Before you change your return flight – read this first.

Whatever they say and however they explain it, change fees are often pure gravy for the airlines. Certainly if passengers change from a mostly empty flight to a very full flight then the fare should be higher. On the other hand, it’s particularly frustrating to pay a fee to change from a sold-out flight to a lightly booked one.

Admittedly, some paperwork and time is involved in a ticket change — but $150 worth per ticket? The current standard is $150 plus the fare difference. My personal pet peeve is change fees that can be triple the price of the ticket. Literally.

Most airlines will at least let passengers change a return flight once they have departed for their flat change fee, assuming the class of service is available and the flight routing hasn’t changed.

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If passengers need to change a flight before departure, however, that’s a different story.

Assume someone has a flight booked, for example, San Francisco to New York on May 30th, with a return June 4th. Plus, the flight is on one ticket using two one way fares. If on May 27 that ticket holder decides to come back one day later, there will be hell to pay.

The passenger calls the airline, he will probably be told the entire ticket needs to be redone, thereby being forced to not only pay the change fee, but a higher fare for the outbound flight as well, since the traveler would no longer would have the benefit of advance purchase on that flight.

On the other hand, if the passenger just purchases a new return flight, he simply pays the new one way fare, which often is much less than the whole ticket change fee.

Now, this approach has some caveats. First, the passenger, or his travel agent needs to cancel the original return. Airlines do not like double bookings and their reservation systems could cancel both reservations.

Second, legally, to do this travelers should be using one way fares. If the original ticket is based on a round-trip fare, and the traveler doesn’t fly the return, but simply books another flight, the airline could demand a higher one way fare retroactively. Since airlines also do not like throwaway books, even unintentional.

Safer yet — if the passenger did book a ticket that requires a roundtrip, book any new return on a different airline. While airlines increasingly share data, choosing two different carriers will decrease the chance of getting caught.

For those asking, “How can you tell if a ticket is based on a roundtrip?” The easiest way is either to ask a travel agent, or just call an airline directly. (There are clues sometimes in fare basis codes, and ticket validity dates, but for those without a travel industry background, deciphering these clues can be challenging at best.)

Even when the ticket is using one way fares, I still recommend booking a new return on a separate record. (PNR in airline jargon.) That way it’s less confusing at check-in, and in case some overzealous computer or airline employee is looking for a violation of tariff rules, it’s a little less obvious.

Here is an example from just this past week:

  • A client was looking for a return flight from Seattle to San Francisco one day later. Changing the whole ticket cost about $225. Buying a completely new return ticket, $89. There were similar savings for clients coming home a day earlier or later from Dallas, Denver, and Washington, D.C.

Onn short intra-state flights, it seems crazy to pay a $150 change fee when new tickets cost less than $100.

A good travel agent should be able to see and offer these choices. Booking online or through the airline requires a little more work. But it could be worth it.

Another frequent traveler I know recently mentioned paying over $1,000 to change a very cheap cross country flight when he called the airline weekend before he left. The reservation agent gave him a simple choice, take it or leave it. (Although in this situation, a new return would have been under $400.)

Now, sometimes a change fee actually is considerably less than a new one-way ticket. If the price is similar to change the original ticket compared to buying a new one, it’s probably easiest to just pay the fee and keep it simple. But it’s worth checking out the differences between paying a change fee and simply purchasing a new ticket. The difference could pay for another trip.