Dodging a storm: Airline fee waiver policies vary

A snowstorm is heading for Washington, D.C., and you’ve got a flight scheduled to see the monuments, do some shopping in trendy Georgetown and visit relatives in the suburbs.

Your departing airline tells you it will waive its fee if you choose to proactively rebook a flight that has yet to be canceled. You’re all set. Right? Not necessarily.

You still might get hit with the fee if you booked the ticket on a travel Web site like Orbitz and a leg of your trip is on another airline. Itineraries with different airlines for each leg of your trip aren’t unusual on third-party travel Web sites. Some airlines even offer those itineraries. The bottom line is you may need to secure a waiver for each part of your trip.

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There are other restrictions for fee waivers, including a requirement that you begin your travel within a certain number of days after the original ticket date — roughly five to 14 days, depending on airline.

These offers are primarily announced just before a major storm to allow customers to change flights before cancellations might become necessary. Such policies may vary from storm to storm.

Here’s a primer on airline fee waiver policies for the most recent mid-Atlantic snowstorms and some general guidance.

US AIRWAYS

US Airways recently offered customers the option to change their flight plans to the Washington area following the blizzard that blanketed the nation’s capital.

Like most carriers, the offer was for the ability to rebook your flight for travel to and from certain cities that were expected to be affected by the storm.

Travelers were not subject to the airline’s $150 change fee as long as the full value of the unused ticket was applied toward a ticket to an alternate destination. Travel also had to begin within seven days of the original date.

There are exceptions. Suppose you were traveling from Philadelphia to Denver with a connection in Chicago. The Philadelphia to Chicago leg was on US Airways, and the Chicago to Denver leg was on United. You may still have been subject to United’s change fee if United did not have a fee waiver in place at the time for the Chicago-Denver leg of the trip. (In one of the recent storm advisories that applied only to some East Coast cities, there wasn’t a United waiver in place for Chicago to Denver.)

United’s fare rules would apply in this instance if its two-digit alphanumeric code was on your ticket. If US Airways’ code was on the ticket for the entire itinerary — as might happen in a codesharing arrangement where one airline bears all the costs but another airline might get a share of the revenue for booking a customer on a flight — the waiver would apply to both legs.

Also, when you buy a ticket through a third-party Web site, you are subject to that site’s fare rules, so read the fine print to make sure you are eligible for change fee waivers if the airline you are flying on announces one.

DELTA

Delta’s fee waiver policy for the Washington snowstorm applied to customers traveling to or from 12 states and the District of Columbia that were expected to be affected by the recent storm.

As the storm approached, Delta announced it would allow customers to make a one-time change to their travel schedule, without incurring a fee, if tickets were changed by a certain date. Passengers who changed their flights were required to travel within five days of the announcement.

For those making connections with other airlines, Delta, like US Airways, would waive its fee if its code was on the flights all the way through to your final destination. If not, you would have to go back to the third-party travel site or individual airline to make a change, and that other airline’s fee policies would apply.

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AMERICAN

American doesn’t charge a change fee if it has a waiver policy in effect, no matter where you purchased your ticket.

UNITED

United says that when it has a waiver in place its $150 change fee is waived for all customers traveling to an area impacted by the weather, regardless of where and how they booked the ticket. It says travel needs to be rebooked within seven days of the original travel date.

SOUTHWEST

No worries on Southwest. It doesn’t charge change fees at all. During incidents of inclement weather, its customers are eligible to rebook their flight or travel standby within 14 days of the original travel date of travel without paying any additional charge.

Another thing to remember.

If you keep your flight plans and your airline cancels your flight because of the weather, airlines generally offer passengers refunds or the ability to book another flight without any extra charges.

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