UPDATE: Delta announced Wednesday it has extended its free change and cancellation policy to all fares (including basic economy) purchased through April 30, 2021!
Airlines big and small have given travelers unprecedented flexibility throughout the last year: Free change or cancellation (for a voucher) on almost any fare you buy, from a first class ticket to a no-frills basic economy fare. But as travel slowly resumes, the free change free-for-all is coming to an end.
Major U.S. carriers like American Airlines, United, Alaska, and JetBlue, currently have a deadline of March 31 to buy the cheapest basic economy fares and still get free change or cancellation. It's unclear if they will match Delta, which just announced an extension of its own COVID-19 policy to tickets purchased through April 30, 2021.
After that, you'll have to buy a main cabin ticket or higher to get free change or cancellation – and airlines typically charge another $70 to $80 or more roundtrip to avoid basic economy. Going forward, basic economy tickets on the major U.S. airlines will be nonchangeable and nonrefundable.
These free change and cancellation policies were an antidote to the uncertainty surrounding travel throughout the pandemic: Again and again, airlines extended these policies to give travelers a reason to keep booking tickets. But as travel slowly resumes, those days are ending – another eleventh-hour extension seems unlikely.
Combined with the insanely cheap fares we've been seeing for travel throughout 2021, that's reason enough to book now for travel later. Book in the next day or two instead and you'll no longer get that same flexibility.
Take a look at some of the dirt-cheap fares we've been finding for 2021 travel – flight prices have never been cheaper!
It's not all bad news. Over the summer, airlines eliminated change fees on most fares – first on domestic flights, and then international – for good. That means you'll no longer pay a $200-plus change fee to change flights, or you can simply cancel for a voucher that lasts a year.
But while we've all gotten that for free over the last year, you'll soon have to pay extra for that flexibility. Airlines specifically exempted basic economy fares from those permanent policy changes.
It's all about the upsell: Airlines don't actually want you to buy these fares. They lure you in with a cheap price, then hope that restrictions like no free seats, no upgrades, and (at least on United basic economy and soon, JetBlue) no carry-on bags convince you to pay more to avoid it – often a $70 upcharge or more on a roundtrip domestic ticket.
By only allowing free change and cancellation on standard economy tickets, that upsell is about to get even more powerful. Airlines will likely start charging even more to avoid basic economy and get that flexibility back – in fact, Delta already has.
Travel is healing, and that means that the days of free change and cancellation on every fare are ending. On most U.S. airlines, that window closes after March 31. On Delta, it ends today, March 30.
If you're eyeing a trip for the spring, summer, or fall and like the price you see, book it. Flight prices may never be cheaper, and airlines will never be more generous with flexibility than they are today.