Editor's Note: This story was originally published March 10 but has been updated with new information.
Call it a slap in the face, courtesy of United Airlines.
Airlines are giving travelers unprecedented flexibility to change or cancel previously booked flights. Like its competitors, United Airlines is also offering free change or cancellation on future travel for new tickets booked in March. It's their way of giving anxious travelers some peace of mind – but more importantly, trying to drum up much-needed ticket sales.
But United's policy is designed to bolster its revenue – and cost you money. Read United's terms and conditions, and you'll see there are three options for altering a ticket booked in March.
- You can change your flight to a more expensive itinerary without paying a change fee, but you'll pay the fare difference.
- You can change your fight to a less-expensive itinerary, and you'll lose the fare difference.
- You can cancel your flight and get a travel voucher, but if you use it to book a less-expensive ticket, you'll also lose the fare difference.
So let's say you book a $500 flight to Hawaii today scheduled for July. But by the time summer comes, it's clear that traveling that far is still unwise. So you instead you change it to a $200 round-trip ticket to Texas for Christmas instead. You won't pay a change fee, but United will pocket your extra $300.
The same is true if you cancel it outright for a voucher. You will forfeit any remaining balance on the voucher after booking a new flight. That's a new change since we first reported this troubling policy last week – the clawback previously only applied to flight changes.
United confirmed that's how it's handling changes and vouchers for flights booked between March 3 and March 31. If you change or cancel a previously booked flight for upcoming travel, that's not the case. And if United cancels your flight outright, an entirely different (and more customer-friendly) situation applies.
Still, United's policy stands out. Neither Delta nor American currently have a similar policy in place that penalizes a traveler who changes to a less-expensive flight.
As The Points Guy found, Delta only takes your remaining balance if you change to the same flight on the same day. It's a way to protect against savvy travelers looking to game the system by booking a flight this month and rebooking later on if the price drops.
And United is clearly trying to do the same. But it's also a cheap way for the airline to pocket more money from unaware travelers.
And at a time when travelers are anxious about booking travel to begin with, that's low.
What's that saying about being penny wise and pound foolish?
If you're trying to book future travel and take advantage of airlines' promising they'll give you flexibility, beware that United's promise doesn't quite hold up.