WOW: United Airlines Eliminates Change Fees Permanently

Filed Under: United

If there’s one good thing to come from the airline industry as a result of coronavirus, this might just be it.

United Airlines eliminates change fees

It has today been announced that United Airlines will be permanently eliminating change fees for tickets, effective immediately. United’s standard change fee was previously $200 per ticket, so the savings here are very substantial. There are a few restrictions, though:

  • This is valid for standard economy, premium economy, business class, and first class tickets (Basic Economy tickets are excluded)
  • This is only valid for tickets for travel within the United States, including Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands
  • There will be no limit to how often customers can change tickets
  • Note that just because change fees are waived doesn’t mean you can get a refund; unless you book a refundable ticket, this simply means that you can apply the value of your ticket towards another reservation
  • As before, tickets have to be used for travel within a year of the original date the ticket was issued, and that can’t be extended
  • For previously booked tickets, these waived fees only apply for tickets that had travel on March 3 or later; in other words, tickets canceled prior to that can’t be rebooked without a fee

United Airlines is eliminating change fees on domestic tickets

As United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby describes this move:

“Change is inevitable these days – but it’s how we respond to it that matters most. When we hear from customers about where we can improve, getting rid of this fee is often the top request. Following previous tough times, airlines made difficult decisions to survive, sometimes at the expense of customer service. United Airlines won’t be following that same playbook as we come out of this crisis. Instead, we’re taking a completely different approach – and looking at new ways to serve our customers better.”

I am in mild disbelief that this quote is attributed to Scott Kirby, because this is the least Scott Kirby-sounding paragraph I’ve ever read.

The major catch with no change fees

You might be saying “there’s no way United Airlines is eliminating change fees without a catch.” And you’d be correct, there is a catch, but it’s not a huge one.

The biggest catch is that if you rebook your flight and your new flight costs less, you won’t get a refund. In other words, if you were originally booked on a $1,000 first class ticket and rebook on a $200 economy ticket, you wouldn’t get any money back, and wouldn’t get a voucher for the residual amount.

This is an important thing to be aware of, but it just means that people will have to be strategic when booking and rebooking. For example, this is all the more reason to book tickets as one-ways rather than roundtrips, so that your ticket values are smaller in the event that you need to rebook.

On balance I’d still say that this is a very positive change.

Be aware that you won’t get a refund if you rebook to a cheaper itinerary

What about MileagePlus award tickets?

There’s even good news when it comes to change fees for those booking MileagePlus award tickets:

  • Those booked on MileagePlus award tickets are allowed to change itineraries just like on revenue tickets, though still only for domestic travel; award ticket change fees aren’t changing for international travel
  • Not only that, but those booked on MileagePlus award tickets can cancel their reservation and redeposit miles as long as they do so at least 30 days before departure; this applies to both domestic and international tickets

This is a very nice competitive advantage for MileagePlus. Change and redeposit fees should be a major consideration when deciding which program to book award tickets through, and this makes United an industry leader in that regard.

Even select MileagePlus award tickets are seeing fees eliminated

What about international tickets?

In many ways this new policy seems a bit backwards. The biggest restrictions are on international travel rather than domestic travel, and those fees aren’t being waived permanently.

However, not all is lost. Through December 31, 2020, United is continuing to temporarily waive change fees on both international travel and Basic Economy tickets. I’d expect that to be extended if things don’t improve.

In many ways that makes me believe that maybe United actually is serious about the domestic policy change being permanent.

Change policies aren’t changing for international tickets

United Airlines eliminates standby fees

Not only is United eliminated change fees, but the airline is also eliminating standby fees. As of January 1, 2021, United customers can fly standby for free on a flight departing the day of their travel:

  • This applies regardless of the type of ticket or class of service
  • All MileagePlus Premier members will be able to make a confirmed same day change, pending availability in the same fare class
  • United Airlines previously charged a $75 standby fee

Even standby fees are being eliminated

Why is United Airlines making these changes?

