A Primer On the Complex World of Airline Ticket Changes

If you want to change an airline ticket, you’re probably looking for a quick and simple answer as to how much it’ll cost. So why is it that it’s so common for airline websites to bomb out when trying to process a change, if they can do them at all? And if you call 3 reservations agents, why is it common to get 3 different prices? The reason is that airlines have made their change/refund rules so incredibly complex that it’s not simple to calculate. To illustrate the insanity, let’s walk through an example word by word.

Delta Fare Basis Example

Today, I’ve chosen Delta’s VKP65US fare which was filed in the LA to London market when I was writing this post. Don’t worry about all that stuff in the image above. That’s for another post, I suppose. I didn’t pick this for any particular reason. Nearly every airline has complex fare rules and they’re all worded differently. This one is just easy to walk through and helps illustrate the absurdity. (Yes, that’s right. I’m calling this easy.) So, let’s begin.

16.PENALTIES

Fare rules are filed in numerical categories. And Category (Cat) 16 is for penalties. Oh, but so is Cat 31 (for changes) and Cat 33 (for refunds). What’s the difference? Cat 16 is the old-school manual description. Cat 31 and 33 have the rules for computers to interpret for automated changes.

ORIGINATING AREA 1 –

What the heck is area 1? The world is divided into three areas. Area 1 is The Americas. Area 2 is Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Area 3 is Asia/Pacific. So this first round of information is only going to apply to people who start their travel in LA. For those who start in London, there is a separate set of rules which will follow.

CANCELLATIONS

ANY TIME
TICKET IS NON-REFUNDABLE IN CASE OF CANCEL/
NO-SHOW.
WAIVED FOR DEATH OF PASSENGER OR FAMILY MEMBER.

Penalties naturally include both charges for changes and for refunds. In this case, refund rules are very clear. No. The ticket is not refundable at all with one exception: if the passenger or a family member dies.

CHANGES

ANY TIME
CHARGE USD 300.00/CAD 300.00.
CHILD/INFANT DISCOUNTS APPLY.

At first blush, change fees seem to be straightforward as well in that it’ll cost $300. You might be wondering why they would quote a Canadian $300 rate here as well when there is no flight getting anywhere near Canada. It’s because these rule categories use generic text that can be applied to a variety of fares. This can just be applied in Canada without having to change anything.

But now it gets more complex.

NOTE – TEXT BELOW NOT VALIDATED FOR AUTOPRICING.

As mentioned, this is the written description. For automated pricing rules, head over to Cats 31 and 33.

—-TICKET VALIDITY—-
TICKET IS VALID FOR 1 YEAR FROM THE ORIGINAL DATE
OF ISSUANCE AND TRAVEL MUST COMMENCE WITHIN THIS
VALIDITY PERIOD. ONCE TRAVEL HAS COMMENCED THEN
ALL TRAVEL MUST BE COMPLETED WITHIN 1 YEAR FROM
THE DATE ON WHICH TRAVEL COMMENCED.
IF A TICKET IS EXCHANGED OR REISSUED –
1. A WHOLLY UNUSED TICKET MUST BE
EXCHANGED WITHIN THE ORIGINAL VALIDITY
PERIOD OF 1 YEAR AND WILL BE GIVEN A NEW
TICKET ISSUE DATE BASED ON THE DATE OF
EXCHANGE.
2. IF TRAVEL HAS COMMENCED THEN THE
TICKET MUST BE REISSUED AND ALL TRAVEL
COMPLETED WITHIN 1 YEAR FROM THE DATE ON
WHICH TRAVEL COMMENCED.

Tickets expire. So if you bought a ticket on March 15, 2015, travel must start by March 15, 2016. It then has to finish by March 15, 2017. But if you make a change, two things can happen. If you haven’t flown at all yet and need to make a change, then the clock will re-set for travel to begin one year from the date the change is made. But if you’ve already started your trip and need to make a change to the return, then you still have to finish travel within a year of when you first started. These rules can vary by airline and even by fare.

