We've seen airlines respond to the by offering unprecedented flexibility, allowing travelers to change or cancel upcoming flights for free. That even applies to any airline tickets purchased over the next several weeks as airlines try to get travelers to keep booking future trips.
But what about basic economy fares, the most restrictive tickets that money can buy? Among the many restrictions like no seat selection and no upgrades, airlines explicitly warn that these tickets can't be changed or canceled. Until now.
With coronavirus wreaking havoc on airlines and travel plans, that has changed. Even basic economy fares are eligible to be changed or canceled under these broad waivers.
Read more: How all major airlines are offering free change and cancellation during the outbreak.
That means if you're booked to fly basic economy between now and the end of May, you can likely change that flight without paying big fees. Or you can cancel it and get a voucher for the value of your ticket. And if you're trying to book a trip for the summer, fall, or winter, you can buy a basic economy fare and still change or cancel it free. Delta and American are waiving fees on all fares purchased by April 15, while United is doing so all the way through April 30.
Even basic economy awards booked with Delta SkyMiles make the cut. Delta has expanded these no-frills fares to award tickets in a big way, which typically means they can't be changed or canceled.
But Delta has made clear that it's treating all award tickets just like cash fares. That means you could book even a basic economy flight with SkyMiles, cancel it down the road, and get your SkyMiles back without paying the usual $150 redeposit fee that usually applies on Delta awards.
This is a big deal. Airlines have gone out of their way to help people change plans due to coronavirus. Refusing to help out passengers on basic economy tickets would just encourage more travel at a time when no one should be traveling.
And while some carriers have been stingy (or acting illegally) in denying refunds to eligible customers, this newfound flexibility for some of the most restrictive fares is a big win for travelers who booked the cheapest fares.
Speaking of refunds …
What About Getting a Refund?
If you want a refund rather than a voucher for future travel, pay attention.
If you cancel a flight on your own due to concern about the virus, you're out of luck. The airline is under no obligation to give you a cash refund – a voucher for future travel is probably the best you can do.
But if the airline cancels your flight, that's when things change. The U.S. Department of Transportation legally requires airlines to offer refunds when they cancel a flight – something airlines are doing more and more these days.
And that law applies even to non-refundable fares – aka basic economy. Here's a snippet from the regulations, with our emphasis added:
If your flight is cancelled and you choose to cancel your trip as a result, you are entitled to a refund for the unused transportation – even for non-refundable tickets. You are also entitled to a refund for any bag fee that you paid, and any extras you may have purchased, such as a seat assignment.
That means you can get your money back if the airline cancels your flight – even if you booked a basic economy fare. And if you paid for a seat assignment or baggage fees, you should get that money back, too.
Read our guide on how to get refunds if your flight gets canceled – and what to do if the airline isn't complying.
If you booked (or are booking) a basic economy fare, you can breathe easy. Airlines are treating these typically restrictive fares just the same as any ticket, meaning you can change or cancel them without paying huge fees.