Covid brought the world a lot of conflict and consternation, but it also brought one change that made travel much easier: the end of airline change fees.
But don't be fooled. The airlines have found ways to make money when you alter travel plans, even if carriers no longer collect penalties of $200 and up for changes.
I almost learned that the hard way last week when I changed an upcoming United Airlines itinerary. When I first bought my ticket, I purchased what United calls a "bundle," which combines perks such as seat assignment, checked bag costs, and lounge access into one not-always-discounted payment. Calculated and classified separately from the airfare, the bundling fee can be well over $200 per leg.
But when I tried to change my United flights online, the bundles I purchased didn't carry over to the new trip. The booking engine didn't even indicate that I had purchased any bundles at all. To make sure they were applied to my new flights, I had to phone the call center and wait (and wait and wait) to speak to an agent.
Even then, the phone agent got as far as assigning me seats in the most basic section of Economy without acknowledging that I had originally purchased bundles. I had to remind her and she had to reseat me.
It was almost as if United had elected not to mention my previous bundle purchases in the hopes that I would forget about them and buy new ones.
Most consumers are used to paying extra for seat assignments by now but may not be versed in what happens to those purchases if your plans change. They don't always transfer to your new itinerary.
Here's what each of the major airlines says on the record about seat assignment purchases in case of a flight change.
If you change your flights, your additional Main Cabin Extra seat purchases do not automatically transfer to the new flights, an airline media relations representative for the company told me.
However, American will refund your seat assignment fees if you cancel, rebook, and buy seats on your new flight.
As the airline officially sees it, "if the customer voluntarily changes their itinerary, technically, they are canceling their old flight and rebooking on a new flight."
So for American Airlines, if you don't notice that your seat assignment fees are transferring to your new booking, it's better to simply cancel your flight entirely, collect the refunded seat assignment fee, and then rebook a whole new itinerary and buy seats again.
For the record, American will also refund your seat assignment fees in the following circumstances, not all of which have to do with voluntary itinerary changes:
• you pay to upgrade to First or Business class
• you pay more for another seat on the same flight (but not if you change to a lower-priced or free seat)
• American cancels your flight and fails to get you a comparable seat on another flight rebooked by the airline
• you miss a connection because American delayed your flight and was unable to get you a comparable seat on another flight
• you were denied boarding on an oversold flight and the airline can't get you a comparable seat on the new flight
Delta Air Lines
Delta's position on seat assignment refunds is simple.
If a customer who has purchased a seat upgrade decides to change flights, a spokesperson told me, then "the seat would carry over to the new flight, if available."
If the same type and price of seat are not available in the cabin of the new flight, Delta will refund the cost difference. You'll be back in an un-upgraded seat, but at least you'll get your original seat allocation funds back.
For a lot more info on what Delta will refund you if you change your plans, see its web page on the topic.
If you change or cancel your flight, the money you paid for an Even More Space seat (JetBlue's version of an economy seat upgrade) will be refunded to the original form of payment.
You also get your money back if the airline changes your flight "due to an operational disruption" and then runs out of Even More Space seats on your replacement flight.
If you're not changing your flight, though, once you pay for Even More Space, don't change seats. If you move your seat assignment out of that category for your flight, you lose what you originally paid.
"If there is a pricing discrepancy from the original booking to the new booking, the ancillary bundle purchase may not transfer automatically," a United spokesperson told me.
"A good indicator if the bundle transfers is if the seat selection on the new reservation triggers the customer to pay for a new seat. If this is the case, the original bundle fee will be refunded," the spokesperson said.
That didn't line up with my experience. In my case, the bundles didn't transfer to the new flights and I was offered the opportunity to buy more bundles. However, when I phoned, the customer service agent was able to apply my previous bundle purchase without charging me more.
Which influences my advice: The best way to prove you've paid for seat assignments on United is to retain your original flight "eTicket Itinerary and Receipt," which will even supply the confirmation numbers of each of the bundle bookings. To change flights, don't use the United website—call instead, and have those confirmation numbers handy.
To determine whether you have paid-for bundles waiting to be used for flights, you can also check your payment receipts in the My Trips section of the United website.
No matter which airline you're flying, always keep track of the ancillary purchases you made when you bought your original flights. That way, you can always know if your purchases have transferred to your new plans.
And if you're due for a refund, don't forget to check your credit balance with the airline itself. Not all refunds are put back on your credit card; sometimes they're returned to you in the form of funds to use on future purchases.