Best options for booking backup award flights

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Last year, Greg published a post with Tips for booking “just in case” flights. The basic premise is that sometimes you may want to book a backup plan in case your preferred flight gets severely delayed or cancelled or you miss it for some reason. In that post, Greg gave some very good tips. Recently, this concept came up again in our Frequent Miler Insiders Facebook group and it was suggested that a post with the best options for backup flights might make sense. In this post, we’ll take Greg’s tips and use them to work out our best options for backup flights.

Why would you want a backup flight?

There are many reasons why you may want to book a secondary backup flight. For instance, on last year’s GUC trip, Greg and I scored economy class tickets round trip from Washington to Dubai on Air France and KLM for about $600 each and at the time we were able to apply his Global Upgrade Certificates to confirm an upgrade to business class for the entire itinerary without any additional cost. That was a great deal.

However, I don’t live in Washington, so I needed to book a separate positioning flight to get from my home airport to Washington Dulles airport. United flies that route, so I booked a separate flight on United from my home airport of Albany, NY to Washington. There is some risk in traveling on separate tickets like this: if my positioning flight on United was cancelled, I could miss my (separate) international ticket on Air France from Washington. Since United and Air France have no partnership, I’d just be out of luck and at the mercy of Air France for any help.

To mitigate risk, I booked a backup award flight on Southwest Airlines using Rapid Rewards points. If my United flight were cancelled or delayed by hours, I could take the Southwest flight and still arrive on time for my international Air France flight. If my United flight took off as scheduled, I could cancel the Southwest flight anytime up to 10 minutes before boarding and get a full refund of the $5.60 in taxes and immediate redposit of the points (and that’s exactly what happened).

Executing that strategy relies on knowing that (in this example) Southwest allows cancellation up to 10 minutes before departure for no fee. Some readers wondered what other airlines, including international transfer partners, feature the same type of flexibility. For instance, if you book a first class award ticket from Frankfurt to New York on Singapore Airlines but you’re really starting your journey in Paris, should you book a backup flight from Paris to Frankfurt on Lufthansa using Avianca LifeMiles or on Air France using Virgin Atlantic points or something else altogether? This post will explore your options.

Greg’s tips

These tips were Greg’s final summary in his post about booking backup flights:

  1. Ensure free cancellations: Book backup flights with carriers that offer free cancellations.  These include: AA, Alaska, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, and United.
  2. Make your backup flight fully refundable:
    • If you already have flight credits from previous cancellations with a given airline, then you’re safe to use those funds to book backup flights.  When you cancel, you’ll simply get back those same funds (with the same expiration date).
    • If you have points/miles with a given airline that offers free cancellations, then using those points/miles to book award flights is a great way to go since it results in fully refundable bookings.
  3. Don’t forget to cancel!  Some airlines require that you cancel before the flight’s scheduled departure in order to get a refund.  For example, Southwest requires cancelling at least 10 minutes before your scheduled departure.  I like to use Gmail’s “schedule send” feature to send myself a reminder to cancel a couple of hours before the back-up flight.

Considering those tips, we’ll look at which airlines allow free (or cheap) cancellation and what the associated deadlines are.

We will look to update this post as policies change. In some cases, determining cancellation deadlines can be difficult as airlines do not always clearly offer that information on their websites. Please feel free to let us know in the comments if you know of other great backup award options.

The best options for backup award flights with the United States

Within the United States

Within the United States, booking backup flights has become very simple: most of the major carriers no longer charge a fee to cancel award tickets any time prior to departure. That said, watch out for basic economy tickets and note that JetBlue stands alone in giving a flight credit for the taxes rather than a refund.

