Canceling Non-Refundable Airfare Penalty Free for 24 Hours

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As you may have noticed, lower than normal airfares come and go very quickly – often within a matter of hours.  This happens so quickly that I know many families miss out on the sales because they just aren’t able to get everything in order fast enough to be able to commit to pulling the trigger on non-refundable reservations.  I can relate to that dilemma completely, but the reality is that you can commit risk free in many cases to “non-refundable” tickets without having any penalties if you realize the flight won’t actually work for your family within 24 hours.

This is thanks to a Department of Transportation rule, consumers must be able to either hold an airfare reservation at the quoted fare for 24 hours without payment or be allowed to cancel a reservation within 24 hours without penalty if the reservation is made at least 7 days (168 hours) before departure.  So, this 24 hour window to hold or cancel isn’t something airlines offer from the goodness of their heart – it is something they have to do in the United States.  This means even notoriously fee-hungry airlines like Spirit Airlines give you the option to cancel and refund reservations penalty free in the first 24 hours.

Yeah for airplanes to bring back Grandmas!

Yeah for airplanes to bring back Grandmas!

This week I actually had to use this penalty-free cancellation option for the first time in a while when I was accidentally a week off in booking flights for Grandma to come back and visit help out with Baby S next month.  I didn’t even realize the error, but thankfully Grandma caught the error within a couple hours when I sent her the itinerary, so we were able to go online and change the United flights to the correct week without any fees or penalties because of the DOT’s 24 hour rule.  We also could have simply refunded the trip if we no longer needed the flights.  Had we missed the 24 hour window there would have been a very painful $200 fee to change the flights – which was almost as much as the flights cost in the first place.

It is important to note that while most airlines allow for penalty free cancellations within 24 hours, American Airlines instead takes the route of allowing you to place flights on hold for free for 24 hours.  This can be super helpful if you want to purposefully hold flights while you think about it, but it also means that you don’t have the option to cancel penalty free in the event you accidentally make a mistake while purchasing the tickets the way I did earlier this week.

Airfare Changes.jpg

There are pros and cons to both approaches airlines take to meeting the DOT’s 24 hour requirement, but in both cases you really can take advantage of airfare sales that pop up even if you aren’t 100% sure of your plans at the time of purchase.  I’ve seen way too many friends and family members kick themselves for missing out on things like $400 round trip tickets to Hawaii or $70 tickets to Chicago because they need to “talk to their partner first” or they need to “line up someone to watch the kids”.  Yes, those are obviously very important things to do, but remember you can actually pull the trigger on the airfare first (or put the flights on hold in the case of American) and then tie up the loose ends within 24 hours.

Thankfully, you can also have 24 hours to fix your sleep deprived reservation date glitches the way I did this week as long as someone catches the error in time.

Have you ever had to use the penalty-free 24 hour refund rule?

Baby S says "No Sleep For You"!

Baby S says “No Sleep For You”!

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  1. Does this work for ALL airlines that are departing from the U.S.? What if it was with say Cathay Pacific or Virgin Atlantic departing from a U.S. airport, would I still have this 24 hour leeway?

  2. MP, this can also be very handy for award bookings. For example, I frequently find that the UA Web site won’t let me complete complex bookings (such as those including stopovers). The trick is to book what you can online, then immediately call Res to change it to what you want. So long as you call within 24 hours there is no charge, even for non-elites.

    (AA allows 5 day holds on award bookings. Similar idea – you can then call to make any changes you want at no cost while the reservation is still on hold. This is very handy when you want a 23 hour “connection” on an international itinerary, which is hard to do on the Web site.)

  3. I have used this feature with JetBlue, USAir, United and AA.
    Each airline has different ways of doing it. AA does NOT offer a refund, they offer the opportunity to do a 24 hour hold (which is actually better probably)
    You will need to be very sure to file for the refund with the airlines and track the refund with your credit card. It isn’t instant and can take easily two weeks to get the charges reversed. You also can only do this if booked directly on the airline site. It’s a great option that is totally not promoted by them. Just be sure you know exactly how the airline handles the process before you start. I did 3 cancelations with AA only to learn that they don’t do cancelations but they do holds. I almost ate 600$ but they were kind enough to allow me to bank the money for future flights without penalty.

  4. You can also use this feature in case the flights you booked less than 24 hours ago are cheaper now. I did it for a Delta flight once, but I do recall that the original charge stayed for a while as Jack noted. Probably not worth it in most cases (I only saved something like $15/seat), but worth a peek at prices if you think about it the next day.

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