avoid high airline change fees

I would like to share with you one practice you can implement now to ensure you avoid high airline change fees. To ensure you're not charged exorbitantly high fees for making small changes to an airline ticket, before or during your holiday. As we know, life doesn’t always go according to plan, including travel plans!

The invention of the internet allowed people to become self-made travel agents. Everyone could book the cheapest flight online themselves. This is why in 2005 I left my job as a travel manager to pursue a new career. I could see the internet was making my job obsolete.

Even I was booking my own flights on the internet. However, I noticed that the general public didn’t have the same background knowledge as myself as to how airline reservations and ticketing works. So some found themselves in trouble and learnt the hard/expensive way on how to avoid high airline change fees.

Whats the trick?

Book direct with the airline’s own website

Sounds quite simple doesn’t it, but many travellers don’t do it. They are simply looking for the best deal and that’s fair enough. But there are pitfalls.

There are many travel booking websites out there, such as Expedia, Webjet, Skyscanner and so on. So many that I can’t list them all. Just add your flight details and a magical page opens up with a choice of airlines, flight times and prices.

avoid high airline change fees

These websites make it easy for you to view all options and then book flights. But, and here’s the caution, read the fine print on their change and cancellation fees. Such clauses can end up making your holiday more expensive. Let me give you a couple of examples.

Real Example 1 – reservation out of your control

I met Aleksandra from Poland on a tour of Nepal in April 2015. She had booked her flights with a European flight booking website. Her itinerary involved four different airlines. It was the cheapest fare she could find from Switzerland to Kathmandu.

When she was due to depart Switzerland, the weather conditions caused mayhem at the airports. Her flight was cancelled and the airport staff placed her on Lufthansa flight instead in compensation. It turned out to be a bonus because it was a more direct flight to Nepal, meaning less travelling time.

a lady scrolling on her phone with a shocked look on her face reading the high airline change fees

But it also turned into a nightmare when two days later she received an email from the travel website. It stated that her return flights are now cancelled because she ‘did not show up’ on her original outbound flights. You can imagine her panic. She emailed them immediately to explain the situation that she did show up but was transferred by that airline to Lufthansa. They said too bad.

She made several phonecalls to the booking agency. She spoke with different consultants each time. They all said they can’t reinstate the flights because she never travelled on the original outbound flights. She will have to book and pay for a new set of flights to return home. That’s how their system works.

Thankfully, her father works for Lufthansa. He made several phone calls insisting they reinstate the flights as it was not Aleksandra’s fault that she did not board the flight. The whole process took a week. Basically a week of her holiday in which she was stressed about how she was going to return home.

Real Example 2 – unrealistically high change fee

In March 2016 I was on a tour in India. Again I found myself helping a fellow tour member, John from USA, to amend his flight home.

He booked his travels by Googling flights from USA to Udaipur and it come up with a flight booking website that specialised in India. It was a cheap deal and he booked it. The flights were Milwaukee/Delhi/Udaipur and returning the same way.

Although the tour started near Udaipur, what John didn’t realise was that the tour was finishing near Delhi not back Udaipur. As he no longer needed the Udaipur to Delhi flight, he called the booking agency to cancel that flight only. They said that will be a USD300 change fee! WHAAAAT.

a man looking at his phone with a shocked look on his face when he didnt avoid high airline change fees

John couldn’t believe it and neither could I. As a former travel agent, I know it doesn’t cost that much to cancel a flight segment. It’s not like he is changing the itinerary completely, just cancelling one flight that he doesn’t need to use.

He made numerous phone calls without success to waiver the change fee. They advised that a no-show on the Udaipur to Delhi flight means the remaining flights will be automatically cancelled. So John decided to buy a USD33 train ticket (that’s a First Class price!) for the 10 hour train journey back south to Udaipur in order to catch his flight as per the original itinerary. Unfortunately John missed out on seeing the sights of Delhi. Yes, there are beautiful places to see in crazy Delhi.

My Example – individual tickets

These flight booking websites can offer such great deals and provide creative itineraries by combining airlines to offer a cheaper price. However, they seem to make their money in the exorbitant cancellation and change fees. And from what I see, it’s quite a lot more than what an airline would charge if you had booked with them directly.

This is why I recommend to book flights directly with the airline. It will give you greater flexibility in making changes at a lower cost. Plus give you greater confidence to get issues fixed (such as inadvertently cancelled flights).

