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Booking Backup Flights? Why Delta & Southwest Are Best

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Between the ongoing grounding of certain Boeing 737 Max jets and the usual winter travel woes, travelers are understandably on edge about flight delays and cancellations. Booking a last-minute flight with another airline as a backup might be a necessary evil … but those “just in case” flights can cost a small fortune.

But what if it doesn't wind up costing you a boatload? Thanks to their incredibly generous 24-hour refund policies, two major U.S. airlines will still give you a full refund if you cancel because you don’t need that backup flight after all – even if you booked the day before … or even the day of. Other airlines will only give you your money back if you booked that flight at least a few days or even a week beforehand, but not Delta and Southwest.

Of course, the best airline is the one that'll get you where you need to go on time. But keep reading to see why Delta and Southwest will be my go-to airlines when things are looking iffy – and why they should be yours, too.

Read our other tips on how to survive (or avoid) delays and cancellations


Their 24-Hour Rule is Better than the Rest

It's one of the few rules we've got as travelers here in the U.S.

If you cancel a flight within 24 hours of booking, you can get a full refund – not just an airline credit, but your money back. Either that or airlines are required to offer a no-cost option to hold a ticket at the current price. But most airlines simply honor the 24-hour rule. It applies to any flight that touches U.S. soil – yes, that includes international airlines, too.

In practice, though, that doesn't always work when you're booking within just a few days of departure. Department of Transportation rules say it only applies to “reservations made seven days or more before the flight’s scheduled departure time.” And many U.S. airlines take advantage of that close-in exception, according to their policies published as of publication:

  • Alaska: Must be booked at least 24 hours prior to departure.
  • Allegiant: Must be booked at least a week prior to departure
  • American: Must be booked at least two days prior to departure.
  • Delta: The 24-hour rule applies to all bookings.
  • Frontier: Must be booked at least seven days prior to departure.
  • JetBlue: Must be booked at least a week prior to departure.
  • Southwest: The 24-hour rule applies to all bookings.
  • Spirit: Must be booked at least seven days prior to departure.
  • Sun Country: Must be booked at least seven days prior to departure.
  • United: Must be booked at least a week prior to departure.

As you can see, all the other big U.S. airlines require you to purchase that flight at least a day or two in advance, while United and the ultra-low-cost carriers set that marker at a full seven days out.

But not Delta or Southwest. Here's a snippet from Delta's policies to back it up. There's not a word about how far in advance you need to book. The airline explicitly says: “If the reservation is made on the date of travel, you may cancel and refund your paid ticket in full until midnight that day.”


delta 24-hour rule


That's a big win, as Delta previously required passengers to book at least 72 hours in advance to be eligible for a refund when canceling under the 24-hour rule. But not anymore – Delta made that change sometime during the midst of the pandemic.

The free cancellation free-for-all has been in place with Southwest for years. Even if you're booking a flight for tomorrow or even later that same day, you can cancel and get your money back with Southwest. I did it myself just last week.


southwest 24 hour rule


It doesn't matter whether you buy the cheapest Delta basic economy or Southwest Wanna Get Away fare, these rules apply. Other airlines might sell refundable fares that you can cancel for a – you guessed it – full refund no matter when you book or cancel. But those fares are often far more expensive than your typical economy ticket – and in many cases, you won't see them at all when booking just a few days before departure.

Thrifty Tip: Be sure to book directly with the airlines to take advantage of these policies!

Delta's 24-hour cancellation policy is even better than Southwest in one respect: You have even more than 24 hours to cancel for a refund. Delta's terms explicitly state that you can cancel “by midnight of the day after the eTicket is purchased” for a full refund. So if you booked a ticket at noon today, you'd actually have 36 hours to cancel for a full refund before midnight tomorrow.

A Southwest spokesperson confirmed that their policy requires making a cancellation request within 24 hours of booking.

Either way, timing matters if you want to get that refund. You'll need to cancel your ticket before the flight actually departs:

  • Delta merely says that a “cancellation request must be made before travel commences for the first flight.”
  • Southwest says you need to cancel at least 10 minutes before your flight's scheduled departure time.

Fortunately, both airlines make it very easy to cancel flights for a refund online or via their smartphone apps, in my experience. Just keep in mind that you might run into some issues canceling your reservation if you've already checked in – that might require reaching out to customer support.

So do yourself a favor and don't wait until the very last minute to cancel those tickets if you don't need them … even if you technically can.


How to Put Southwest & Delta's Liberal 24-Hour Rules to Use

Let's lay out a scenario for how you can put these generous policies to use. It's a situation many travelers might find themselves in these days.

  • You're booked to fly United Airlines to Denver (DEN) on a Wednesday afternoon. Maybe it's a positioning flight before flying somewhere abroad, so you really need to make it to Denver.
  • But after seeing the headlines about disruptions or checking FlightAware.com, things are looking dicey for United. Heck, maybe you see you're still scheduled to fly on a 737 Max 9 but the flight hasn't been canceled yet.
  • So on Tuesday evening or even Wednesday morning, you book a backup flight on Southwest or Delta just to ensure you've got a way to get to Denver on time. Better safe than sorry, right?
  • Everything wind up going smoothly with your initial United booking? No problem: Just cancel that backup flight on Southwest or Delta and get a full refund – an option you won't have booking at the last minute with any other carrier.
  • If United winds up canceling (or significantly delaying) your flight, U.S. law also allows you to scrap that reservation for a full refund instead, helping to cover at least part of the cost of your backup booking with Delta or Southwest.


Another Reason to Give Southwest A Look

But what if you're not booking at the last minute? There's another reason why Southwest is at the top of my mind when making backup plans.

On almost every airline, canceling a flight outside that all-important 24-hour window means you'll get a travel credit … that expires just one year from the day you booked. If you're booking a one-off backup flight on a carrier you rarely fly, putting that credit to use could be a challenge.

But that's not a concern with Southwest: As of summer 2022, Southwest travel credits no longer expireNo matter which kind of Southwest fare you book, you've got the rest of your life to put that credit to use if you need to cancel.


Flight Credits Don't Expire


For a while, it looked like Delta was going to make the same move – the airline's president previously hinted at its plans to make Delta eCredits valid indefinitely, too.

But that was back in early 2022, and nothing has changed. So for now, Southwest is the only airline you can count on an unlimited runway to put a travel credit to use.

Southwest might not have the best reputation for getting travelers on and off the ground on time after its historic meltdown over Christmas 2022 and a few, more-recent operational struggles. Meanwhile, no U.S. airline is more reliable than Delta – its nearly 85% on-time arrival record in 2023 topped the nation, according to a recent analysis by Cirium.

But the fact that you could book a backup flight on Southwest weeks in advance, then cancel and get a travel credit you can use at any time in the future if you wind up canceling, makes Southwest worth considering when you're worried about your travels going awry.


Bottom Line

Their far more generous 24-hour refund policies should make Delta and Southwest travelers' first stop when scrambling to book a backup flight at the last minute.

Unlike other carriers who require you to book at least a full day (or even a week) in advance to be eligible for a full refund, Southwest and Delta's policies open a window to cancel even flights you book the same day and still get your money back – not just a travel credit or voucher. Combined with one airline's solid on-time performance and the other's incredibly flexible travel credits, these two airlines will be my go-to the next time my flights are looking iffy.


Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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