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Have you ever made travel plans, only to need to change or cancel at the last minute? A variety of scenarios could prompt last-minute travel changes — such as forgetting necessary travel documents. Although airlines offer more flexibility than ever as a result of COVID, limitations do exist close to flight time. Still, there are ways to avoid additional charges, or even worse, forfeiting those hard-earned points and miles.
I recently committed a flying faux pas: forgetting my ID. All of our bags made it into the car for the ride to the airport, but my wallet did not. Having experienced this snafu in the past, I knew just the strategy to save my award while still flying the same day, at the same (general) time, and to the same destination. Here are my tips for how to do so.
My Recent (Unplanned) Test Case
As is always the case with award travel, flexibility reigns supreme. Whether planning an international getaway or solving a self-inflicted crisis, flexibility makes the improbably possible.
In my recent experience, my wife and I were scheduled to fly from Chicago-O'Hare (ORD) back to Philadelphia (PHL) on American Airlines. We had booked our flight with British Airways Avios, transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards — taking advantage of a 30% transfer bonus at the time. See current transfer bonuses and transfer times in the AwardWallet transfer tool.
We were en route to Chicago O'Hare when I realized I didn't have my wallet. And we did not have enough time to both turn around to retrieve it and still make our flight. Where we had been staying was much closer to Milwaukee (MKE), and we could still make a flight from that airport.
Luckily, American flies direct from Milwaukee to Philly as well, and it just so happened that the flight departing around the same time as our original flight had award availability. Taking advantage of immediate transfers between Ultimate Rewards and British Airways let me book the two of us on the flight, just a few hours before its scheduled departure.
Saving Our Original Award
Booking a flight out of Milwaukee squared away how we would get home, but we were still booked on our original flight too. Fortunately, British Airways offers award travelers the ability to cancel flights and refund miles. The cost: either the award taxes and fees paid or $75 — whichever is less. For any domestic awards on American Airlines, taxes cost just $5.60. That's a small price to pay for flexibility!
My wife and I book domestic awards flights through British Airways more often than any other frequent flier program. But, we had never canceled a flight within 24 hours of departure before. Cancellations more than 24 hours before departure can be done online. However, because we were so close to our scheduled departure, there was no option but to call the airline.
When I called to cancel, the phone agent informed me that canceling our trip would NOT result in getting our miles back. Instead, we would essentially forfeit the 18,000 Avios + $11.20 used to book our tickets.
Solution: Change, Then Cancel
Facing the prospect of losing out on all those Avios, another option presented itself. Instead of making a cancellation — which we were too late to do in this instance — we would change our flight to later in the week. Then, after the change was completed, we could cancel our tickets as we normally would.
Sure, a change fee of $55 per ticket might apply. But, exchanging $55 for 9,000 Avios is equivalent to buying Avios at 0.6 cents each. That's a trade I will make any time I can!
Not every airline's policies will permit this strategy. Some, like Southwest, may even have more generous policies that allow changes or cancellations for free up to 10 minutes before scheduled departure. American Airlines only requires canceling an award before the first flight departs.
As a rule of thumb, travelers should check with the airline program used for booking for exact terms and conditions. Be sure to evaluate the cost of cancellation or making a change as well. Depending on the airline or the situation, the charges to “save” the points or miles used for booking the original ticket could be greater than the value of the points themselves.
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