Coronavirus has radically transformed the airline industry, and has forced airlines to adapt. Previously airlines made a lot of money off change fees, though that all changed once the pandemic started.

There’s so much uncertainty right now, which is a major reason that future ticket bookings are down. The reality is that if airlines want to get people back onto planes, they need to give them a lot of flexibility.

Arguably ticket change fees have been among the “junkiest” of all airline fees, so it’s great to finally see some innovation here from an airline other than Southwest.

I do wonder just how long this change will last. United calls this change “permanent,” though I wouldn’t assume that to mean that this will stay that way forever. Rather I think airlines realize that coronavirus isn’t going anywhere and it’ll be at least a few years before there’s a recovery, so there should be a consistent policy like this.

Bottom line

United Airlines is eliminating change and standby fees for domestic itineraries, and that’s phenomenal news. This is something that Southwest Airlines has been doing for years, while virtually all other airlines have been using ticket change fees as a huge profit center.

It’s nice (and surprising) to see United positively innovating for once when it comes to fees, and I imagine we’ll see American and Delta match shortly. I’d guess that Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines will make similar moves.

What do you make of United eliminating change and standby fees?

Comments
  1. I wonder if this means I will no longer pay a change fee to use the credit from a flight I cancelled due to a long delay back in January? The flight only cost $200 so it was never worth it for me to pay another $200 to rebook.

  2. You were right to point out the caveats, but overall this is still a big positive change for customers. But such is my level of cynicism that I can scarcely believe United would actually do something substantially beneficial for customers. I’ll have to wait a day or two for the realization to sink in.

  3. @ David — Non-refundable tickets can’t be refunded, so for all practical purposes change and cancelation fees are the same. If you can’t take your flight then you can apply your credit towards a future ticket within a year of the original date of issue. There’s no other cancelation option.

  4. While I agree that it’s really bold for them to state this is a permanent change, on their IG they responded to a customer saying it was – direct quote – “F-o-r-e-v-e-r. Forever.” Interested to see how long forever is!

  5. @ Katie — Here’s what United says about existing bookings:
    “If you booked a flight on or after March 3, 2020, there won’t be any change fees due to travel waivers already in place.

    If you booked a flight before March 3, 2020, it depends on your travel dates. If you booked to travel between March 3, 2020, and December 31, 2020, there also won’t be any change fees due to travel waivers already in place.”

    So unfortunately it sounds like you wouldn’t benefit from that waived change fee.

  6. @ Ben,– This will be permanent until it isn’t…but a VERY welcome change, indeed. I think we will see DL, AA and B6 match this almost immediately.

  7. @ Michelle — Hah, take a screenshot of it so we can hold them accountable when it changes at some point in the future. 😉

  8. Ben – There’s another catch that definitely reduces the usefulness of same day changes. Under the existing policy, you could change to a flight leaving within 24 hours of the time you make your request for the change (so if you waited long enough, you could travel the following day). Under the new policy, according to the video you can only make a change to a flight on the same travel date.

    I took advantage of this pretty frequently, and it’s a change I’m not going to like. I’m hoping that they might consider leaving the existing policy in place for 1K’s as a way to continue to provide an elite benefit.

  9. @Greg the FAQ says SDC is still 24 hour window

    “The new flight will need to have the same origin and destination and be within 24 hours of the originally scheduled flight.”

    But Lucky did UA explicitly tell you there would be no residual value if you use only part of a flight credit? The FAQ don’t state that. Or did you lift it from Zach Honig’s interpretation that was not cited a source?

  10. @Greg – Thanks, I didn’t read the FAQ. It’s interesting (although I guess not surprising) that the video is inconsistent.

  11. You wrote:
    “Not only that, but those booked on domestic MileagePlus award tickets can cancel their reservation and redeposit miles as long as they do so at least 30 days before departure.”

