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Best and worst airline miles for change fees

by on Tue July 2, 2013 • No Comment

United recently raised the fees it charges for changes to award tickets booked using MileagePlus miles – which is disappointing since they are some of the easiest miles to redeem for award travel. How bad are they, and how do they compare to other airlines? We decided to compile the current award fees for each of the major U.S. frequent flyer mile programs.

The short of it. Southwest and American are the most generous when it comes to award ticket fees (none with Southwest, and for American, no charge to change dates 21 days or more in advance). Alaska and Virgin America are next up, followed by United, then Delta, JetBlue, and taking up the rear…US Airways.

AlaskaAmericanDeltaJetBlueSouthwestUnitedUS AirwaysVirgin America
21 days or more date change$75-$100$0$150$150$0$75$150$100
Less than 21 days date change$75-$100$75$150$150$0$100$150$100
Cancellation / destination change$75-$100$150$150$150$0$200$150$100
Booking within 21 days$0$75$0$0$0$75$50$0
Processing fee$0$0$0$0$0$0$25-$50$0
Partner fee$25$0$0$0$0$0$0$0

There are at least 6 kinds of fees levied on award tickets. Most are less than the fees you would pay to change regular cash tickets, but the number of ways you can get hit with a fee changes with every airline. Here’s a look at the best and worst by each kind…

  • Changing a date 21 days or more in advance. (BEST: American, Southwest. WORST: Delta, JetBlue, US Airways) American comes out ahead here among the big global airlines. Award space can be tricky to find, and as a courtesy, American lets you change the date of an award ticket for free up to 21 days in advance. United used to do this, but now charges $75 for the privilege. Which is still better than most, with Delta and US Airways charging $150 for the privilege.
  • Canceling a ticket and redepositing miles. (BEST: Southwest. WORST: United) You’re not going to find much relief here – unless you’re with Southwest expect to pay a hefty fee. While United charges less than others for date changes, it levies an industry high $200 for canceling and redepositing your miles. The other major players charge $150.
  • Booking a ticket within 21 days of departure. (BEST: Delta, Southwest, JetBlue, Alaska, Virgin. WORST: American, United). One of the most valuable uses of miles is last minute tickets that could cost hundreds or thousands of dollars if you paid in cash. The airlines realize this, and American, United, and US Airways each charge a fee for booking within 21 days – $50 – $75. Delta does not, along with the smaller players.
  • Processing fee. This is an insidious one. Only US Airways charges it for its Dividend Miles program, but any time you want to use your miles for your flight, you get hit with a $25 fee – even if you book on their website. Nothing free here.
  • Partner fee. Alaska Airlines is the only one that does this. It’s a fee of $25 to book with a partner airline like Delta, British Airways, or Emirates. Not pleasant, especially since Alaska has such a limited destination network of its own that you have to use partners to get many places.

Want to avoid the fees?

With United, if you hold the $395 per year United Club credit card you won’t have to pay the close-in $75 ticketing fee. Otherwise, if you’re an elite member of Delta, American, Alaska, US Airways, or United you can get some or all of the fees waived as you move up the status ladder.

The big question will be if US Airways tries to impose its fee structure on American Airlines flyers when they merge. That’s a fireworks show waiting to happen…


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