How to Change (Or Cancel) Your Flight Right Now

Even if you can't get a full refund, you have options.

airport
Hopefully you cancel before you get to this point | DimaBerlin/Shutterstock
Hopefully you cancel before you get to this point | DimaBerlin/Shutterstock

We were all so confident in the spring, weren’t we? All starry-eyed, dreaming about traveling again in the summer and fall. The places we’d go! The things we’d do! The food we’d eat!

But then the highly contagious Delta variant reared its ugly head, forcing us to rethink our plans. While traveling abroad isn’t impossible right now, the logistics of navigating ever-changing rules and regulations have made it especially daunting. But you still have that plane ticket you booked, and you really don’t want to eat the cost. So what are your options? Here’s everything you need to know about canceling that pandemic flight.

You may be able to get a refund

Getting a full refund for a flight is rare in the airline world; they really, really don’t want to give you one. So unless you bought a fully-refundable ticket—which you probably didn’t, because they’re usually extra expensive—or you purchased the flight with a credit card that offers trip cancellation insurance, it’s time to prepare for the inevitable. That said, you have some options.

Know the 24-hour rule

The 24-hour rule is a federal regulation that allows you to book a flight and then cancel for a full refund within 24 hours. There are two important caveats: the flight must be booked directly from the airline, and it must be scheduled at least seven days out. This rule applies to international carriers as well, if they’re flying within the US.

“If you wanna be really pedantic about it, the regulations say that airlines are obligated to either offer a 24-hour window for a refund, or offer a 24-hour space that people can hold a flight with price and purchase, without actually purchasing it,” says Scott Keyes of Scott’s Cheap Flights. “All the US airlines opt for the refund window, for simplicity’s sake.”

And though the window disappears online after 24 hours, Keyes says that if you’re at 25, or even 27 hours, it’s worth calling the airline directly to see if they’ll do you a solid. “They call it a ‘one-time exception’ for those just beyond [the time limit],” Keyes says. “It’s not a guarantee, but it’s worth asking. And that’s something where an actual human agent will have to make an exception for you.”

Some third-party booking sites—including Hotwire, Priceline, and Expedia—have their own 24-hour refund rule (this writer has canceled many a flight on Hotwire with no repercussions). It's worth noting these refunds are not covered by federal law; as with all things travel, do your due diligence before you click buy.

And obviously the 24-hour rule is great for many reasons, like finding and holding onto the cheapest fares, and, perhaps most importantly, protecting you from yourself. “The most obvious way it can help is if you had one too many at the bar and decide it’s a good idea to book that flight to Hawaii,” says Keyes. “And things look different in the sober light of morning.”

OK, so you didn’t buy a fully-refundable ticket, and it’s been more than 24 hours. What now?

Delay, delay, delay. Move your trip to a later date. In this, the year(s) of our pandemic, airlines have made it a little easier on us (and themselves) to reschedule flights, with all major airlines implementing flexible change policies. You can change your flight date to as far into the future as you like, without a penalty—you just have to pay the difference if the new flight is more expensive.

Fair warning: Many airlines DON'T extend their flexible change policy to Basic Economy. But United and Delta have got your back for any economy ticket booked between July 28, 2021 through December 2021, for travel scheduled before December 2022. It’s not the same as getting your money back, but it’s something.

OK but you just really need to cancel your flight

If you no longer have a desire to travel to that particular destination like, ever, your best bet is to cross your fingers and pray for rain. There’s always a chance the airline cancels the original flight—in which case, under federal law, you’re entitled to a full cash refund. The same refund applies if there is a significant change made to your flight schedule (such as a delay of over two hours, or a route change).

“What is frustrating [with this rule] is that it does not apply to things that many people might assume they ought to be able to get a refund for,” says Keyes. “Let’s say you’ve booked a flight to Switzerland, and now the CDC says with their strongest advisory, do not travel to Switzerland. If the plane that you have a ticket on still flies, then you’re not entitled to a refund.”

What about travel credit?

If all else fails, negotiate travel credit for your cancellation. You might not be able to buy groceries with it, but you can put the money towards a future flight you actually want to take. Some airlines have also begun to be lenient with the use of credits and vouchers, essentially saying all travel credits issued through the pandemic will remain valid through the end of 2022.

In general, a good rule of thumb is to call the airline and get a human person with feelings on the phone. “It never hurts to ask,” says Keyes. “Airline agents have a lot of discretion to be able to grant exceptions to the rule. If your case is deserving they can oftentimes make an exception for you.”

OK, you’re ready to negotiate, but the wait on the phone is 2+ hours. What now?

Now, you get sneaky. Call the international lines, advises Keyes. “Delta, United, American, they all have their main US ticket line, but they also have offices in Canada, in the UK, and Mexico, and Singapore, and Australia, and any one of those places have call center agents where virtually nobody is calling because everybody’s calling the US ticket line,” he says. “Check your cell phone plan, international rates and all that, but even if you call Canada, for most places it’s like 2 cents a minute or so. Worst case you’re out 40 cents, in order to save yourself a couple of hours.”

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer.