American, Delta and United airlines recently announced that they are permanently eliminating change fees, the hefty charges previously imposed when travelers switched from one flight to another. Mid-size airlines Alaska and Hawaiian followed suit—joining Southwest, which has never charged change fees. 

 However, pay attention to the fine print—many airlines have not permanently dropped change fees, and the new policies for those that have don’t eliminate them for all tickets and flights. Also, there are subtle but important differences among the airlines’ policies…

Change fees still will apply on most international flights. Change fees for international flights have been eliminated for 2020 because of the pandemic, but they will return in 2021 on most ­international flights. Exceptions: American won’t impose change fees on flights to and from Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean. Southwest, Alaska and Hawaiian won’t impose them on any international flights—although none of these airlines has extensive overseas routes, Southwest does fly to several countries in Central America and the Caribbean…Hawaiian flies to a number of countries in Asia and the South Pacific, including Australia and New Zealand…and Alaska flies to Canada, Mexico and Costa Rica. No major airline will charge change fees on flights to and from Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. 

Change fees still will apply with basic economy tickets. Sometimes called “saver” tickets, these least expensive bookings can be changed without paying a fee on many airlines in 2020, but change fees will return next year. 

Don’t expect cash back if you change to a lower-cost flight. American and Southwest will instead issue a credit for the price difference…while United and Hawaiian will pocket the difference. Delta and Alaska had not clarified this as of mid-September. Any airline will require you to pay the difference if you change to a higher-priced flight. 

Cancelling isn’t changing. The new rules don’t provide a refund if you cancel entirely unless you buy refundable tickets, which can be pricey. Travel insurance can cover cancellations as well, subject to the terms of the policy. 

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