American Airlines
    • Fees: No fee to cancel award tickets within and departing North America.
    • Deadline: Any time prior to departure
Alaska
    • Fees: No fee to cancel award tickets on any routes. Note that basic economy flights can not be cancelled.
    • Deadline: Any time prior to departure.
Delta
    • Fees: No fee to cancel award tickets for travel within the US at any time prior to departure as long as you book main cabin or higher. Note that basic economy tickets can not be changed or refunded.
    • Deadline: Any time prior to departure. Note that basic economy tickets can not be changed or refunded. Note also that Delta used to require cancellation 72 hours in advance but dropped that requirement.
Southwest Airlines
    • Fees: No fee to cancel. Note that you want to choose to have the refund returned to your original form of payment unless you want to be stuck with a flight credit for the original taxes.
    • Deadline: Cancel any time up to 10 minutes before departure for immediate redeposit of points and a refund of the taxes.
United
    • Fees: No to cancel 30 days or more before departure. The “trick” is to first change to a date more than 30 days in the future (which is also free) and then cancel for a redeposit. Don’t leave this to the last minute because sometimes you’ll need to call to make a change and you’ll need to budget enough time to do that.
    • Deadline: 30 days prior to departure for a fee-free cancellation, but as noted above you can first make a free change if you are within the 30-day window.
JetBlue
    • Fees: There is no fee to cancel a JetBlue award ticket, but you’ll end up with a flight credit for the taxes. That might not hurt much if you booked a domestic flight with $5.60 in taxes.
    • Deadline: Cancel any time prior to departure (but note above that taxes will not refunded but rather held as a future travel credit)

The best options for backup flights originating outside the US

Outside the United States, the US-based airline programs can still be a good bet in some instances, but there are a few foreign programs with cancellation policies that are conducive to backup flights.

Alaska
    • Fees: No fee to cancel award tickets on any routes. Note that basic economy flights can not be cancelled.
    • Deadline: Any time prior to departure.
United
    • Fees: No to cancel 30 days or more before departure. The “trick” is to first change to a date more than 30 days in the future (which is also free) and then cancel for a redeposit. Don’t leave this to the last minute because sometimes you’ll need to call to make a change and you’ll need to budget enough time to do that.
    • Deadline: 30 days prior to departure for a fee-free cancellation, but as noted above you can first make a free change if you are within the 30-day window.
ANA
    • Fees: 3,000 miles per passenger
    • Deadline: Prior to departure of the first segment. Note that only unexpired miles will be reinstated; if miles would have expired between booking anc cancellation, they will not be refunded.
Delta*
    • Fees: *Officially, travel originating outside of North America is subject to a $150 cancellation fee. However, as of the time of writing, Delta continues to waive this fee.
    • Deadline: Prior to departure.

American Airlines

American Airlines policy is unclear. It appears that change and cancellation fees may still be incurred for travel originating outside the United States, but it isn’t clear to me on which routes this applies. I have cancelled several American Airlines tickets originating outside the United States with no fee and immediate redeposit of miles (which is ideal for backup flights), but the website indicates that there may be fees for flights originating outside the United States. Also know that miles sometimes redeposit automatically and sometimes they do not (which requires contacting customer service).

Turkish Miles & Smiles

Note that I’m including Turkish here both for its reasonable cancellation fee and its reasonable no-show fee in case you forget to cancel in advance, but Turkish is not known for great customer service. While cancellations have in some cases been easy and painless, they have been slow to refund in other instances. Be aware that you may need to continue to follow up, so this isn’t a good backup option for those unprepared to deal with customer service issues.

    • Fees: Cancellation fee is $25 per passenger. Theoretically, according to the terms and conditions, you only pay a no-show fee of $50 per passenger for mileage reinstatement if you no-show your flight. I wouldn’t advise intentionally testing the no-show policy since Turkish isn’t known for their great customer service. Also note that cancellation and redeposit may be quick and easy (I have cancelled several awards and had miles redeposited immediately), but some readers have had mileage refunds delayed for a month or more.
    • Deadline: Prior to departure for the $25 fee or theoretically even after you no-showed your flight for the $50 fee.

