Airlines May Soon Reinstate Change Fees on Lowest Fares, Expert Says

United Airlines plane outside of Chicago O'Hare Airport

As the airline industry struggled to hang onto passengers during the pandemic, major U.S. airlines reinvented their change fee models to offer more flexibility. While for most booking classes, those changes became permanent, that stipulation did not apply to the lowest-cost flights, often called basic economy fares.

Right now, most airline tickets — including those on Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, and United — come with free date changes across all classes, including basic economy. But that policy will end for the lowest fares at the end of March, according to Scott Keyes of Scott's Cheap Flights. (He notes that Southwest already didn't have change fees on their fares.)

On top of the fare difference of a new flight, change fees could range from $100 to $750, so it may be time to strategize on how to approach upcoming flight deals.

While the CDC is still recommending that all Americans "delay travel and stay home to protect [themselves] and others from COVID-19," now may be the time to book future basic economy fares in order to hold onto the flexibility of making date changes later.

"Booking by March 31 ensures you get flexibility on your ticket in addition to a cheap fare," says Keyes. "If things look good by your trip date, then great. You got a bona fide cheap flight. If things don't look good by your trip date, no worries. You can push your trip back a couple of months without having to pay a penalty."

If President Joe Biden's goal of having American life closer to normal by July Fourth is successful, then it may be a good strategy to invest in those cheap late summer and fall flights now, since they'll come with the ability to push dates back as needed. "Think of it as booking flights in pencil, not in pen — a unique arbitrage opportunity to lock in a cheap fare and have flexibility if necessary," says Keyes.

However, he notes some caveats to consider. For example, the flexibility doesn't mean cancellations are free, so there is a chance you may absorb the cost of the flight if you end up not taking the trip at all.

Keyes also points out that while the March 31 deadline exists now, there is a chance it could change as the pandemic plays out. With the CDC warning of a possible new spike in COVID-19 due to the rise of spring break travelers, that final date is up in the air, though he guesses it will stick.

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