy change fees on its international routes to Canada, the Caribbean and Mexico, but for all other international destinations, the change fees remain in place. 

Alaska announced it will not charge for changes to international flights, but keep in mind that Alaska only flies to Mexico, Canada and Costa Rica outside the U.S.

3. Free same-day standby is now available — but it's a gamble

In addition to waiving change fees for most domestic trips, American and United announced they will allow travelers who want to change the time of their flight to opt for same-day standby for free. American Airlines' free same-day standby policy will go into effect on October 1, 2020, while United's starts January 1, 2021.

This means that you can show up at the airport the day of your flight and if there's available space on an earlier flight, you're allowed on, Keyes says. If you have elite status, you may even be able to get a confirmed seat ahead of time rather than having to wait until boarding time and hope for the best. This new standby option is free, even for basic economy ticketholders.

It's important to note that you can only use the new standby policy to switch to an earlier flight, not any departing after your original ticket time. And it's also a bit of a gamble, Keyes warns, especially if you don't have elite status with the airline. If there isn't an available seat on the plane come boarding time, you'll need to wait around for your original flight or even pay up if you need to change a basic economy ticket to another day. 

4. Free changes doesn't mean free cancellations

Many people mistakenly conflate "free changes" with "free cancellations," but they aren't the same thing, Keyes says. "Despite the changes in change fees, you still can't get a refund simply because you no longer want to travel. For that, you'd have to buy a much more expensive flexible ticket that offers free refunds," he says. Instead, the new "no change fees" policies simply entitle you to switch flights without a penalty cost being added. 

The new policies don't mean you're completely off the hook with additional expenses either. If the new flight you want to switch to is more expensive, you will still have to pay the fare difference. 

If the new flight is cheaper, then your options vary by airline. On Southwest and United, you'll get the difference added to your account as a travel credit, Keyes says. United, on the other hand, isn't giving any refunds. Alaska and Delta haven't announced specific policies yet, but Keyes hopes they won't follow United's lead. 

Even with the limitations, Keyes says he is thrilled that airlines are getting rid of change fees. "It's the right thing to do, especially during a pandemic when travelers should be making their plans in pencil, not in pen," he says.

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Delta follows United Airlines in waiving ticket change fees permanently
Delta follows United Airlines in waiving ticket change fees permanently