    The FAQ at https://www.united.com/ual/en/us/fly/travel/change-fee.html suggest that this applies to international tickets too.

    “Q: Will you still charge a redeposit fee for award travel?
    A: Yes, but only for travel within 30 days. This applies for both domestic and international travel.”

  12. The Standby rule only helps if there are multiple flights from your origin to your destination. Not sure that they are scheduling multiple frequencies on most international routes. So it won’t help much.
    But great step to eliminate change fees.. It will get people to book as they don’t have to worry about being able to fly.
    I am sure other carriers will follow soon

  13. This makes the United Explorer card much more valuable going forward. Expanded Saver availability with the ability to refund miles up to 30 days out provides some nice potential for speculative bookings.

  14. @ Zuck @ Brian — Whoops, good catch, thanks. Post updated to reflect that. Seems the waived change fees are still only for domestic MileagePlus awards, though?

  15. I have to wonder if demand recovers will this change remain (I assume that both AA and DL will need to follow). Change fees are a huge driver of profitability because unlike airfares there’s next to no cost.

    Although this change isn’t applicable to Basic Economy fares I have to wonder if ULCCs will feel the pressure to reduce or eliminate some of their fees.

  16. This is going to be 4-5 years of disruption and may lead to permanent change to a system where at-risk individuals spend less time among others (including limiting exposure to travel). This is far from the strangest thing we’ll see before we ever settle on a new normal.

  17. “Permanently” is a strong word for any benefits in this industry. My money is that it will be gone in 5 years.

  18. This is a good move in this moment, and I’m willing to bet one of DL, AA, B6 go a step further and allow residual credits to be used on multiple lower-priced tickets within one year.

    BUT…they will make the revenue up somewhere else as pricing power returns.

    Not. Even. a Question.

  19. 50,000 for domestic one way coach and 200,000 miles for asia one way award cost most of the time is still a major rip off. so called saver awards almost NEVER exist. so this doesnt help on awards.

  20. I’m a little confused by international award redeposits.

    It sounds like to me from what I’ve read, you can redeposit the miles (up to 30 days) for free, but you cannot change your ticket without paying a change fee (again, for international award travel).

    Do I have that correct?

  21. @Jim: There are some deals to be had. For example 66k for business on Turkish Airline’s new 789 product from MCO – ATL- IST. That’s a $3000 – $4000 seat from what I can see. TONS of saver availability. Add in using the excursionist perk, and we’re also flying from Istanbul to Riga in TK business for free. All in MCO (economy) – ATL (business) – IST (business) – RIX – – – EWR (economy) – MCO for 73,500 miles. That’s not bad at all in my book.

  22. United fare rules now state, “RESIDUAL VALUE WILL BE IGNORED/FORFEITED ON NON-REFUNDABLE FARE TICKETS”

    AA/DL and B6 have not matched. Will be interesting to see how Southwest reacts, as they have always promoted their lack of change fees as a major competitive advantage.

    Also, worth noting, most infrequent fliers will believe they can change “for free” and don’t understand that fare differences apply. I foresee many heated arguments where people assumed they could make last minute changes and pay nothing.

  23. Will the new award fee structure apply to previously purchased international award tickets? This isn’t clarified specifically clarified in their FAQs.

    I made some speculative 2021 bookings that I’d gladly refund and rebook…

  24. I mentioned this on previous posts. We got to a time where customers are king so after many years of airlines and hotels being in control and many times taking advantage of customers now it is time for customers to be in control. Airlines and hotels will do anything to fight for customers.

  25. This was definitely the surprise announcement of the day. But yeah, call me skeptical, so watch that Scott Kirby quote not age well in a few years when change fees are reinstituted.

  26. These changes are not from a customer service perspective – they merely give United more power in consolidating their flights (announced earlier this month).

    Your flight is cancelled? No problem, you can change your ticket without any charge, but no compensation is due for your delayed arrival.

