You’ve just spent the last couple of years of your life chasing points promotions and working out which card to buy what with. You’ve racked up the points and booked your dream trip.
You’ve booked a year out, because that’s what you have to do, right?
Then something unavoidable happens that’s not covered by your travel insurance. You have to change or even cancel your trip. What happens then? Well, you’ll be up to pay some fees.
Why knowing the cancellation policy for your points redemption flight is useful
My interest in this topic as I needed to change an award booking. The process was reasonably painless and inexpensive, which led me to wonder if all airlines are the same. As it turns out, no, they’re not.
Depending on the complexity and timing of your booking, you might be able to cancel or change it with a few clicks for nothing. In some cases though, you could be looking at fees upwards of US$150.
If the change or cancellation is in the final 24 hours before departure, or you’re a no-show, you’ll likely forfeit all your points and money paid.
One very important thing to note is that you are bound by the terms and conditions of the airline you’ve booked with, not the airline you’re flying with.
In my case, I’d booked a return trip on Cathay Pacific using Qantas Points. I wanted to change one leg of the booking and so was bound by Qantas’ rules, not those of Cathay Pacific. I also had to do the change through Qantas’ call centre, not Cathay’s.
Comparing change fees of the primary frequent flyer programs for travellers in Australia
Also considering that buying miles from Alaska MileagePlan, American Airlines AAdvantage, Avianca LifeMiles, British Airways Executive Club, United MileagePlus and Virgin Atlantic Flying Club are popular among readers, I have elected to include them also.
|Change||Cancel before 24 hours||Cancel within 24 hours||No-show||Source & additional info|
|Qantas Frequent Flyer|
|5,000 points||6,000 points||No clear information||No clear information||Qantas Frequent Flyer Fee Schedule|
Cancelling or changing an Reward flight booking
|Velocity Frequent Flyer|
|4,500 points or $35 for domestic|
7,500 points or $60 for international
|4,500 points or $35 for domestic|
7,500 points or $60 for international
|All points forfeited unless Business Class||All points forfeited unless Business Class||Velocity Reward seat conditions|
Late cancellation/no-show information derived from call centre conversation
|Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan|
|US$125||US$125||No clear information||No clear information||Fees waived for MVP Gold or 75K members and refundable First Class award tickets|
Alaska Airlines Fees
|American Airlines AAdvantage|
|US$150 for origin/destination or airline change (waived for Executive Platinum members)|
$75 for date changes 'within 21 days of the original booking date' (waived for Executive Platinum, Platinum and Gold members)
|$150 for the first award ticket + $25 per additional ticket cancelled at the same time (waived for Executive Platinum members)||No clear information||No clear information||Changing AAdvantage flight awards>/a>|
|US$150||$50/200 within/between regions||No clear information||No clear information||FlyerTalk forum|
|British Airways Executive Club|
|AU$63 AUD (+$25 service fee if over the phone)||AU$63 AUD (+$25 service fee if over the phone)||All Avios forfeited||All Avios forfeited||Depends on your 'region of departure' (Australia is assumed in this table)|
Change/cancellation fee waived for Gold Priority Reward bookings
Phone service fee waived for Gold members
British Airways reward flight booking and service fees
Executive Club terms and conditions
|Cathay Pacific Asia Miles|
|US$25 or 1,000 Asia Miles online|
$40 or 4,000 Asia Miles over the phone
|$120 or 12,000 Asia Miles||No clear information||No clear information||Asia Miles FAQs|
|US$25||$75||Depends on fare conditions of ticket purchased||Depends on fare conditions of ticket purchased||Figures are for Saver award tickets—more generous provisions for flexible tickets|
|100 AED for date change||AU$115 contact center service fee |
+ 10% of total miles
|All miles forfeited||All miles forfeited, taxes and carrier charges refundable||Etihad Guest terms and conditions|
|Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer|
|US$25/free for Saver/Advantage for date change if travelling on Singapore Airlines or SilkAir|
$25 for change of route, cabin class or award type for tickets issued for flights on Singapore Airlines and SilkAir
$50 for change of flight, date, route or carrier for tickets issued for flights on partner airlines
|$75/50 for Saver/Advantage||$75/50 for Saver/Advantage||$100 Economy|
$200 Premium Economy
$300 Business and First
|$25 or 2,500 KrisFlyer miles offline/phone service fee (waived if can't perform action online)|
KrisFlyer Service Fees
|United Airlines MileagePlus|
|US$75/125 if more/less than 60 days before departure||US$75/125 if more/less than 60 days before departure||$125 for United flights|
All miles forfeited for partner flights
|$125||Fees are reduced or waived for those with elite status|
United Award service fees
|Virgin Atlantic Flying Club|
|£30 from UK|
US$50 from the US or any other region
|£30 from UK|
US$50 from the US or any other region
|All miles forfeited, £30 charge for refund on taxes||All miles forfeited, £30 charge for refund on taxes||Virgin Atlantic Spending Miles|
Some other notes on the comparison above:
- Many airlines have a slew of conditions depending on the fare type, route booked and what your cat’s name is. I have linked to the relevant sources so you can double check your own particular case. It does seem that these conditions can change frequently, so please double-check
- Some airlines have different fees and charges depending on your point of departure. I have assumed the point of departure to be Australia
- The information in the table regards flight bookings only. All the airlines have different change/cancellation policies regarding other services (e.g. hotel and car hire) booked on points
Per person, per booking
In all of the examples, the relevant fees are charged per person, per booking—not per booking or per sector. What does that mean?
