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.

Emirates A380 First Class lie-flat bed
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 travellers in Australia

I have decided to focus on the airlines that most Australia-based travellers would likely have their points with. They are 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 and Virgin Atlantic Flying Club are popular among readers, I have elected to include them also.

ChangeCancel before 24 hoursCancel within 24 hoursNo-showSource & additional info
Qantas Frequent Flyer
5,000 points6,000 pointsNo clear informationNo clear informationQantas 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 ClassAll points forfeited unless Business ClassVelocity Reward seat conditions

Late cancellation/no-show information derived from call centre conversation
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
US$125US$125No clear informationNo clear informationFees 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 informationNo clear informationChanging AAdvantage flight awards
Avianca LifeMiles
US$150$50/200 within/between regionsNo clear informationNo clear informationFlyerTalk 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 forfeitedAll Avios forfeitedDepends 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 MilesNo clear informationNo clear informationAsia Miles FAQs
Emirates Skywards
US$25$75Depends on fare conditions of ticket purchasedDepends on fare conditions of ticket purchasedFigures are for Saver award tickets—more generous provisions for flexible tickets

Emirates FAQs
Etihad Guest
100 AED for date changeAU$115 contact center service fee
+ 10% of total miles
All miles forfeitedAll miles forfeited, taxes and carrier charges refundableEtihad 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 departureUS$75/125 if more/less than 60 days before departure$125 for United flights

All miles forfeited for partner flights
$125Fees are reduced or waived for those with elite status

United Award service fees

Virgin Atlantic Flying Club
£30 from UK or US$50 from the US/any other region£30 from UK or US$50 from the US/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

*I have read that if the taxes on your award ticket are less than US$50, then you will just forfeit those taxes when you cancel (rather than having to pay the fee)

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

Key takeways

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.

Delta-planes-on-LAX-tarmac

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.

SIngapore Airlines A380 at Singapore | Point Hacks
If you book an Advantage award with your KrisFlyer miles, you can change the date of your Singapore Airlines flight for free

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.

Qantas Gold Card Welcome Letter

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.

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 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.

A list of change and cancellation fees for frequent flyer award bookings [2019] was last modified: July 16th, 2019 by Matt Moffitt