So don’t be afraid to explore and book the flights separately yourself. Here’s what I did back in 2009 – I purchased five different airline tickets:

  • Perth to London with Air Asia
  • London to Greece with Easyjet
  • Athens to Cairo with Olympic Airways
  • Cairo to Singapore with Singapore Airlines
  • Singapore to Perth with Qantas

The whole journey cost me AUD1800. In comparison, I got quotes from travel agents first and the cheapest deal I got was AUD2800. This is because there was no one airline that would fly to Greece and Egypt 100% of the journey. So I saved $1000 by searching online  and booking the cheapest deal on each flight segment myself. Yay more spending money 🙂

Or read about other hacks to book cheap tickets.

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Bonus tip – Fare Hold Reservations

Hold your airfare - have you heard of it before?

You know those times when you see a great airfare but can’t make the decision right away. But you can’t book it because it’s a non-refundable fare!?!?

You can take advantage of the new concept that several airlines have introduced. For a small fee you can hold the airfare for up to 72 hours. Airlines include Cathay Pacific, Emirate Airlines, Qatar Airways, Virgin Australia, Air New Zealand, Ryan Air and United Airlines. These are the airlines that I know of. Hawaiian Airlines have introduced a service whereby you can hold the airfare for 3 or 7 days for the price of a couple of coffees.

This service is very helpful to avoid change fees or cancellation charges, for example:

  • When you don’t want to miss out on the special price but need some time to confirm dates with family/friends.
  • Need to confirm holiday leave with the boss.
  • When you need to check if your tour or accommodation is available at the same time.
  • To make changes free of charge (before you pay the final amount).
  • You want some time to think about it before you pay the total amount – in case you change your mind. Most cheap fares are non-refundable.

Do read the conditions of the Fare Hold service. Generally speaking, the hold fee is non-refundable should you decide not to go ahead with the booking. Also check if the fee will be deducted from the final cost of your ticket. For example, I know that Air New Zealand don’t deduct the Hold fee from the final cost of your ticket but Emirate Airlines do.

Update - Feb 2020

As you can gather from reading the above, that I'm not a big fan of third party websites. However, I would like to share a positive interaction that my friend had with eDreams.

He booked his flight from Canada to Australia for 4 weeks. While in Perth, he needed to extend his stay. I told him that it will probably cost a bit. But he said it wont as he paid for a Flexible Travel Dates Guarantee.

So he put it to the test. Changed his return flight for one week later. Initially they told him it would be about a $100 fee, which I thought was reasonable. But when the customer assistant got to the end of the process, the computer showed her that no fee was due. How about that, a company that actually sticks to its guarantees.

So if you want to give this company a try, just click on the image below below and compare the prices now.

Avoid high airline change fees now

So if you’re the type of traveller that once you pay for flights you never make changes, then you shouldn’t experience any ticket change issues with the flight booking websites.

However, if you do tend to make changes or want to have flexibility to change the itinerary then consider making the flight bookings directly on the airlines own website. 

Have you ever been overcharged to make a change to your flight bookings? Or did you manage to avoid high airline change fees?

Start planning your trip now with the following helpful links:

Flights - save money by comparing and booking flights at Skyscanner.
Hotels - find hotels on any budget at booking.com
Car rental - use Rentalcars to compare all the car rental companies on the one page
Tours - pre book your tours and activities at Viator
Attractions - save up to 55% on top attractions and museums with a Go City Pass.
Travel guides - get 10% discount on Lonely Planet guides and books.

Book your own holiday online using the most trusted travel websites.
 Download the "Best Travel Websites Guide" today.

About the author

Lisa is a travel gypsy by heart, having already been to over 70 countries and still counting. Founder of Travel Groove, to share travel tips, tricks and knowledge with other travellers.

  • Dear Lisa, thank you for your article it was helpful. After decades of booking online we have noticed a change in the airline industry. Online agents but also some airlines charge exorbitant fees for a date change. More than the ticket price. This is criminal! in our case it was a computer glitch which we tried to sort out with GOTOGATAE immediately (24 hours)we saw the error (same date for departure and return flight). They want $800 to fix it, more than the flight cost. but friends tell me it happens now with airlines as well (working for shareholders value not for client). I assume the only way out is buying flexible tickets which are very expensive, especially in business class. It is a terrible situation we have come to and I am almost scared to book future flights. Is this our future?

    • Thanks Pia. I thankfully havent yet had an exorbitant fee changing directly with the airline (when booked direct on the airlines own website). Its a shame you did and that the airlines are going to start following what the third party websites are doing. What can we do? I guess name and shame the airline concerned – they wont appreciate bad publicity especially in times where they are all advertising specials frequently to get bums on seats. I also personally avoid all third party airfare booking websites in protest to the ridiculously high fees they charge for date changes – they dont deserve my business.

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