How to Change a United Ticket

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I recently had to abandon a ticket I had purchased on United as I ended up having a date conflict that made the trip impossible.  If you book enough trips, this is bound to happen.  If I had booked on United miles my United Platinum status would have saved me from cancellation penalties, but even status can’t save you from the change fees associated with basic revenue tickets.  United actually has a bit of a “unique” process for making changes to your purchased tickets, so I thought I would offer up my experience in case you encounter this in the future.

How to Potentially Avoid Change Fees

In general, unless you die, have jury duty, a real medical emergency, or you purchase a specific (expensive) fare class that permits changes, refunds, etc. you are going to be hit with a hefty change fee in the event you want to make a change to your ticket.  Though the policy is murky, United seems to often allow refunds minus a $50 processing fee in cases of death, doctor saying you can’t travel, etc…  Some other caveats to traditional change fees would be if the airline makes a schedule change to your reservation or there is an event (like a major storm or similar) that prompts a waiver to be in place for all travel to/from your airport for specific dates.  A schedule change you will be able to see in advance, a waiver you typically won’t know about more than a day or so before your travel.  If a large enough schedule change happens you can call the airline and tell them it no longer works for your travel plans and try to get your money back.  If it is a 3 minute change that may not work.  If it is an hour change, it might.  I have had luck with this in the past, but I know of no firm rule on how large the schedule change needs to be.

How Change Fees Work

Barring any small miracle that permits you to change or refund your normally non-refundable ticket, your only real option to salvage value from a United ticket is to pay the change fee and book a new ticket.  For example, I had a ticket that cost me $390 that I was no longer going to be able to use since I now needed to be somewhere else on my originally booked dates of travel.  My options were to do nothing and lose all the value of the ticket, or pay the change fee and apply the value of that ticket toward another ticket.  Note that this has to happen before your flight departs or the ticket has no value.  Also note that the ticket must be flown within one year from the original booking, so you can’t change it to a flight beyond one year from the original purchase date.

My itinerary had already undergone a schedule change a few months out (that I used to my advantage to get a better routing), so I didn’t find it likely that it would happen again at just a few weeks before departure.  A weather issue was always possible, so I waited until 24 hours before departure to do anything to my ticket.  No weather waiver was in place, so I made the call to change my ticket.  Instead of a round trip to Hawaii, I was now going to be applying the value of the ticket toward a trip to Chicago that I needed to book.  Exciting, right?

With United, you have to pay the change fee ($200 for most domestic/Canada/Caribbean tickets tickets booked 4/18 or later; $150 for most similar tickets booked before then) with new money in order to apply the value of the United ticket toward another.  In other words, they won’t subtract the change fee from the value of the ticket, you have to fork over your credit card and give them more money in order to use the money you have tied up in your current ticket.

Process of Making a Change

I needed to book a pretty expensive ticket to Chicago that cost about $500 (I checked award availability first and it was non-existent).  Since my Hawaii ticket had been booked when change fees were “just” $150, the process went like this:

  • New flights cost $500
  • Value of current ticket $390
  • That is a difference of about $110 I needed to pay
  • Plus the $150 change fee required
  • Total cost for the new ticket was about $260 instead of the $500 it would have cost without changing my original ticket

Normally I could make this change online, but that option didn’t work for my ticket, so I had to pick up the phone and call United.  It stinks I had to make a change, but in the end I did get some value out of the ticket I wasn’t going to be able to use.  My options were either spend $150 change fee or lose all $390 of the original ticket.  My Chicago reservation retains the confirmation code as the original Hawaii reservation.  As a side note, I was told that the confirmed regional upgrades I had on my ticket to Hawaii would be immediately and automatically be redeposited, and that hasn’t happened yet.  Looks like that will require another call back into United.

United Flight Change Mommy Points

Keep in mind this experience does not take into account things like same day changes (made within 24 hours of departure) to different flights to the same destination since that is a whole different process.  Hopefully it just gives you a glimpse into the process in case you need it in the future.  Change fees can be super painful – especially if you are a traveling family with multiple tickets booked that you need to change.  I was lucky it was just my ticket this time.

What has your experience been with changing United tickets?

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  1. Question for you: United recently cancelled the second connection of my award ticket return flight (they cancelled the entire flight) with no realistic options that day to fly earlier into the connecting city to catch an earlier connecting flight. I was wondering if I could not only push the return flight to a different day without fees but also fly into a different city as the change messed up my travel plans. The flights are all domestic so either flight would be 25,000 miles round trip.

