Can You Cancel Flights For Free Within 24 Hours?

Can You Cancel Flights For Free Within 24 Hours?

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While in general the United States isn’t exactly leading the way when it comes to consumer protections for airline passengers, we do have one useful feature you don’t find in many other parts of the world — the ability to cancel flights within 24 hours of booking.

In this post I wanted to take a closer look at this law, as it can often cause some confusion. Not only is it important to understand the law, but many people don’t realize that some airlines have more generous policies than what the law calls for. So let’s take a look at that.

What the law says about canceling flights within 24 hours

Since 2013, the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) has had a 24-hour airline ticket reservation requirement. This is intended to give consumers some flexibility when booking travel, and also allows them to make changes in the event that they accidentally booked the wrong date, spelled a name wrong, etc. Per the law:

  • Airlines need to allow consumers to cancel tickets within 24 hours of booking without penalty, providing a full refund to the original form of payment; alternatively, airlines can allow a 24-hour ticket hold, with a guaranteed quoted fare
  • This applies to reservations made seven or more days prior to scheduled departure
  • This applies to both US and foreign airlines, as long as the itinerary is for travel to and/or from the United States
  • This courtesy has to apply regardless of how you book, whether it’s directly with an airline, or through an online travel agency
  • Airlines marketing to US consumers have to clearly disclose their customer service plans on their website, including their 24-hour cancelation policy

It’s worth understanding that the above is the absolute minimum accommodation that airlines have to offer. I think the policy is for the most part pretty self explanatory, though the one major “gotcha” is that the 24-hour policy only applies if booking at least seven days in advance. At least that’s all the DOT dictates.

You can cancel airline tickets within 24 hours

Comparing airline 24-hour cancelation policies

While the DOT dictates the minimum standard airlines have to adhere to, it’s worth noting that most US airlines actually have more generous policies than what’s published. While you’ll want to consult airline websites for all the terms, here’s a basic rundown of a few airlines with more generous policies:

  • American Airlines lets you cancel within 24 hours as long as you book at least two days before scheduled departure
  • Delta Air Lines lets you cancel within 24 hours, even if planning travel within a week of scheduled departure; furthermore, you’re given more than 24 hours, as you just have to cancel by midnight on the day after you book
  • Southwest Airlines lets you cancel within 24 hours, regardless of how long before departure you’re booking your ticket

Meanwhile other airlines comply with the exact law, and only offer the 24-hour refund policy if you’re planning travel seven or more days before departure. These airlines include Frontier Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Spirit Airlines, and United Airlines.

Some airlines have generous policies that are based on these regulations, but apply even when not traveling to or from the United States. For example, Air Canada Aeroplan lets you cancel award tickets within 24 hours for a full refund, even if your ticket doesn’t include travel to or from the United States.

Delta has the most generous 24-hour policy of the “big three”

My strategy with airline 24-hour cancelation policies

Fortunately booking airlines tickets isn’t quite as high stakes as it used to be. Since the start of the pandemic, we saw major airlines in the United States start to waive change fees (there are exceptions for basic economy tickets and ultra low cost carriers).

This is fantastic, because it means that if you’re a frequent flyer with an airline (and can easily use a voucher toward a future ticket), booking tickets is much lower risk than in the past. Therefore the 24-hour cancelation feature isn’t quite as crucial as it used to be, since it’s not like you’re generally on the hook for a $150-200 change fee.

One other point I wanted to call out is that many online travel agencies will let you cancel a ticket within 24 hours, even if it’s within seven days of departure. I find that online travel agencies are often frustratingly vague about their policies.

But just as an example, I’ve been in situations where I booked a United ticket a couple of days before departure and wasn’t sure if I could make the flight or not. In those situations Expedia provides a full refund within 24 hours of booking, while United doesn’t.

The issue is that if Expedia’s website isn’t working properly you may have to call to cancel, and that’s more of an adventure than you’d think. Expedia’s customer service is beyond awful, in my experience.

United has the lease generous 24-hour policy of the “big three”

Bottom line

the United States Department of Transportation requires airlines to give passengers a 24-hour period to change their mind on booking a flight, when booking at least seven days prior to departure. This is a handy feature that I know many consumers appreciate.

While the major restriction is that you have to book at least seven days in advance (per the law), it’s worth understanding that some airlines and online travel agencies have more generous policies than that.

Hopefully the above is a useful rundown of the policies of the major airlines. Fortunately this isn’t quite as big of a deal as it used to be, with many airlines having eliminated change fees on most tickets.

What has your experience been with airline 24-hour cancelation policies?

Conversations (18)
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  1. iamhere Guest

    You missed the best part of the cancelation policy - a change in price. I have often paid a lot less for a ticket because the price dropped and I redid the ticket for the same flights and same dates.

  2. AliW Guest

    British Airways follows this policy in the US too!

  3. veghs Guest

    Booked a Lufthansa ticket in the US. Five minutes later I realized one leg was on United so I canceled online immediately. The automatic cancelation email stated that only the taxes and fees would be refunded. I called LH immediately. They confirmed that I was eligible for a full refund of course. Yet the charge still went through and a day or two later the partial refund (taxes and fees only) were refunded. I called...

    Booked a Lufthansa ticket in the US. Five minutes later I realized one leg was on United so I canceled online immediately. The automatic cancelation email stated that only the taxes and fees would be refunded. I called LH immediately. They confirmed that I was eligible for a full refund of course. Yet the charge still went through and a day or two later the partial refund (taxes and fees only) were refunded. I called them again. They confirmed that it would be refunded. A week later it still hasn't. The flight is still more than 7 days out.

