How to Get the Best Airfare Deal When Travel Dates Aren’t Firm

How to Get the Best Airfare Deal When Travel Dates Aren’t Firm

by Rick Seaney | Contributor

Are you the Family Travel Agent? Most of us have one—an organized soul who can get things done, whether it’s finding the best flight for a European vacation or getting a deal for Grandpa’s annual Thanksgiving visit.

Then there are tougher tasks like finding a good fare for everyone going to the family reunion, or the girls’/guys’ getaway to Vegas, or the mini-break at the beach with the neighbors. Or maybe you want to be with your sister across the country when she has her baby.  All of these prove to be difficult tasks because of their uncertain dates.

Is finding a deal when dates aren’t firm out of the question? No, but the biggest obstacle occurs when you scoop up a perfect deal only to discover the dates don’t work for everyone. Then if you adjust your plans, you could be stuck with the dreaded change fee.

Change fees are charged for any itinerary alterations to non-refundable tickets. Most of us buy those tickets because they’re far and away the cheapest. But make a change, and you could pay $200 for a domestic flight and up to $400 for certain international routes. That’s per ticket.

4 Ways to Avoid Change Fees

The 24-hour rule: If you see a good deal, you can buy tickets, but only if you think everyone can firm up their travel dates within 24 hours. That’s a mandated grace period, courtesy of the Department of Transportation. Change your mind after 24 hours and hello, change fee.

Note: Most U.S. carriers let you buy the ticket during this period then provide a refund; American Airlines allows you to hold the ticket for 24 hours, so if you’re uncertain, go with that option instead of dinging your credit card. 

2 Fare locking: Continental Airlines started this trend of allowing shoppers to find and hold fares for up to a week for a minimal fee, and it can be worth it if itineraries are uncertain. Today, United offers FareLock, and American Airlines has Extended Hold, both priced from about $7 to $14.  Tip: If you’re a gambler and believe a fare could drop, this is a way to hedge a bet.

Fly Southwest: Not only does Southwest let you check two bags for free, but it’s also the only airline without a change fee.

Become an elite miles member: This is easier said than done, of course, but once you reach a high level of status, change fees may be waived. See the fine print in your miles program for details.

Rick Seaney is co-founder of FareCompare, an airfare search site devoted to helping shoppers find the cheapest flights possible. FareCompare also offers easy-to-use, practical information to help travelers save on every step of their journey.

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