  2. @ Mark, you should be able to cancel the ticket for free and book a new ticket no problem and get a redepoist of miles.

  3. On the schedule change, I have been told by United in several calls that it has to be 2 hours for a free change.

  4. I’m in the same boat. I booked the flight with my United Explorer card, is there any advantage e.g. decreased change fees for doing so?

  5. I just got a full refund for a schedule change for a flight that was arriving about 30 minutes later, due to an equipment change. I just said I REALLY didnt want to fly an A319. Maybe I got lucky?

  6. It never hurts to ask about getting fees waived or refunded.

    I recently had to cancel an award booking and a $150 fee was applied to redeposit the miles. I called in, explained my reasons behind canceling, and was told to fill out a refund form. A few days later, the fee was credited back to my credit card.

  7. One correction-you do not need to book a new ticket and pay the change fee at the time that you cancel the original reservation. You have up to 1 year from the date of the original purchase to apply the fare to another ticket.

    • John, are you 100% sure? We have been told multiple times that it has to be changed to a new reservation before departure otherwise is loses all value. The new rez can be up to one year out from the original purchase date.

  8. I was wondering what the policy is for other airlines. For example, I bought a ticket on Hawaiian airlines for my stepdad that will apparently go unused. I called and asked about a refund–no dice. I can cancel but he has a year from the time of cancellation to use the balance on Hawaiian airlines only and for only him. Any other options?

  9. @Lynn, I can speak from personal experience that it does not have to be a 2 hour schedule adjustment to waive change fees. The particulars of the situation are what warrant the fee waiver. I’ve had as short as a 20 minute change be ok’d.

    Tip: Don’t call and say “Yea, I see a schedule change, so I want to make a change for no charge.” Do call and say “We had a tight connection already to a bus/friend/train, and now we’ll almost surely miss it. Can we adjust this flight to something like XYZ?” They’ll sometimes quote the fee, at which point you can say “Is there anything you can do to waive that, since this was caused by your schedule change?”

  10. One point of (my own) confusion – this morning I had to cancel our trip to Santa Barbara because my son is sick. We got a doctor’s note between phone calls to United (which I found out on the 2nd call that I only needed to have when I reissue new tickets up to 365 days from the original purchase date…) in order to justify an excuse for not eating the entire $200/ticket change fee.

    However, the 1st agent told me that I would be reimbursed a portion of the change fee via refund, resulting in a $50/ticket fee, but the 2nd agent told me they only reimburse up to $100/ticket. So, that would mean that it’s a now $100/ticket change fee, since the standard domestic fee is $200/ticket/change.

    Which agent should I believe??


    • theBOAT, my understanding is that in the case of a doctor note saying you can’t travel, you can get a refund minus the $50 processing fee. I have never done that myself, but have read it from a few sources.

  11. Thanks for helping each other! Correct there is no minimum time change required, but in general, there does need to be some sort of reason that the flight no longer works. Freaked out over a certain type of aircraft can work, too. Always worth trying if there is a schedule change, but if it literally is a couple of minutes it may not work…but can’t hurt to try…

  12. Its all in how you sell it, “my numerologist says I need to take flights that take off at a time that ends in 7, this new change of 2 minutes has me flying out during my absolute worst number…9” could work for a 2 minute change if the agent really believed it. Ok, kidding, but still… wouldn’t put it past someone to try.

  13. Yes, positive-as long as you cancel the ticket before the departure it will then go into your canceled reservations folder and you can call up at anytime up to a year and have the ticket reissued (along with the now $200 change fee). I’ve done this several times.

    I tried to find a statement about this on United’s website but its surprisingly bare. However, I did find this on the Carlson Wagonlit site with regards to United tickets

    “Tickets that have been cancelled prior to departure may be accessed for subsequent changes up to a year from when the ticket was purchased.”

    Hope this helps!

  14. I’ve got a $1300 ticket that I cancelled that’s flown but is still usable. It was booked in March, flew in April and is still changeable. I was told by an agent on the phone I have 1 year to from the date of purchase to reschedule. Here’s what what says when I look it up:

    Your itinerary cannot be retrieved because it has been cancelled. You may use the portion of your ticket that has not been flown towards a new trip by selecting the Change Flight link below. A change fee may apply.

  15. @John- That’s correct based on my experiences too; as long as you call and say that you need to cancel/reschedule any time before the scheduled departure, you have up to a year to use the value of the ticket. I’ve (unfortunately) had to do this multiple times.

    @MommyPoints- Most (if not all; can’t remember) of the flights I’ve had to do this with have been international. Maybe that’s the difference?

