Can you imagine we’d see the day when the big US airlines, notorious for nickel-and-diming passengers down to the very last fibre of their wallets, would eliminate the standard change fees on the vast majority of their flights?
Over the past few days, United, Delta, American, and Alaska have all implemented refreshingly customer-friendly measures to eliminate change fees on their domestic route network. In the case of American and Alaska, the elimination of change fees also applies to their flights to Canada and neighbouring North American destinations, and also takes effect on both paid and award tickets.
With the uncertainty surrounding global travel, there’s now an added incentive to book with these airlines for any of your regional flying, and Alaska Mileage Plan has also gotten more valuable all of a sudden thanks to the elimination of the US$125 change fee across the board. Let’s go over the details you need to know.
American Airlines Eliminates Change Fees on Short-Haul International Flights
While United and Delta’s elimination of change fees were limited to domestic US flights, American Airlines went one step further and got rid of change fees on all “short-haul international flights”, which encompasses itineraries within:
- Any of the 50 US states
- Puerto Rico
- U.S. Virgin Islands
The policy of zero change fees applies to any of the following fare buckets:
- Main Cabin (except Basic Economy)
- Premium Economy
This means that any American Airlines flight departing from Canada (i.e., American’s gateway airports of Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, or Calgary) to the US, Mexico, Caribbean, Puerto Rico, or the US Virgin Islands will not be subject to a change fee, as long as it isn’t booked in Basic Economy.
This isn’t merely a temporary waiver due to COVID-19, but rather a permanent change intended for the long term. As our Canadian airlines have not yet implemented any similar measures (outside of temporary COVID-19 waivers), this means that there’s a strong incentive to book with American Airlines if you’re flying regionally within North America over the coming years – words that I never thought I’d say, to be honest.
Note that just because change fees are eliminated doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to get a full refund on any flight. There will continue to be a distinction between refundable and non-refundable fares; if you change your mind on a non-refundable fare, you’d simply have the option of applying the value of your flight towards another trip within one year of the ticket’s issuance, without paying any change fees (only the fare difference).
Nevertheless, given the unavoidable uncertainty surrounding travel at the moment, this is still going to be a strong incentive to book with American Airlines over the other Canadian and US airlines (unless they follow suit to serve Canadians, of course).
If you booked a family getaway to Hawaii, for example, and they implemented a border closure or saw a spike in coronavirus cases, you’d be able to change your trip to Cancún without paying anything except the fare difference; then, if you changed your mind about Cancún, you could switch things up to visit Bermuda instead, and so on and so forth.
Moreover, if the fare difference is favourable to you (i.e., the new fare is cheaper than the old fare), then you get to keep the difference as another credit for future travel with American Airlines. This is something that United and Delta also aren’t offering.
Finally, not only does the elimination of change fees apply to paid tickets, but also to American Advantage award tickets as well. The previous change fee policy already levied $0 fees if you wanted to make a voluntary change more than 60 days out, but nowadays, you’ll pay zero change fees even if you’re within the 60-day window, as long as your travel is within the “short-haul international” route network as outlined above.
Alaska Airlines Eliminates Change Fees Across the Board
After the “Big 3” US airlines made their moves, Alaska Airlines had no real choice but to follow suit. This morning, the Seattle-based airline has announced that it will also be eliminating their US$125 change fee across their entire route network – which includes the Canadian cities of Vancouver, Victoria, Kelowna, Calgary, and Edmonton – on all fares except for their Saver fares.
For Canadian travellers based in these cities, Alaska Airlines therefore becomes another very attractive airline to book with, as you can leverage their route network to fly to Hawaii, Mexico, and Costa Rica, as well as the contiguous US states, of course.
(If you’re travelling as a party of two or more, you can also combine this with Alaska’s Famous Companion Fare on the MBNA Alaska Airlines MasterCard to book a second passenger for only US$99 plus taxes and fees, without having to pay any change fees if you change your mind.)
However, the really exciting part of Alaska’s announcement is that it applies to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan awards as well.
In the past, unless you had MVP Gold status or above with Alaska Airlines, you had to pay a US$125 change fee whenever you made a change to an Alaska Mileage Plan award ticket, but that fee is now waived going forward on all Mileage Plan awards, including partner awards.
This makes it a lot easier to book Alaska awards on a semi-speculative basis, taking comfort in the fact that changes can be made without paying a change fee. Take, for example, Alaska awards on Cathay Pacific First Class for 70,000 miles, one of the best sweet spots in all the land.
Cathay Pacific almost never releases more than one First Class award on each flight outside of last-minute availability, so the prevailing strategy for those who want to book two First Class seats together has been as follows: first, book one seat in First Class and one seat in business class, and then upgrade to First Class shortly before the date of departure, when last-minute award space opens up.
In the past, this would be accompanied by a US$125 change fee if you were lucky, or perhaps two sets of the US$125 change fee if last-minute space didn’t open up on your chosen flight, but on a different flight instead (so you’d have to rebook both passengers on that flight).
But now, since the change fee has been eliminated, the ability to switch into last-minute Cathay First awards – and indeed, all last-minute awards and any other change you might need to make in general – has now become much more accessible to all.
Hats off to you, American Airlines and Alaska Airlines!
As a side-effect of the recent blitz in change fee eliminations among the major US airlines, Canadian travellers now benefit from a more favourable set of flexible travel policies on both paid and award travel.
In my view, American’s policy change is most exciting for Canadians looking to travel regionally to the US or to Sun destinations, as they’ll have a great deal of flexibility in being able to change their plans without paying the punitive US$200 change fee, only the fare difference. Meanwhile, Alaska’s policy change is most beneficial on the loyalty side, where Mileage Plan awards on Alaska’s wealth of premium partner airlines will be changeable at no cost.
It remains to be seen whether United and Delta match these generous new policies in terms of eliminating change fees for travel to/from Canada, rather than only travel within the US, as well as whether our airlines here in Canada have any appetite to follow suit.