  4. Morgan Diamond

    Interesting law - I didn't know about this. As an Australian I don't think we have this.

  5. Humberto Guest

    Lol Aeroméxico would return your money WITHIN 12 MONTHS. No kidding! That's their policy!

  6. Bob Guest

    United is definitely more generous that’s what’s on here, I’ve never had any issues.

  7. Anthony Joseph Guest

    One clarification on 24 hour cancellation policy: It is until midnight the following day your local time. I have had to recently test this on purchasing tickets on the Amex Travel Service to take advantage of their pricing on International Carrier Business class.
    I had to cancel a Japan Airlines business class R/T PDX-SIN for $3200 because it was booked in D class and I found out that I would only get 70% mileage...

    One clarification on 24 hour cancellation policy: It is until midnight the following day your local time. I have had to recently test this on purchasing tickets on the Amex Travel Service to take advantage of their pricing on International Carrier Business class.
    I had to cancel a Japan Airlines business class R/T PDX-SIN for $3200 because it was booked in D class and I found out that I would only get 70% mileage credit to AS. So, I was able to cancel. Also, I was frustrated with getting answers from Singapore airlines when purchasing a Premium Economy and wanting to upgrade with KrisFlyer miles to Business and had to cancel directly with them 30 hours after booking based on the 24 hour cancellation policy (midnight the following day).

  8. Hobbs Guest

    Amex Travel allows you to cancel under 7 days in advance.

  9. Chicago Chris Guest

    +1 for United refunding less than 7 days in advance. I once booked same day travel and United was gracious enough to cancel and refund.

    Only issue I've ever had was booking international travel departing the US with some OTAs that undercut the airline price and then try to keep a chunk of the money for a "booking fee" if you cancel within 24 hours...unless you buy their insurance, of course.

  10. Michael Guest

    United consistently gives refunds within 7 days as well. It's just not stated policy so they reserve the right to not do so if they suspect you're abusing it. For normal travellers, I've never seen United deny a refund within 24 hours.

    Also the DOT rule explicitly does not apply to third party OTAs. It's right there on the DOT's website: "the 24 hour refund/reservation requirement for airlines does not apply to tickets booked through...

    United consistently gives refunds within 7 days as well. It's just not stated policy so they reserve the right to not do so if they suspect you're abusing it. For normal travellers, I've never seen United deny a refund within 24 hours.

    Also the DOT rule explicitly does not apply to third party OTAs. It's right there on the DOT's website: "the 24 hour refund/reservation requirement for airlines does not apply to tickets booked through online travel agencies, travel agents, or other third-party agents."

  11. Sel, D. Guest

    AA is longer than 24 hours. I believe it’s actually midnight the next day from what I can tell. After booking and going to cancel, there’s a “free cancellation” countdown timer and I’ve seen 33 hours, 26 hours, etc.

  12. Stvr Guest

    United is definitely more generous than what you’re saying.

    1. Cbchicago Guest

      You are correct with my experience and its great. It appears that OMAAT has not recently bought tickets on UAL.com.

    2. Chris Guest

      Yeah, United doesn't have any minimum requirement. If you book within 24 hours of the flight you want to take, you can cancel up to departure and receive a refund.

  13. Klaus Guest

    If I book a Lufthansa flight on Expedia (outside the US): would the free 24 hour cancellation still apply?

  14. Zach Guest

    Air Canada allows a 24-hour cancellation window due to Canadian law. Which is why it's applicable to any flight (not just US-bound ones).

    1. Ben Schlappig OMAAT

      @ Zach -- Presumably that wouldn't apply to flights not to or from Canada, though? In other words, if you book a Lufthansa ticket from Frankfurt to Munich with Aeroplan points, the ability to refund it within 24 hours is due to Aeroplan's policy, and not due to Canadian law, no?

    2. Zach Guest

      Canadian consumer protection laws allow any contract to be cancelled within 24 hours without having to provide any reason for cancellation. This is enforceable on all Canadian businesses. Your Aeroplan ticket being a contract of carriage with a Canadian business falls under this provision. (At least that’s how’s it’s been explained to me in the past!)

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Michael Guest

United consistently gives refunds within 7 days as well. It's just not stated policy so they reserve the right to not do so if they suspect you're abusing it. For normal travellers, I've never seen United deny a refund within 24 hours. Also the DOT rule explicitly does not apply to third party OTAs. It's right there on the DOT's website: "the 24 hour refund/reservation requirement for airlines does not apply to tickets booked through online travel agencies, travel agents, or other third-party agents."

2
veghs Guest

Booked a Lufthansa ticket in the US. Five minutes later I realized one leg was on United so I canceled online immediately. The automatic cancelation email stated that only the taxes and fees would be refunded. I called LH immediately. They confirmed that I was eligible for a full refund of course. Yet the charge still went through and a day or two later the partial refund (taxes and fees only) were refunded. I called them again. They confirmed that it would be refunded. A week later it still hasn't. The flight is still more than 7 days out.

1
Anthony Joseph Guest

One clarification on 24 hour cancellation policy: It is until midnight the following day your local time. I have had to recently test this on purchasing tickets on the Amex Travel Service to take advantage of their pricing on International Carrier Business class. I had to cancel a Japan Airlines business class R/T PDX-SIN for $3200 because it was booked in D class and I found out that I would only get 70% mileage credit to AS. So, I was able to cancel. Also, I was frustrated with getting answers from Singapore airlines when purchasing a Premium Economy and wanting to upgrade with KrisFlyer miles to Business and had to cancel directly with them 30 hours after booking based on the 24 hour cancellation policy (midnight the following day).

1
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