Changing a return flight on a round-trip ticket can trigger massive change fees.


return flight(Updated from the original story published in October 2010)

Whatever they say and however they explain it, change fees on a return flight 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 $200 or $300 or more per ticket? The current standard is $200 plus the fare difference for domestic flights and $300+ for international flights. My personal pet peeve is change fees that can be triple the price of the ticket. Literally.

This is a situation where a savvy travel agent can certainly help and really earn their fee.

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.

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 on June 4th. Plus, the flight is on one ticket using two one-way fares. If on May 27 the 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 have the benefit of advance-purchase on that flight.

take actionOn 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 domestic 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 (normally internatinal airline tickets) 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. This is because airlines also do not like throwaway bookings, even unintentional.

Book on new return flight on a different airline in a different airline alliance.

Safer yet — if the passenger did book a ticket fare 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 round trip?” 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.

On short intra-state flights, it seems crazy to pay a $200 change fee when new tickets cost less than $100.

Travel agents can help.

A good travel agent should be able to see and offer these return flight 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 domestic flight when he called the airline weekend before he left. The reservation agent gave him a simple choice, take it or leave it. (In this situation, purchasing a new return flight would have been under $400.)

Simply cancelling or changing a recent international flight from Washington, DC, to Barcelona, Spain, would have cost $350 in change fees. Fortunately, the airline made a change to the schedule that allowed the client to get their money back and rebook another even cheaper airfare on another flight to different destinations.

Now, sometimes a change fee actually is considerably less than a new one-way ticket. (This happens with internatational ticket for the most part.) 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 return ticket. The difference could pay for another trip.