  16. MP, I believe John is correct. The endorsement on UA non-refundable tickets says “Cancel reservations before the scheduled departure time or TICKET HAS NO VALUE.” It does not say new travel needs to be booked by then. (And properly cancelled reservations do stay in the system under the original confirmation number.)

    I’ve had a lot of experience exchanging UA tickets 🙂 . A couple of additional notes:

    -If you can’t use the value within a year, you can “roll over” the funds by booking a fare with a refundable fare basis. The funds in the new ticket are good for a year from date of booking, and there’s no change fee for exchanges/reuse of tickets with refundable fare bases.

    (How do you determine whether a fare basis is refundable? This is trickier than you might expect. One way is to select “advanced search”, then choose “unrestricted fare” on UA.COM. There are relatively inexpensive refundable fares between SEA-PDX and LAX-LAS. Another way is to use ExpertFlyer’s “fare information” feature. In general, fare basis codes ending in “Y” are refundable; check the rules to be sure. I recommend checking yourself instead of asking res to find a refundable fare basis for you, since in my experience Res has trouble with this request. But, once you’ve identified a refundable fare basis such as “EA0QY” with Expertflyer, you can ask res to book you into this specific fare basis.)

    If you don’t use all the funds when you change your ticket, the residual balance is usually sent to you as an Electronic Travel Certificate, good for a year. You can use Certificate funds to book travel for anyone (not just yourself) on UA/UX metal.

  17. How interesting and helpful! It is very much not clear on the website what that process is and I have consistently been told I must rebook before the original flight is flown. No big deal as I have always been able to do that, but good to know there is a potential option if that doesn’t work in the future.

  18. We are on a United flight leaving from FRA arriving into ORD at 3:10 we were suppose to leave ORD on a 5:05 flight which they have now cancelled so the next avaiable flight is the next day, which we can’t do. There is a Lufthansa flight that leaves FRA earlier which then allow us to make a flight leaving ORD at 2:50. After calling United twice they tell me Lufthansa does not have any business award seats open. Does Lufthansa open award avail. closer to departure or any other ideas on what to do?

  19. My family and I (4 of us) were booked to fly into San Francisco then eight days later fly out of LAX (Los Angeles) and back home to Ohio. Due to a health issue with my uncle we needed to change all four tickets to completely cut out San Francisco and fly into Los Angeles instead, affectively making the trip “to” California the only change, the tickets to fly home were staying the same…. Nevertheless, my wife had tried to make the change on United’s website and since it was beyond 24 hours since the purchase (it was 35 hours later to be exact) it said we would incur a change fee of $ 200 PER TICKET!! WOW, it was looking like we were facing $ 800 total just to fly into Los Angeles instead of San Fransicso! I was stunned! I contacted United and I explained my situation, basically begging them to waive the fees. Both the telephone rep and his manager said they could not waive the fees. During my 15 minute search for my credit (thank God my wife had misplaced it) i had kept the United Operator on a “soft” hold, which basically means I was still in the phone but he was waiting while I was scurrying around every crevice of my house to find my credit card to pay the $ 800. Just for the record I felt so bad making him wait that I was saying things like “okay, I think I know where it is how” and “my wife must have put it in the bedroom.” I figured that any type of small talk and reassurance would help him to perhaps not just get tired if waiting and hang up on me. I believe that everything happens for a reason and after 15 minutes of losing the battle to find my card he informed me that his supervisor had just authorized him to allow a “one time change fee waiver” and that not only would I not have to pay anything more but he also advised me that I would be getting money back since the new flight is cheaper than the old flight! I now have such an appreciation for United Airlines because simply put, I had no choice and was going to pay the $ 800 and they waived the fees when they didnt “have to” waive them! I can’t think of many occasions that I have been this appreciative for anything in my nearly 40 year old life! Thanks to Robert (the operator) and to his supervisor! The moral of the story (if there actually is a “moral”, perhaps this is just an “experience”) would be that there are indeed cases in which they are “allowed” to waive fees. It very obviously isn’t written in stone as I was convinced it was throughout the 15 minute credit card search! Perhaps they heard or could sense my anxiety or maybe they were just in a good mood! All four flights were changed at no charge and I received a refund and get this- I found the credit card in the small “secret” pocket in my wife’s purse not even two minutes after getting off if the phone with United… New itenirary in hand and I am a very (very) satisfied and thankful United Airlines customer! Thank you United and to those of you who think that you have no way out of paying those insanely high fees, it never hurts to ask, even beg, even take forever to locate your credit card! Whatever works and good luck!!!!

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