Sometime this past spring I started mildly stressing about booking my family’s fall holiday flights for four people from San Francisco to Raleigh, North Carolina. Reports were emerging that both domestic and international airfares were on the rise due to the swift return in travel demand, so I had a feeling we needed to act fast if we were going to fly anywhere at a decent price during a more popular travel period.
After an initial sticker shock of finding flights for around $4,500 for all of us to travel during Thanksgiving, I found much more reasonable fares closer to $1,500 if we tinkered with the dates (flying on Thanksgiving proper, for instance). “We need to book our North Carolina flights!” I told my husband, whose family we are going to visit.
Fast-forward several months and we still hadn’t booked the flights due to the usual combination of lapses in communication and needing to coordinate time-off requests, among other things (aka life). I went to check on the flights and they had jumped to $3,500. Distraught and frustrated that I hadn’t just booked them when they were $1,500, I bought the tickets at the new price—two months of procrastinating just cost us $2,000 (womp womp).
A couple months later, a new twist emerged: The flights had gone back down somewhat, and I had remembered a tip AFAR received earlier this summer from flight deal tracking service Scott’s Cheap Flights about rebooking your flight when the price drops.
During the pandemic, all the major U.S. airlines—Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue, Hawaiian, and United—ditched their long-standing change fee policies for all but basic economy fares. (Southwest hadn’t charged a change fee even prior to the pandemic.)
That means flight changes are now much easier and won’t cost you. Previously, it often wasn’t worth it even if the fare had come down, because a change fee of $200 meant that you wouldn’t actually pay any less and could even pay quite a bit more to change a flight to take advantage of a lower fare.
But now, when a price drops, you can cancel the flight, get the travel credits, and rebook at the lower cost without incurring any fees—as long as you hadn’t booked a basic economy fare. You’ll get your money back in flight credits rather than cash, but it’s still worth a shot if you think you’ll use the credits within the year that they will likely be valid for.
Here’s how to rebook your flight when the price drops
Since, I literally did this minutes before writing this story, I’ll walk you through exactly what I did.
1. Book the overpriced flight. (Whoopsies!)
2. Start checking airfares again days, weeks, or months later if you feel you maybe overpaid. I booked the Raleigh flights with United on July 5, and started checking back at fares as of last week, so a few weeks later.
3. Browse on Google Flights and cross-check on the airline’s website to see what kind of fares you come up with on both for the same dates. Or play with dates a little, too, if you have some flexibility. In my case I knew I was going to stick with United, but I could also see the case for rebooking with another airline with greatly reduced rates and just banking the credit with the original airline you booked with.
4. If you find the fares have dropped, it’s time to pounce. In my case, I was seeing some United fares as low as $2,600, down from the $3,500 we paid last month.
5. For each airline it might be a little different, but I’ll tell you what worked for United. I went to my United booking, but when I tried to just “change” the flight, United didn’t offer me any flight credits for making a change. So, instead, I canceled the return flight (which had a 50-minute layover at Washington Dulles that I was kicking myself for booking after writing stories about how everyone should be padding their layovers). I immediately got flight credits for that flight and then rebooked it at a lower price (and with a slightly longer layover) and now have $540 in flight credits (or $135 per family member) sitting in my United account.
6. In retrospect, and with a little more confidence, I should have canceled the entire flight and rebooked it for two reasons: 1) The outgoing flight may have been cheaper, too. I still may rebook this portion just to find out. 2) After canceling just the return leg, I realized that the one-way fares may have been higher than the lower round-trip fares I was seeing online.
7. In any case, it worked! I got the lower fare and some flight credits to spare.
Scott’s Cheap Flights confirmed my strategy. “If you want to rebook your original flight, most airlines obfuscate the process. In many cases, they won’t even show your original flight as an option when you click to change reservation,” the deal tracking site reports. “Instead, the way is to cancel your original flight, receive flight credit in exchange, and then use it to quickly rebook the new [lower] fare.”
Each airline differs slightly, so it’s not a bad idea to hop around and try a few strategies before committing. For instance, I played with the option to change my flight for a bit before realizing that canceling and rebooking was my best bet.
Again, note that this option doesn’t apply to basic economy fares, so that’s something to consider when initially booking. How do you decide if it’s worth the cheaper basic economy fare or the higher fare that might drop? “If we’re looking at an already-very-cheap fare, or a flight in a few weeks that’s unlikely to drop in price, we’d book basic economy,” says Scott’s Cheap Flights. “If we’re booking a flight six months out and main economy fares are only $30 or $40 more, we’re going with that. There’s ample opportunity during those six months for the fare to drop and when it does, we want to take advantage.”
And of course, don’t forget that the “money” you get back will be in the form of a flight credit that will likely need be used within a year of being issued. So, mark your calendar to make sure you don’t lose it because you didn’t use it.