You’ve just spent the last couple of years of your life chasing points promotions and working out which card to buy what with, and have 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, and you have to change or even cancel your trip. What happens then? Well, you’ll be up for 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 nix. In some cases though, you could be looking at fees upwards of $150 USD.

Sometimes you just have to change your plans to fly in Emirates First Class

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 Australians

I have decided to focus on the airlines that most Australian consumers would likely have their points with, being Qantas, Velocity, Asia Miles, KrisFlyer and Etihad Guest.

Also considering that buying miles from Alaska MileagePlan, American Airlines AAdvantage, Avianca LifeMiles, British Airways Executive Club, United MileagePlus, Virgin America Elevate and Virgin Atlantic Flying Club are popular among readers, I have elected to include them also.

ChangeCancel before 24 hoursCancel within 24 hoursNo-showNotes/source/links
Qantas Frequent Flyer
5000 points6000 pointsNo clear informationNo clear informationQF Fee Schedule

Cancelling or changing an Reward flight booking
Virgin Australia Velocity
Domestic: 4500 points or $35

7500 points or $60
Domestic: 4500 points or $35

7500 points or $60
All points forfeited unless Flex or Business ClassAll points forfeited unless Business ClassVelocity Reward seat conditions

Late cancellation / no-show information derived from call centre conversation.
Alaska Air Mileage Plan Miles
$125 USD for all changes (free for Gold Member or refundable First Class passenger)

Currently, there are no fee when change is done 60 days prior to the flight but this will be removed from 5 June 2018 onwards
$125 USD (free for Gold Member or First Class passengers with refundable tickets)No clear informationNo clear informationAlaska Air Fees
American Airlines Aadvantage Miles
$150 USD for origin/destination or airline change (waived for Executive Platinum members using miles)

$75 USD for date changes 'within 21 days of the original booking date' (waived for Executive Platinum, Platinum and Gold members using miles from their account)
$150 USD per account for the first award ticket + $25 USD per additional ticketNo clear informationNo clear informationChanging flight awards on AA
Avianca LifeMiles
$150 USD$50-$200 USDNo clear informationNo clear informationFlyertalk Forum
British Airways Executive Club
$63 AUD + $25 AUD service fee$63 + $25 AUD service feeAll Avios forfeitedAll Avios forfeitedChange/cancellation fee waived if for Gold Priority booking

Service fee waived if Gold Member

BA Reward flight booking and service fees

Executive Club terms and conditions
Cathay Pacific Asia Miles
$25 USD or 1000 miles
$120 USD or 12,000 Asia Miles
No clear informationNo clear informationAbout Asia Miles
Emirates Skywards
Change of date: free for Flex Plus or Flex Reward

Saver reward: $25 USD

Destination change: $25 USD with conditions.
Unused Flex Plus reward: Free

First Class Flex: $50 USD

Saver reward: $75 USD
Depends on fare conditions of ticket purchasedDepends on fare conditions of ticket purchasedOther changes, such as cabin class changes all come in at around $25 USD

Emirates Help Centre
Etihad Guest Miles
First change free, then AED 100 (approx $30 USD) per change per ticket
$115 AUD contact center service fee
+ 10% of total miles
+ taxes and carrier charges
All Guest Miles forfeitedAll Guest Miles forfeitedEtihad Cancellation Policy
Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
$25 USD on Saver and $0 on Advantage for date change if travelling on Singapore Air or SilkAir

$25 for change of route, cabin class or award type for tickets issued for flights on Singapore Airlines and SilkAir

$50 USD for change of flight, date, route or carrier for tickets issued for flights on partner airlines
$75 on Saver
$50 on Advantage
$75 on Saver
$50 on Advantage
$100 Economy
$200 Premium Economy
$300 Business and First Class
$25 USD or 2,500 KrisFlyer miles offline/phone service fee (waived if can't perform action online)

KrisFlyer Service Fees

Fees increased on 1st May 2018, Read here.
United Airlines MileagePlus
General: $75 USD if more than 60 days before departure, $125 USD if less

Premier Silver: $50 USD if more than 60 days before departure, $100 USD if less

Premier Gold: $25 USD if more than 60 days before departure, $75 USD if less

Premier Platinum: free if more than 60 days before departure, $50 USD if less

1K, United Global Services: free
General: $75 USD if more than 60 days before departure, $125 USD if less

Premier Silver: $50 USD if more than 60 days before departure, $100 USD if less

Premier Gold: $25 USD if more than 60 days before departure, $75 USD if less

Premier Platinum: free if more than 60 days before departure, $50 USD if less

1K, United Global Services: free
No clear informationNo clear informationUnited Award service fees

Virgin Atlantic Flying Club Miles
£30 from UK and $50 USD from the US or any other region£30 from UK and $50 USD from the US or any other regionAll miles forfeited, £30 charge for refund on taxes
All miles forfeited, £30 charge for refund on taxes
Virgin Atlantic Spending Miles

Key takeaways

In short, the change and cancellation fees from Velocity and Asia Miles are all quite reasonable. While Krisflyer went from reasonable to a bit expensive with the latest increase.

Qantas elects to charge you in points, which is good for those with high points balances but annoying for those with just enough points to make their bookings in the first place. Having the option to pay cash instead would be very helpful, but isn’t there.

Some other notes on the comparison above:

  • Many airlines have a slew of conditions depending on 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 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 (eg hotel, 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,’ which in my mind suggests 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.

Virgin America allows changes up to 90 minutes before departure, whereas Delta (not covered in the table) only allow changes if they’re made 72 hours before departure.

You won’t get expired points back

In all cases, expired points/miles are not refunded under any circumstances. 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, i.e. you’ve 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 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 miles and flying Qantas, you’re still bound by American’s rules and fees.

2. Change, don’t cancel

For some airlines, changing of flights is free, while cancellation is not

In the case of Singapore Airlines, date changes are free as long as you’re travelling on Singapore Air or SilkAir and aren’t wanting to change destination. There was nothing in the terms and conditions that I could see that could stop you from continually postponing your travel until you decided to book the actual trip you wanted to go on.

Etihad let you change your itinerary for free once, so there may be an advantage in pushing the flight back for as long as possible before committing to cancellation.

In both of those examples, your points and fees are obviously still tied up with that booking until you actually redeem the flights, or go through with cancellation.

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, but it could work so long as you’re happy for your points to by 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 Mt 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, and 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 in the 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 American Airlines, but you’re looking to cancel a Virgin America flight. There’s no harm in calling or emailing Virgin America and asking them to match your AA status, giving you Elevate Gold. Status matches often come with challenges, but even if you have no interest in keeping your Virgin America Gold status, you can still cancel your flight and save yourself the $100 USD 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, not so relevant in Australia, but some US airlines will waive change/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, as opposed to a cancellation.

Summing up

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 only consider that if it’s the last or only flight 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.

A comprehensive list of change and cancellation fees for award bookings was last modified: May 16th, 2018 by Sam Hemphill