The worldwide coronavirus outbreak is already having a massive impact on the travel industry, as airlines cut capacity, cruise lines are turned away from ports and some hotels provide relief to guests with nonrefundable rates. Kuwait plans to suspend all commercial air traffic as of Friday, March 13, effectively closing its borders to passengers from other countries.
And of course, there’s the recent announcement from the U.S. that’ll restrict travel to or from Europe for the next 30 days.
The global pandemic has also caused notable disruptions to existing travel plans along with an important choice to make for those with future vacations: Should I still travel, or should I postpone or cancel my trip? This is an intensely personal decision though it also has financial implications, as many travel insurance providers — including the coverage offered by popular credit cards — typically don’t cover nonrefundable expenses when you cancel or change a trip based on fear of a pandemic.
Many airlines have announced travel waivers to lessen this burden, but over the last few days, we’ve received dozens of emails from readers, inquiring about whether these policies apply to award tickets. We are going to break things down so you know exactly what to expect if you’re considering changing or canceling a trip you booked using your hard-earned points and miles.
Travel waivers for award tickets by carrier
We have a current list of airlines offering travel waivers related to the coronavirus outbreak, and we update that article regularly. As a result, we won’t rehash the entirety of those policies here. Instead, we’ll focus on how they affect award tickets — though bear in mind that this is a continuously-evolving situation, so some of the below could change at any time.
Alaska specifically references award tickets on its main travel waiver page, indicating the following:
- Any award ticket purchased on or before Feb. 26, 2020 that includes travel through March 31 can be canceled or changed for free. Any cancellations will result in a redeposit of miles into your Mileage Plan account.
- Any award ticket purchased between Feb. 27 and March 31, 2020, will also enjoy waived change and cancellation fees. Note that this applies to any dates of travel; it isn’t limited to flights through the end of March.
In both cases, however, you must change or cancel your flight prior to the departure of your original flight.
Bear in mind too that Alaska MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75K travelers enjoy free changes and cancellations on all award tickets.
American’s travel waivers have a couple of different layers. The first one waives change and cancellation fees for tickets purchased prior to March 1, 2020, involving flights through April 30, 2020. While not directly addressed online, an American spokesperson confirmed to TPG that the waivers “do include award tickets, and the miles would be reinstated to the member’s account” in the event of cancellation. However, you must change your flight to begin travel by Dec. 31, 2020 or within one year of your original ticketing date, whichever comes sooner.
It’s also worth noting that you need to have a phone agent manually reinstate your miles on a canceled award ticket; it doesn’t happen automatically.
The second change-fee waiver applies to new tickets booked from March 1 to 31. However, per the terms and conditions, “This policy excludes bookings through AAdvantage award tickets.”
Remember that American Executive Platinum travelers enjoy free changes and cancellations on all award tickets, including Economy Web Specials.
Delta Air Lines
Like American, Delta’s travel notice includes waived change and cancellation fees but differentiates this based on when you book(ed) your flight — and just added new waivers for European flights through May 31. However, the published policy doesn’t explicitly address award tickets. TPG reached out for clarification, and a Delta spokesperson provided the following statement:
“The same rules apply whether a flight is booked with cash or miles. For award flights, we are also waiving the mile redeposit fee.”
This is among the most generous of these travel waivers, as free cancellations are typically reserved for high-tier Platinum and Diamond Medallion members.
New York-based JetBlue has a smaller international footprint, but it was among the first to implement a waiver of change and cancellation fees for new reservations, including those in Blue Basic. This has been updated a few times since the initial announcement (you can view the most up-to-date information on this page), but unfortunately, the current policy doesn’t explicitly address flights booked using TrueBlue points.
We’ve reached out to the airline to ask whether award tickets are covered, and a spokesperson confirmed that they are, so TrueBlue members can change or cancel their flights booked with points without penalties. Remember too that JetBlue Mosaic members enjoy fee-free changes and cancellations on all tickets (excluding Blue Basic flights).
Southwest’s hasn’t issued a formal fee waiver related to coronavirus — simply because the carrier already allows award tickets to be changed or canceled without penalty. If you’re looking to cancel an upcoming flight booked with Rapid Rewards points, you can do so for free and get all of your points back (along with a refund of taxes and fees). Alternately, you can change it without any fee, though any applicable fare difference would apply.
United’s travel waiver related to the coronavirus outbreak follows a similar pattern: Customers will pay no change or cancellation fees on flights that depart through April 30, and if your flight was booked between March 3 and March 31, this waiver covers all travel dates. Like Delta and American, it too doesn’t explicitly address award tickets. However, when TPG reached out to the airline, a spokesperson confirmed that you could change tickets booked with miles for free, as long as they fell during the applicable booking and/or travel windows.
Unfortunately, when we followed up regarding canceling award tickets, the spokesperson clarified that the redeposit fee would still apply — which varies based on United Premier elite status.
It doesn’t hurt to ask
Of course, a rapidly-evolving situation like the coronavirus outbreak is bound to create some gray areas, and TPG staffers have already experienced this in our own interactions. TPG Senior Editor Alberto Riva asked to waive the $125 redeposit fee for an award ticket he had booked with United miles in Swiss business class from New York-JFK to Zurich in late March — which the United phone agent agreed to after speaking with a supervisor. TPG Senior Editor Jasmin Baron faced a similar situation changing an award ticket booked using Alaska miles for her mom to fly back from the Philippines, but when she explained her circumstances, the phone agent waived the change fee.
We’ve also received reports from TPG readers indicating that itineraries that should be eligible for free changes are having fees added on, so if you’re in a similar situation, you may need to call to resolve the discrepancy — and unfortunately, wait times may be quite long. You could try an airline’s international customer service numbers or use the automated system to request a call back (if available). This could also be a great opportunity to leverage an elite phone line — though one data point shared with TPG indicated a six-hour wait for an agent with one of the major U.S. carriers.
With the new travel restrictions between the U.S. and Europe, these waits are likely to grow, though one would hope that the major airlines continue to give their phone agents discretion to help affected passengers.
Remember to stay calm and be respectful, especially if you’re asking for an exception to the published policies. A phone agent may have the discretion to waive change and cancellation fees on award tickets, but being rude is a surefire way to prevent that from happening.
The coronavirus outbreak continues to grow, and the major airlines continue to update their travel waivers. If you have an award ticket booked for travel through April 30, you should be eligible to change or cancel it without a fee, though the exact details vary — and could change in a day or even an hour. Your best bet is to monitor the travel alerts page(s) for the airline(s) on which you have travel booked, and feel free to bookmark our own coronavirus hub page for up-to-date information on the disease’s impact on the travel industry.
Featured photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy.
WATCH: Coronavirus outbreak causes travel industry to pivot (provided by USA Today)
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