How fair are ticket change fees?

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By Christopher Elliott

From time to time, every consumer advocate tilts at a few windmills, and when Sheryl North contacted me about her US Airways flight, it was my turn.

North was scheduled to fly from Los Angeles to Kona, Hawaii, late last year. She was using a voucher to pay for the flight.

“Something arose unexpectedly and I was forced to cancel,” she told me. “I am now trying to use the voucher to rebook the same itinerary.”

US Airways doesn’t just want to charge her $150 to change the itinerary, which surprised her. “I didn’t realize the change fee would apply to use of a voucher,” she says.

Unsettling airline math

Here’s the thing: Her new ticket will cost $100 less than her old ticket. But instead of apply that fare differential as a credit to her new itinerary, US Airways is insisting the pay the $150 change fee, despite the fare difference.

“They are just keeping the extra money,” she says. “I feel that this is not right.”

Call me a “kettle” if you want, but changing a US Airways ticket isn’t something I do every day. I was a little surprised by the funny math, and thought I would check with the airline. I know the carrier wouldn’t hesitate to ask for a fare difference if the price had gone up — so is it possible that someone didn’t understand the terms of North’s voucher and asked her to pay $150 when she shouldn’t have?

So I asked. Here’s what a US Airways representative told me:

Global Rescue is the world’s leading provider of medical, security, evacuation and travel risk management services. Founded in 2004, Global Rescue has exclusive relationships with the Johns Hopkins Emergency Medicine Division of Special Operations and Elite Medical Group. Global Rescue provides best-in-class services that identify, monitor and respond to client medical and security crises. Learn more about Global Rescue.

We provide a credit for future travel with a non-refundable ticket, but do not refund the difference if the new fare is lower. Change fee still applies.

That is the risk folks take when purchasing a non-refundable fare in order to obtain the lowest rate. Refundable fares avoid this issue.

Just out of curiousity, I asked how much more a refundable ticket would have cost than the type of ticket North had booked with her voucher.

Depends on when she purchases. It will be a fair amount more than the non-refundable. But the money isn’t at risk.

Navigating airline ticket change policies

I should have known better than to ask. Of course, none of this is new to me and nor should it be new to you if you read this site. But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.

I find the “buy a refundable” fare response to be highly frustrating. Truth is, most of those tickets are double, triple, even quadruple the advance-purchase fare. The only folks who buy them are business travelers on a limitless expense account, not the Sheryl North’s of the world. (Related: My flight was canceled. Can I get a refund on the change fees?)

I can’t change the rules, but you can. By flying on an airline with reasonable ticket-change policies, you send a message to the entire industry that funny math is frowned upon by customers. Now that’s the kind of loyalty that matters. (Here’s what you need to know about travel and money.)

In the meantime, is it too much to ask for just a little consistency when it comes to ticket changes?

How fair are ticket change fees?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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