I’ll use my own example: I have a total of four flights booked on the same booking number, for two adults. When I changed flights, it wouldn’t have mattered if I changed one or all four—the penalty would be the same, per person.
So in my case, that penalty was 10,000 Qantas Points, being 5,000 per adult. I changed two flights to a different airline, via different cities. Note that fees and taxes changed due to the airline and airport change, so as always, be aware of that too.
Don’t be a no-show
Some airlines have a clear no-show policy, while for others there’s no mention of it at all. For the most part, it’s definitely to be avoided, as it can (and probably will) void any further flights on the same booking with no possible avenue for a refund.
In many cases, penalties for no-shows and late cancellations aren’t to be found anywhere, except to say they are ‘not permitted.’ In my mind, that suggests the forfeiture of all points and money paid.
As a side note, not all airlines use 24 hours as their benchmark for late cancellations or no-shows. For example, Delta (not covered in the table) only allows changes if they’re made 72 hours before departure.
You won’t get expired points back
In most cases, expired points are not refunded (here’s the exception for Qantas). So booking a flight a year into the future with points that are about to expire, with the intention of cancelling said flight won’t get you anywhere.
Changes after your journey has begun
Another thing to note is that, for the most part, fees and charges can increase if your journey has already begun. That would be the case if you have started your trip and now want to change your return flight. In some cases, if your journey has begun, you can’t change any further flights without forfeiting your points entirely, e.g. from Qantas:
Changes that require a ticket to be re-issued are not permitted within 24 hours of departure or once travel has commenced. Changes are not permitted on any Classic Flight Reward flight paper ticket booking once travel has commenced.
Some strategies to minimise change and cancellation fees
Being that award flights often need to be booked a fair way in advance, it’s not uncommon for them to need to be changed.
These are some strategies for avoiding fees in case that happens:
1. Give your loyalty to an airline with low fees
This is certainly easier said than done, but still worth thinking about.
In the case of buying miles though, your decision could certainly be swayed by how costly it may be to change any award redemption. Any money saved from buying those miles could easily get swallowed up by a simple change.
Remember the fare conditions are based on who the miles are with, not who you fly with. If you’re buying American Airlines AAdvantage miles and flying Qantas, you’re still bound by AA’s rules and fees.
2. Change, don’t cancel
For some airlines, the changing of flights is free, while cancellation is not.
In the case of KrisFlyer, date changes are free as long as you’re travelling on a more expensive Advantage award with Singapore Airlines or SilkAir and aren’t wanting to change the destination. There is nothing in the terms and conditions that I can see that could stop you from continually postponing your travel until you decided to book the actual trip you wanted to go on.
3. Wait until the last minute to cancel
If the airline has a considerable schedule change, you may be due a full refund if you elect not to accept the change. This is obviously different between airlines and not something to rely on. However, it could work so long as you’re happy for your points to be tied up until the last minute.
In some very rare cases, flights may be disrupted for the foreseeable future by serious weather, such as the Eyjafjallajökull or Mount Rinjani ash clouds. Again, definitely not something to rely on.
And this only works if you don’t need the miles from the cancelled booking to make another, of course.
4. Book return flights as separate reservations
Depending on your itinerary, it may be worth booking your outbound and return segments separately. If you book in this fashion, you avoid the risk of inadvertently cancelling your return flight if you’re a no-show. This also means you can change your return booking after your journey commences.
The downside to doing this is that if you need to change both your outbound and return journeys, you’ll be slugged with fees twice.
5. Status matching
Status matching isn’t that common in Australia, mainly due to the small amount of competition amongst our airlines. It also wouldn’t help in the case of changing or cancelling travel on Virgin Australia or Qantas, being that fees aren’t waived for status members.
In the case of the US though, status matching is more common and could do you well.
Let’s say you have Gold status with Qantas, but you’re looking to cancel an Alaska Airlines flight. There’s no harm in calling or emailing Qantas Mileage Plan and asking them to match your AA status. Status matches often come with challenges, but even if you have no interest in keeping your Alaska Airlines status, you can still cancel your flight and save yourself the cancellation fee.
If this is a strategy you want to look further into, check out Status Matcher to see evidence of which airlines you might have some luck with.
6. Pay with the right credit card
Again, this is not so relevant in Australia. However, some US airlines will waive change and cancellation fees if an affiliated credit card was used to pay the taxes on the booking.
7. Ask and you may receive
You never know your luck, and there’s never any harm in asking for a fee waiver. I would imagine you’d have more success of a waiver in the case of a change (especially if you had a good reason), as opposed to a cancellation.
Award change fees vary greatly between airlines, and there’s certainly an argument for taking this into account when choosing which airline to give your loyalty to.
In some cases, it may not even be worth the trouble of cancelling the trip if you deem your points to be worth less than any cancellation fee. Don’t forget that a no-show can nullify the rest of your travel, though. So you should only consider skipping that flight if it’s the last or only one on your itinerary.
In my research, the only airline I could find that has no change or cancellation fees at all (apart from no-shows) is Southwest in the US.