Traveling by air can be very expensive which is why many people often appreciate lower, more affordable fares. In fact, the cost of an airline ticket tends to be one of the first things people look for when they book, with comfort and convenience coming in next. But one thing that is often overlooked is the possibility of a refund.

Key Takeaways

  • Refundable flights are more expensive than non-refundable ones.
  • It's advisable to book a refundable flight if you're even remotely uncertain about your travel plans.
  • Some airlines charge a fee to issue a refund, while others have a strict cancellation policy.
  • Most airlines have a full refund policy if you cancel your flight within 24 hours of booking.

Are Plane Tickets Refundable?

The short answer is yes, though each airline can implement a different policy for refunding airfare. Most airlines offer a choice between refundable and non-refundable airline tickets—something a lot of us tend to skip over or overlook altogether. The main reason why refundable tickets aren't a popular purchase is that they tend to be much more expensive than their non-refundable counterparts.

There's a trade-off of sorts involved. You can pay less money for a non-refundable ticket but if you end up not using it, you won't be able to get that money back. On the other hand, you could pay more to fly but have the reassurance of knowing that you can get the money returned to you if your travel plans change.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, many airlines have temporarily changed their refund and cancellation policies.

The Basics of Refundable Tickets

When you buy your airline ticket one thing you'll probably skip over is the option to book a refundable ticket. These are bookings you can make that can be fully refunded—or in some cases, partially—if you have to cancel your flight for any reason.

As noted above, refundable flights are normally more expensive than regular, non-refundable ones. The costs can range from a few hundred to thousands of dollars, depending on the kind of flight you book—economy, business, or first class.

Booking a refundable versus a non-refundable ticket depends on your needs. If you're traveling for business, there's a good chance you won't be canceling your trip and you probably won't be paying for it yourself, so you likely won't need a refundable ticket.

But if there's any doubt in your mind that you won't be able to meet your travel date—perhaps there's someone in your family who's ill, or you'll be traveling for your sister's new baby and the delivery date is still up in the air—you should consider a refundable ticket. The cost of paying for one of these tickets will definitely outweigh paying for a flight you won't take.

Getting a refund often depends on what class you're booked on—economy, business, or first class.

There are a few things to keep in mind about refundable tickets, however. Some airlines charge a fee to issue a refund, while others have a strict cancellation policy. In these cases, you may have a window of time during which you can request a refund. This does, of course, depend on your relationship with the airline.

If you're a frequent flyer who has racked up a lot of miles, the company may be willing to overlook their policies and grant you your refund. An important point to note—all flights are, on average, fully refundable within 24 hours of booking, so all is not lost even if you book a non-refundable flight. Be sure to check directly with your airline about their refund policies.

Refund Policies at Major Airlines

As mentioned, every airline takes a different approach when deciding when to issue refunds for flights. Here's how airfare refund policies compare at some of the top carriers.

1. Southwest

Southwest is one of the most popular airlines in the U.S. When it comes to refundable versus non-refundable tickets, the majority of tickets offered by Southwest are refundable, with no penalties.

The airline's Wanna Get Away tickets—the cheapest ones available—are non-refundable. But they may be applied toward future travel during a certain period of time. Refunds apply to both the Anytime and Business Select classes.

2. JetBlue

With JetBlue's perks, such as free in-air Wi-Fi and complimentary snacks and beverages, it's not surprising that it also tops the popularity list when it comes to air travel. JetBlue offers both refundable and non-refundable tickets, with refundable tickets being more expensive.

JetBlue's cancellation or change fees range from $75 to $200 per person, depending on the price of the initial fare. Refunds are not available on flights booked as part of a vacation package.

3. Delta Air Lines

While Delta Air Lines is a popular choice for domestic travel, it's even more popular when it comes to international travel. Delta offers refundable and non-refundable tickets, but its cancellation fees are a bit steeper than those demanded by other airlines.

For domestic travel, Delta charges a $200 cancellation or change fee, and the fee increases to range from $200 to $500 for international travel, depending on the price of the initial fare and location.

Delta's updated cancellation policy to address COVID-19 allows for all tickets expiring in 2021 and all new tickets purchased in 2021 to be honored through Dec. 31, 2022.

4. United Airlines

United Airlines permits cancellations or changes without a penalty only if the flight is canceled or changed within 24 hours of booking. Refunds cannot be given to basic, economy tickets, although other classes may qualify. Any changes or cancellations following the first 24 hours incur a minimum fee of $200 per person.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, United has expanded its refund policy to offer refunds to passengers that have been adversely affected.

5. American Airlines

American Airlines works quite similarly to United and Delta in terms of how it offers refundable and non-refundable tickets. The cancellation or change fees are similar as well, in that they range upwards of $200 depending on the type of flight.

American Airlines eliminated all change fees for First, Business, Premium Economy, and Main Cabin tickets for all domestic and short-haul international flights tickets issued on or after Aug. 31, 2020.

The Bottom Line

Whether it makes sense to purchase refundable or non-refundable airfare can depend on the circumstances of your travel plans and how concerned you are about potentially losing money if your trip doesn't pan out. Using an airline credit card to book could offer added travel protections, such as trip cancellation insurance and baggage delay insurance. You could also benefit from earning points or miles on purchases that you could apply to future flights. So as you contemplate your travel plans, consider where a travel rewards credit card fits in.