—-TICKET REISSUE PROCEDURES—-
THE VALUE OF THE NEW TICKET CAN BE
LOWER/EQUAL/HIGHER THAN THE VALUE OF THE ORIGINAL
TICKET.
IF LOWER – ANY DIFFERENCE IN FARE LESS THE CHANGE
FEE WILL BE RETURNED TO THE PASSENGER IN A
NON-REFUNDABLE DELTA TRAVEL VOUCHER AT TIME OF
REISSUE.
IF EQUAL/HIGHER – COLLECT THE CHANGE FEE AND ANY
DIFFERENCE IN FARE AT TIME OF REISSUE.
FLIGHTS MUST BE REBOOKED AND TICKET REISSUED AT
TIME OF CHANGE.

Assuming you’re ok to make the change, let’s talk about how it can be calculated. Here, Delta says the new ticket can be higher or lower in fare. If the new ticket is lower, then you’ll get a credit to use on a future trip. Delta is generous here in that it lets you use part of the credit toward the change fee. Some airlines, like United, don’t allow that and you have to pay the change fee separately no matter what. If the fare is higher, you have to pay the fare difference at the time.

US Airways is the most draconian here in that you can have a lower fare, but you’ll forfeit the difference to the airline. That’s why if you’re exchanging a US Airways ticket today, you don’t want to use it for something cheaper or you’re throwing money away. Fortunately this has not translated to American yet. Some airlines don’t let you reissue for a lower fare at all. It’s equal or higher, or it’s not allowed.

–WHOLLY UNUSED TICKET–
I. CHANGES TO OUTBOUND PORTION OF UNUSED TICKETS
A. ISSUE A NEW TICKET – CANCEL AND START OVER
1. MUST USE CURRENT FARES
2. VALIDATE ALL FARE RULES
3. VALUE OF ORIGINAL TICKET LESS CHANGE FEE
MAY BE APPLIED TOWARD THE PURCHASE OF A
NEW TICKET

And now we get to how to actually calculate the fare difference. First, we look at tickets that aren’t used at all. (So changes are being made before the first flight occurs.) If the first part of the ticket is being changed, so someone needs to change when they go from LA to London, then there is only one option. You have to figure out the price of the new ticket using all current fare rules. The original value of the ticket can be applied, less the change fee. This is easy.

II. CHANGES TO CONTINUING/RETURN PORTION OF UNUSED
TICKETS
A. REPRICE USING FARES IN EFFECT WHEN TICKET
WAS ORIGINALLY ISSUED – USING HISTORICAL
FARES
1. NO CHANGES ALLOWED TO THE FIRST FARE
COMPONENT
2. WHEN SAME FARES USED – ALL RULES AND
BOOKING CODE PROVISIONS MUST BE MET
3. NEW TICKET MAY BE LOWER OR EQUAL OR
HIGHER VALUE THAN PREVIOUS TICKET
4. VALIDATE ALL FARE RULES
5. ADVANCE RES IS MEASURED FROM ORIGINAL
TICKET DATE TO DEPARTURE OF PRICING UNIT
-OR-
B. ISSUE A NEW TICKET – CANCEL AND START OVER
1. MUST USE CURRENT FARES
2. VALIDATE ALL FARE RULES
3. VALUE OF ORIGINAL TICKET LESS CHANGE FEE
MAY BE APPLIED TOWARD THE PURCHASE OF A
NEW TICKET

But what if you keep the LA to London as is and you only need to change the return? Well, you can do it the same way as if you’re changing the outbound, but you have another option. If the same fare class is available on the new flight, you can actually back-price using the original date the ticket was issued. These usually means there won’t be a fare difference, though the change fee would apply.

Why is this allowed? I have no idea. It seems like a legacy of the old days for some reason. Maybe some old-timers know. Are you in the fetal position yet? Snap out of it. We’re not done.