Programs that are not great for backup flights

  • Air Canada Aeroplan: High cancellation fe of $150 per ticket if you cancel online or $175 over the phone.
  • Avianca LifeMiles: High cancellation fees of as much as $150 on some routes.
  • British Airways: Cancellations must be made 24 hours in advance. The fee is reasonable ($55 or forfeit the taxes if they are less than $55), but the advance deadline makes this a difficult choice for backup flights.
  • Iberia Avios: Cancellations must be made 24 hours in advance and most partner awards can not be changed or cancelled at all.
  • Emirates Skywards: Cancellations must be made 24 hours in advance and incur a $75 fee.
  • Etihad Guest: Etihad charges what could be a very reasonable fee (10% of the mileage cost to cancel) but requires cancellation 24 hours in advance, which makes it an undesirable option for backup flights.
  • Qatar Avios: If you can cancel at least 24 hours in advance, the fee is a very reasonable $25. However, cancellations within 24 hours of departure cost $100 (and flights must be cancelled at least 3 hours before departure or the Avios are forfeited).
  • Singapore KrisFlyer: Cancellation fees used to be very reasonable but are now $75 per passenger
  • Virgin Atlantic: Cancellations must be made 24 hours in advance. The fee is reasonable (30 GBP for departures from the UK or 50 USD for departures outside the UK. Similar to British Airways, you can forfeit the taxes if they are less than $55), but the advance deadline makes this a difficult choice for backup flights.
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bob

* For United: the service fee chart states that a fee is charged for not just cancellations but also changes on international outside-US within 30 days, so your trick seems like it wouldn’t work. Unless they are not applying the rule?

* For American: I don’t see anything that suggests international outside-US is handled differently — that reinstatement and refund applies broadly (with some needing to be done over the phone). Is there anything you see that seems to suggest otherwise?

TCCQuest

I had an AA award backup flight from CTG back to US. Cancelled without issue.

US to UVF, and UVF to US with miles. Also cancelled without issue.

aphx

What cancellation policy should I follow for an BA avios redemption flying AA metal?

Chri

I am worried about a cancellation of my initial leg from my home city to US international gateway and have booked a backup flight to that city on SW. However, am I correct that if my initial leg is delayed/canceled and I don’t fly the first leg and look to go on SW then the rest of my original itinerary would be canceled? Any way to get around this?

Justmeha

Yes that is correct, if you miss the first leg of an itinerary they will cancel the entire trip.

JohnB

While everything in the post is all well and good….what happens if you are on multi-segment trip? Having cancelled your backup flights upon check-in, etc. You then fly to the hub city and your next segment is cancelled, what then? This happened a lot this summer. If on a business trip, your corp. travel agent would take care of the issues. But for personal travel, one is better off with the insurance from your CC, to take care of flight irregularities. Also many of us are not that loaded with miles to book back-up award flights. With positioning flights (or cruises), sometimes it is just better to build a one night stop-over so that the chances of missing connections is reduced.

Paul

No issues in May canceling AA award booking for BA biz LIS-LHR-ATL when we found LH F space the day before the flight. All fees and miles refunded quickly.

Ben

Are you sure about United with flights originating outside US still have no fee to change (and subsequently cancel)? According to United’s website, for general members, they assess a $125 fee for:

“Fee for making a change to or canceling international tickets that do not originate in the U.S. 30 or fewer days before departure”

happycolor

That is what I thought, too.

Silverbuffy

That’s what I pointed out below as well. This article needs to be updated with the correct information.

Amy

Great info. I know this is about booking with points but I agree with Steven, please add a note if the cash refund policy is the same as the points. Thank you!

Steven

Would love to hear about airline cash rate policies!

Danny

Alaska has a $15 nonrefundable call center booking fee and a $12.50 nonrefundable partner award fee which may or may not be refunded. I am at 50% when I had to cancel my last two Cathay flights.

Anthony

I like to fly in the night before just to be safe. I am flying on Emirates from JFK to Milan on Friday but I live in Atlanta so I am flying in Thursday night. I booked a Choice hotel in Midtown Manhattan using only 15,000 Citi TYPs which I think is a great deal.

Silverbuffy

The fee listed on United for changes or cancel on flights originated outside the US is $125 without status. Therefore it seems the change to 30 days out and then cancel won’t work. https://www.united.com/ual/en/us/fly/mileageplus/awards/travel/ticketing.html

Gary P

Very useful. Thanks!

DSK

Curious about the United trick. Guessing if you booked using points and got a really low fare (in points) and want to cancel within 30 days, you need to give them more points (equal to the current price in points minus the price in points at which you booked) to move the date beyond 30 days before canceling to get all your points back? Haven’t had to do this yet so curious how it works.

Michael

Back up flights? How about completely different back up trips with so much unpredictability?