Airline ticket prices are fluid. As much as you can read up on the best tips to find cheap airfare, the algorithms that drive pricing can cause fluctuations from one day—even one moment—to the next.
So what do you do if you book a flight, but then later find a better deal?
Fortunately, in many cases, you’re not out of luck.
Thanks to a combination of federal regulations, airline policies, and third-party price-tracking programs, there’s a variety of ways you can take advantage of price drops after you pay without having to fork over additional money in penalties.
Here are some strategies you might want to try—along with downsides to watch out for.
Take advantage of the 24-hour risk-free cancellation window.
As long as you booked your flight at least a week in advance, airlines either have to offer you a full refund if you cancel within 24 hours or the carrier must provide you the chance to place a 24-hour hold on your ticket.
That’s the law, as required by the U.S. Department of Transportation. And the policy applies even to tickets labeled “nonrefundable” by airlines.
So if you book a trip and immediately find that the price drops within the first day after purchase, you can cancel your ticket and rebook, no questions asked.
How to use this option: Cancel your flight within 24 hours and rebook yourself on the cheaper flight you found.
The downside: You have to act quickly to take advantage of a very brief window of opportunity.
Use an airline price hold.
Some airlines will allow you to place a hold on a fare without buying the ticket.
Among U.S. carriers, American Airlines lets you place a 24-hour hold on your fare that will remain in place until either a.) you buy the ticket or b.) the hold expires at the end of the next day (note that your trip must be at least a week away).
United Airlines has an option called FareLock that allows passengers to hold a flight for 3, 7, or 14 days, but it’ll cost you—often a few dollars for a few days, and a few dollars more for longer.
The idea is to freeze your fare without paying for it until you’re ready. That gives you extra time not only to solidify your travel plans but also to see if the price fluctuates at all.
How to use this option: Go through the usual steps of booking a flight, but instead of paying for your trip, look for a “hold” or “fare lock” option.
Before the hold expires, check the price again. If it stayed the same or went up, you may want to go ahead and purchase the ticket. But if the price went down, rebook at the lower price.
The downside: If the airline offers you the chance to hold your ticket for free, there really is no downside. Just don’t forget to buy the ticket before the hold expires.
If you’re paying for a hold, though, keep in mind that’ll eat into any cost savings you could gain overall.
Note also that some airlines and types of ticket holds will automatically book the flight if you do nothing before the hold expires. So stay on guard, especially if you put down a credit card number during the process.
No change fees? Change your ticket!
One of the lasting reforms to emerge from the pandemic is the dropping of change fees on many of the largest U.S. airlines, at least for standard coach tickets.
We’re talking about carriers like American, United, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines, and JetBlue.
Nowadays, if you find a better fare you can often go right ahead and change your ticket without paying a penalty.
If you’re changing your ticket to score a lower price, you typically won’t get an actual refund for the difference. Instead, the airline may give you the difference in a flight credit you can use when booking your next trip.
How to use this option: Use the airline’s app, website, or customer service channels (by phone or online chat) to change your ticket to the lower-fare option.
It’s a similar story on budget carriers. With Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines, you can only make free changes 60 days or more before your flight. Any changes made closer to departure come with fees.
If there’s no penalty, cancel and rebook.
Let’s say you book a flight on one airline, and then later find a cheaper option on another.
Obviously, if you booked a refundable ticket (such as one of Southwest’s Anytime or Business Select fares) this is an easy thing to do. You’ll get your money back and can easily rebook elsewhere.
However, many of the legacy U.S. carriers—along with Southwest and JetBlue—now also allow travelers to cancel even standard coach tickets and retain full trip credit, as long as the flight hasn’t departed.
Again, you won’t get an actual refund for your original flight, but you’ll have every dollar you paid available the next time you want to book with that airline.
How to use this option: Check your ticket’s policies to make sure you’d get either a refund or full trip credit (with no penalty) if you canceled. If you’re in the clear, cancel your flight and book a new one—either on the same airline or a different one, depending on where you found the better price.
The downside: Again, things get murkier with basic economy tickets. Some airlines could make you pay a cancellation penalty with those more restrictive tickets. On Delta, for instance, you’ll get an eCredit if you cancel a basic economy ticket, minus a cancellation fee—which starts at $99.
Once again, ultra low-cost carriers are stingier about this, too. Unless you stand to save hundreds, you may be better off sticking with your original flight.
Use a price protection program.
There are a number of price protection programs out there through third-party booking sites and credit card portals.
Capital One Travel has a Free Price Drop Protection option. Using airfare-monitoring data through booking app partner Hopper, Capital One will keep an eye on the price for 10 days after you get a recommendation to “book now.” If there’s a big price drop at some point during that window, you’ll get a travel credit for up to $50.
Hopper itself has a similar Price Freeze option customers can add on to bookings.
And Google is trialing a program for customers who book certain trips directly with Google Flights. After you book, the system will monitor airfare up until the first flight of your trip departs. If the price drops, Google will make up the difference, up to a maximum $500 back in a calendar year.
How to use this option: Book through one of these sites and follow the prompts to add price drop protection if it’s available (the option may not always be available).
The downside: When you book a flight through a third-party online travel agency, things can get a little complicated if you run into flight trouble and have to change your trip. Plus, some price protection programs have a lot of rules that can get confusing to follow.
And if you have to pay to use one of these services, that might eat into your ultimate cost savings.
It’s not just airlines.
Airfare isn’t the only aspect of travel where rebooking can save you money. If you book a cancelable hotel or car rental reservation, you’ll often have the right to cancel at no cost and then rebook up until you travel or at least until you’re much closer to your trip.
Additionally, many airline and hotel loyalty programs are much more lenient when it comes to award travel booked with points and miles, allowing travelers full refunds. That means if you find a lower award price, you can often cancel and rebook at the lower rate to save your points.
Ultimately, knowing the rules of your reservation is key. It's also important to continue monitoring the price after you book.
That way, if the the price drops you’ll know what you can do to take action and save some money.