–PARTIALLY USED TICKET–
I. CHANGES TO PARTIALLY USED TICKETS
A. REPRICE KEEPING FARES FOR FLOWN FARE
COMPONENTS AND REPLACE UNFLOWN FARE
COMPONENTS USING HISTORICAL FARES
1. NO CHANGES TO FULLY FLOWN FARE COMPONENTS
2. WHEN SAME FARES USED – ALL RULES AND
BOOKING CODE PROVISIONS MUST BE MET
3. NEW TICKET MAY BE LOWER OR EQUAL
OR HIGHER VALUE THAN PREVIOUS TICKET
4. VALIDATE ALL FARE RULES
5. ADVANCE RES IS MEASURED FROM ORIGINAL
TICKET DATE TO DEPARTURE OF PRICING UNIT
6. USE HISTORICAL FARES IN EFFECT ON THE
DATE OF THE ORIGINAL TICKET ISSUE DATE
-OR-
B. REPRICE REPLACING FARES FOR FLOWN FARE
COMPONENTS WITH HISTORICAL FARE/S IN AN
EQUAL OR HIGHER BOOKING CLASS AND REPLACE
UNFLOWN FARE COMPONENTS USING HISTORICAL
FARES
1. NO CHANGES TO FULLY FLOWN FARE COMPONENTS
2. NEW TICKET MAY BE LOWER OR EQUAL OR
HIGHER VALUE THAN PREVIOUS TICKET
3. VALIDATE ALL FARE RULES
4. ADVANCE RES IS MEASURED FROM ORIGINAL
TICKET DATE TO DEPARTURE OF PRICING UNIT
5. USE HISTORICAL FARES IN EFFECT ON THE
DATE OF THE ORIGINAL TICKET ISSUE
DATE
6. REPLACEMENT FARES FOR FLOWN FARE
COMPONENTS MUST BE OF EQUAL OR HIGHER
BOOKING CLASS THAN THE ORIGINAL TICKETED
FARE
7. USE BOOKING CLASS HIERARCHY WHEN
REPLACING FARES FOR FLOWN FARE COMPONENTS
THE HIERARCHY IS
ECONOMY CLASS – Y B M S H Q K L U T X V E
PREMIUM ECONOMY CLASS – W
BUSINESS CLASS – J C D I Z
FIRST CLASS – F P A G
-OR-
C. ISSUE A NEW TICKET
1. APPLY RESIDUAL VALUE /IF ANY/ LESS THE
CHANGE FEE TOWARD THE PURCHASE OF A NEW
TICKET
2. CALCULATE NEW TICKET USING CURRENT FARES
3. VALIDATE ALL RULES

Now we’ve moved on to partially-used tickets. Think of it this way. Let’s say you’re already in London and you hate it over there for some insane reason. Or maybe someone is sick. Maybe work issues came up. You need to change your return. That’s a partially-used ticket and there are three options.

The first option is similar to above. You would just keep the outbound flight (which is already flown) as priced and then reprice the return using that original ticket date. The second option is probably useful if you’re changing where you go next. Maybe you need to fly to Sao Paulo instead of back to LA and the original fares won’t allow that. So the segments that have already been flown will be re-priced using historical fares, as will the new segments. The last option is to just issue a new ticket using the residual amount.

I know, your head is spinning. Remember, this only applies to tickets from the US. For tickets that originate in Europe, it’s a different story. The change fee is 150 euros, and the change wording is a bit different. I won’t bother you with it here, but just take my word for it.

Other airlines put different kinds of provisions in here. Some airlines will allow taxes to be refunded even on a non-refundable ticket. Other airlines will charge the change fee on a per sector basis instead of per ticket, but that’s rare. (In most cases, only the highest change fee applies, you don’t add them together.) Some airlines insert a nasty little clause saying that you can’t hold a credit for future use. If you need to make a change, it has to be done and ticketed immediately at some point before the original flight departs or you forfeit everything.

If you were thinking you could get into a rhythm understanding these changes, think again. Every airline uses a different format for how it presents these details. There is no standard, so you really need to read and read again if you want to fully understand change fees for your specific ticket. Even then you’ll probably get it wrong. Now you can understand why 3 different agents give you 3 different prices.

