August 25, 2003 -- The major airlines got a tiny bit more consumer-friendly last week when they relaxed restrictions on nonrefundable tickets, but they've still got a long way to go before they match low-fare carriers on ticket flexibility.
The vast majority of discounted fares on major carriers are nonrefundable. From late 2002 until this week, that meant if you didn't cancel and rebook your tickets by your original travel date (minus an extortionate rebooking fee, usually $100 for domestic and $200 for international flights), you'd lose all your money.
This week, Continental, Delta, Northwest and American have all changed their policies. If you have a nonrefundable Continental, Delta or American ticket, you still have to call before your original travel date to cancel -- but you can use the value of your ticket to get a new flight any time within a year from your original purchase date. (Of course, if you buy your tickets a year in advance, that means you're stuck.) The cancellation fees still apply.
On Northwest, you don't even have to call to cancel, and you get more time to use the money. Your ticket holds its value for one year from its original travel date, and you can use the money (minus the cancellation fee) to rebook at any point during that time.
US Airways and is still keeping its consumer-unfriendly, "use it or lose it" policy. United was marching in step with US Airways, but the carrier just announced this morning that it would be offering policies that match American, Continental, Northwest and Delta.
Yet Another Win For Low-Fare Carriers
While the financially struggling major airlines put the screws on travelers with unfriendly refund policies, the cheerful, mostly-profitable low-fare airlines have been showing travelers how things should be done.
Southwest's rebooking policy is the friendliest in the industry. Don't feel like flying? Reuse the value of your ticket for a new flight within one year of your original purchase date. No fees, no stress, no problem.
JetBlue requires that you call before your flight to cancel, but they allow changes and cancellations for a mere $25 fee. The value of your ticket can be reused within one year of its purchase date.
AirTran also requires that you call in advance to cancel; your credit is good for one year from the date of purchase, and there's a $50 change fee.
Spirit wants 24-hour notice of cancellations. They have a $75 cancellation fee, and they'll allow rebooking within one year from the original ticket purchase date.
America West and Alaska aren't low-fare airlines per se, but they've always been the friendly outliers of the major-airline group. America West lets you re-use your tickets without calling to cancel, provided you rebook within one year of the original issue date, for a $100 fee. Alaska Air has only a $50 fee, and lets you use your tickets up to one year from your original outbound travel date.