  27. @Michael CDC just reclassified 94% of all C19 deaths and that leaves only 6% as solely due to C19. Also, NYT reported Friday that 90% of all positive C19 test results should be considered negative due to relatively insignificant viral amounts detected…based on studies from researchers and public health officials. So….time will tell just how much we over-reacted and committed mass economic suicide due to wide-spread panic. Time will tell but it’s looking more like we quarantined the hospital visitor instead of the patient and air travel is the prime example of our massive misstep. C19 may turn out in time to not be as bad as originally predicted. Read Alex Berenson’s booklets on Kindle about all this…he is a former longtime NYT reporter.

  28. There is regulation to this effect likely to come through in the next few months. UA is just trying to get some goodie points by making it seem like a voluntary, customer-centric change on their part.

  29. For international award travel, the new policy is confusing. If you can cancel and redeposit miles without fees at least 30 days before travel, then United can’t charge any change fee either outside the 30-day window because you can always cancel and rebook.

  30. @Timo – The CDC has become sufficiently politicized that people like me who prior to COVID-19 looked to them for guidance no longer know if changes are a result of a president trying to avoid leaving the office. Ultimately, a lot of people died who didn’t have to and other countries view the U.S. as having handled this poorly if not the worst of developed nations. You don’t need to count the deaths to know these two things.

  31. Ben, I’m curious if this weakens the appeal of aiming to qualify for 1k status? This is one of the most frequent benefits I used as a 1k but now that you don’t even need status for it, I’m wondering why then should I be a 1k? I’m also wondering if it’ll make it harder to secure flight changes since in theory more people have access to this option (for free). Note: I think this change is a net-positive

  32. @ Daryl — To be clear, non-elite members can only do fee standbys. They can’t do free same day confirmed changes, which is what you have access to as a Premier 1K. So I don’t think it should diminish too much value for elite members.

  33. @Timo — It’s amazing how many people misinterpret the CDC release you cited to support their view that Covid is a big nothing burger. In fact, “94%” statistic you cited is nothing new, unless you’ve just emerged from living in a cabin in the woods for the past 6 months. No one has been trying to hide the fact that Covid overwhelmingly kills people with pre-existing conditions/comorbidities, rather than healthy people.

    But how many people are 100% healthy/have no pre-existing conditions that put them at risk for Covid? Likely no more than 55% (citation: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5876976/). So if you don’t have a pre-existing condition, count yourself lucky, because at least 45% of Americans do. I count myself among the lucky who don’t, but I know plenty of people who do.

    So if your argument is that that 45% should just stay home indefinitely and that’s the best we can do, I don’t agree with you, but I think it’s a perfectly valid opinion to have. But people who make that claim should least understand the size of the demographic that is at risk here, and base their recommendations on that reality.

  34. Will you still need to pay a fare difference if the new ticket costs more? I imagine UA ran the numbers and saw that by eliminating this fee, they can encourage rebooking for higher priced tickets closer to departure essentially making up much of the lost revenue from change fees.

  35. Ben, with all I’ve read about this the past two days, it still seems unclear when the award cancellation/redeposit policy takes effect: now or not until January 1? The United website still has the old redeposit fees listed. Any intelligence/clarification on this?

  36. What if the changed flight is 12 months away? The flight schedules aren’t out yet. Do you change to a “fake” flight and then when schedule is out, change to the “real” flight ?

  37. @ charlie 7927 — Unfortunately you have to rebook for travel within 12 months of the date the ticket was originally issued. There’s no way to extend it beyond that.

  38. Thank you Ben. I am within 12 months of the date the ticket was issued. In my case I’d need to change it once (fake flight) and then change a 2nd time for my “real” flight. Is this doable?

  39. @ charlie 7927 — It’s not, unfortunately. They would look at the date that the original ticket was issued, and that’s what determines when the ticket expires. When you rebook it doesn’t reset the original date of issue.

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