Now go get a beer. You’ve earned it if you made it to the end of this post.

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37 Comments on "A Primer On the Complex World of Airline Ticket Changes"

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James
Member
I can see why computers failed to process this, what it strictly speaking says isn’t always what it means. Consider the case of an unused fare, where the new one is $100 cheaper. Obviously you owe them $200 but if you follow the wording as written, it would fall into the “lower” clause and they should give you a $-200 non-refundable travel voucher. If one bit of code is smart enough to correct a negative refund into a charge but another part isn’t, you’ll tend to get failures. That example would be common enough that they’d test it to make… Read more »
Don M
Guest

As a former programmer and large systems technology person (now known as mainframes), I have also done testing at the systems level (for NASA Unmanned flights), I fully understand the complexity involved here and with the current rules by airline, I am not sure this is a resolvable problem to find ALL issues during testing. To resolve the complexities, there would need to be some simplification to these rules ALL the airlines would have to agree to. Good luck on that!

christophe.bottega
Member

I made it to the end of the post (might have skipped a few of the fine prints on the way), and beer is probably not strong enough …
What amazes me, even more than the complexity, is the reference to the historical fare … which can be in some instances 2 years old (1 year to make first flight plus 1 year to finish last flight) … I was thinking you were a bit harsh with words like absurdity and insanity, but now I wonder if they are even strong enough …

christophe.bottega
Member

Wonder why I have Chris filled in the Name and the post appears as christophe.bottega (ie part of email address before @) ?

garyedel
Member

I have a headache

Zack Rules
Guest
I like Southwest’s change policy although they have tightened it in recent years. I think they realized a while ago that changing a ticket can be a profit opportunity because a cheap ticket is usually exchanged for a more expensive one. Having filled a seat at a higher price, they can then resell the old seat for more than what the cheap ticket cost, But adding a fee and lots of rules complicates that profit opportunity by discouraging people to do it and takes up an agent’s time. That is my theory as to why Southwest does not charge change… Read more »
Ron
Guest
Not sure I buy the proposition that “a cheap ticket is usually exchanged for a more expensive one.” This may be the case when people make changes to other airlines’ tickets, since changes incur a penalty and therefore are done only when really needed. With Southwest, however, people have figured out ways to play the changes to their advantage, exchanging cheap tickets for other cheap tickets. For example, I have a relative who routinely books alternative cheap tickets for each trip well in advance, then cancels the ones they don’t intend to use, rolling the credit forward. Southwest gets some… Read more »
Alex Hill
Member
That customer-friendly policy has in the past encouraged me to spend money now on Southwest that I likely otherwise would have spent on another airline. If I have a trip I’m not sure about, I’ll buy the ticket on Southwest now. Then either I use the ticket (Southwest won my business) or I don’t (and then have a credit, which means Southwest has won my business for a future trip, even one which I’m pretty sure about so Southwest wouldn’t have had an advantage over the fee-charging competition if not for the previous trip). But I thought that the *real*… Read more »
A
Guest
The last time I had to change a ticket I was working with the ticket agents at the airport who were very helpful but expressing their frustration with the system to me while trying to work it all out. What they said to me, and what I found particularly amazing is that the software on the ticket counter side is different than what they have at the gate? When I have peeked behind the curtain I’ve seen screens that look like your image…or…what to most people is an extremely antiquated software setup more akin to the 1980’s than 2015. Seems… Read more »
Outer Space Guy
Guest

….A great example as to part of the reason why I love flying Southwest!

Jeremy
Guest

Another shout out to Southwest. No Change fees and if the fare is cheaper you can be refunded, or the credit held for future flights if it’s a WGA fare.

We had issues once getting a non-refundable ticket refunded within the 25 hour grace period. It was a U.S. airways ticket. US agents had never heard of the rules. AA agents could not process the PNR. We called the Australian number for US Air and the refund was done in less than 5 minutes.

Jeremy
Guest

Cranky, any insights as to why this is so complex? Is it the case of “it’s always been this way”. Is it to make more money? Why doesn’t Southwest charge change fees. How does Spirit compare? What about Europian and Asian carries?

