Tips for booking “just in case” flights


When booking travel, there are times when it makes sense to have backup plans.  Maybe, for example, you absolutely have to make it to the departure city for that expensive cruise you bought.  Or, maybe you’ll lose your “best man” title if you don’t make it in time for your best friend’s wedding.  Or, perhaps, you took advantage of a great flight deal, but you need a positioning flight to get you to the starting airport.  Whatever the reason, it can make sense to book multiple flights with different carriers — just in case.

I was in a situation recently where I came close to using my backup flight booking.  For the Passing the GUC trip I’m doing with Nick (see this post for details), I had to get from Detroit to Washington Dulles airport in time for our 6:25pm Air France flight to Paris.  My primary positioning flight was a late morning flight on Delta.  My backup booking was an early afternoon flight on United.  I booked both flights with miles.  The idea was that if the Delta flight was cancelled for some reason, I’d still be able to get there in time thanks to the United flight.  In reality, I almost needed that backup flight for a different reason: As of late afternoon on Sunday, my COVID test results hadn’t yet come in.  Our destination (Dubai) required a negative PCR test within 72 hours of our flight to Dubai.  For that reason, I waited until Saturday to take the test and I hoped that it would come back quickly.  When it still hadn’t appeared by Sunday afternoon, I started making alternate plans: I could get a rapid PCR test Monday morning.  That would cause me to miss the Delta flight, but I could still make it onto the United flight.  It turned out not to be an issue after all — the test results came in at 7pm Sunday evening, but it was great to have the alternative flight “in my pocket” so to speak.  At the airport, once I was confident that the Delta flight was really going to fly, I cancelled my United flight and got my miles back (more on the process for cancelling United flights can be found later in this post).

Free Cancellations

It used to be the case that Southwest was the best airline with which to book “just in case” flights because they have always offered free cancellations.  With flights booked with points, the flights are really fully refundable: when you cancel you get back the taxes paid and your points.  With flights booked with cash, you get back a travel voucher that is good for a year.  So, I don’t think of cash reservations as fully refundable given that the credits are “use it or lose it”.

In the past year, Southwest has lost its advantage.  Except for some low cost carriers, all U.S. based airlines now offer similar cancellation policies.  AA, Alaska, Delta, JetBlue, and United all now allow free cancellations on most routes (except for basic economy tickets).  And just like Southwest, award tickets are fully refundable whereas paid ticket cancellations result in a 1 year voucher.  For full details, see this post: Airline Change Fee Quick Reference Chart.

United has a minor “gotcha” baked into their award ticket rules.  Cancelling a United award ticket is free only if the flight is more than 30 days away.  Luckily there’s a simple work-around:  While award cancellations are free only 30 days or more out, flight light changes are free anytime.  So, it’s possible to change your ticket to a date more than 30 days away and then it becomes freely cancellable.

Tips for backup flight bookings

  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.
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