David SF eastbay
Member

If the heads of each airline had to figure out changes, the rules would be a lot more simple….lol.

What’s annoying as the airline can have different ways of doing the change depending on the fare type purchased in the same market, so the lowest fare can have one way of doing it which is different from a slightly higher fare which is different from a more higher fare. The whole thing makes no sense other then to confuse people in the airlines favor since they can just interpret the rules to their advance.

billyshearer
Member

I remember when I was a travel agent, and giving up trying to re-issue a ticket.
In the UK, High Street travel agents tend not to charge for services, and it’s so complicated.

PF
Guest

WN makes it so easy to modify or cancel – hope it doesn’t change.

Andrew mondt
Member

Thanks for the post! Exchanges are debit memo magnets. At least Sabre and Amadeus offer automated ticket exchange products. When these are used the GDS will stand behind the exchange in case of a debit memo. The problem is that these tools have costs beyond the GDS subscription fees. The agency has to figure out which is more cost-effective; paying the occasional debit memo or paying the extra GDS fees.

Daniel
Guest

Where’s the best place I can access these fare rules?

flyplayne
Member

Wonder if there is anywhere to find the definitions of the ticket “codes” [fare rules?]. I’m fairly certain that a “Y” class ticket is fully refundable up to departure time. As for the other code restrictions, I haven’t been able to find anything on them-Joel

JuliaZ
Member
I booked a ticket last year on AS for r/t SEA to DCA. And then my company temporarily froze travel. We always book non-refundable, but AS lets you hold the value for a year. I just rebooked about two weeks ago. I had to use a less advantageous schedule (originally fly out on Sunday and back Friday night, now fly out on Monday and back Saturday night, losing a work day), but the difference in fare was a surprising +$10. Alaska’s change fee is a flat $125, so this entire operation cost $135. I can live with that, and it… Read more »
Alex Hill
Member

Alaska’s change fee policies are very friendly compared to the non-Southwest competition. No fee more than 60 days in advance, and they’re the only airline that waives the fee for elites (MVP Gold/75k only, though).

CP
Guest

I had to make a change on a very complex AA itinerary last year, and I did it with an agent in the Admirals Club at ORD. It took forever, with the agent having to call the “tariff desk” and the “ticketing desk.” Now I know why.

Jim
Guest

Just fly Southwest, so you don’t have to deal with all this crap.

flyplayne
Member

Too bad SWA doesn’t fly to DUB, CDG, ZRH, or any other place in Europe I can think of. HA!

Jim
Guest

I know, right?!?!?!

UAPhil
Guest
I also love Southwest’s flexibility, but….there’s a big “gotcha”. All funds expire 1 year from the date of initial ticket issuance, AND, if you use “old” ticketless travel funds as part payment for a “new” ticket, ALL the funds inherit the expiration date of the “oldest” funds. Here’s a “near worst case” example: Suppose, on January 1, 2015, I buy a non-refundable Southwest ticket for $60. I don’t use it; I keep the funds for later use. Then, on December 1, 2015, I use the funds as part payment for a new $400 non-refundable ticket. ALL TRAVEL MUST BE COMPLETED… Read more »
John
Guest
If you think this is complicated, how about how they treat their Diamond members? I am currently on a Diamond Medallion member and I am traveling on a $7,000, first class ticket in Asia from the US, and on Guam actually. I called to ask what it would cost to move my return up one day, and they confirmed they had seats on the same flights, but said that my return flight was not changeable at all at any cost, period. I asked how I could have possibly known this fact when I booked the ticket online, and they admitted… Read more »
Michel
Guest
Thanks for this! I have a question about this part: “But what if you keep the LA to London as is and you only need to change the return? Well, you can do it the same way as if you’re changing the outbound, but you have another option. If the same fare class is available on the new flight, you can actually back-price using the original date the ticket was issued. These usually means there won’t be a fare difference, though the change fee would apply.” The part I don’t understand is why this other option would only be possible… Read more »
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