Flexible Flying in 2021: Take Advantage of Relaxed Airline Policies with Free Ticket Changes, Cancellations, and Travel Vouchers
Has the era of flexible flights just arrived? Let's clear up all the doubts and confusions about flexible plane tickets and travel credits/vouchers. We will show you how to book flights with change fees waived, and which airlines provide the most relaxed policies when it comes to cancellations and refunds. Our goal is to make this article your guide to flying in the COVID-19 era – when ticket prices are falling and airlines finally understand that your travel plans can be fluid.
We update this guide as the new regulations are published by the airlines.
With flights to several destinations around the world suspended and travel restrictions implemented by countries trying to contain the outbreak, planning your travels may seem like a challenge. A trip that seems certain today may prove impossible tomorrow.
Fortunately, many airlines already realized that their customers’ travel plans may be fluid. In their attempt to re-inspire confidence and encourage flight bookings, they have implemented numerous passenger-friendly strategies. The most important one is more ticket flexibility, allowing travelers to book their flights with peace of mind.
These new policies are most likely subject to change. How long ticket flexibility remains will likely be determined by how quickly travel demand bounces back and what passengers’ expectations would be in the post-pandemic world.
What is a flexible plane ticket?
A flexible plane ticket is an airline ticket that allows changing the time and date of the flight. The new ticket is usually issued free of charge, although the passenger may need to pay the fare difference. Flexible tickets became a popular way for airlines to encourage flying during the uncertain times of coronavirus pandemic.
Historically, airlines make a lot of money on fees, including the change fee charged when a customer needed to move it’s trip to another date on non-refundable plane tickets. These change fees are levied on top of any fare difference between the original and the new flight. For example, Qantas charges A$10 change fee for Australian domestic flights, and A$77 when the traveler changes the travel date of an international flight.
In the recent past, the rivalry between airlines used to be focused on flash sales and time-limited promotions to edge out their competition’s cheaper offers and fill flights. But now, with most travelers grounded and airlines struggling for bookings regardless of the price, we can see a new type of race: to drop infamous change fees.
In 2021 relaxed ticket-change rules allow travelers to rebook without a penalty anywhere from a few to even 24 months out – as in the case of Emirates. As some airlines waive the change fee, not all of them do the same with the price difference (if the new flight costs more than the original one). For longer flights, where this price difference exceeds several hundred dollars, passengers may still want to consider paying more for a fully flexible ticket (like Flexible Premium Economy) just to feel insured against any sudden plans change.
Given the current market, this new strategy is a matter of survival rather than benevolence. Uncertain travelers are now uncomfortable booking a trip without built-in flexibility – the old model of airline tickets that locked you into a single flight is now obsolete.
For some airlines, it may be just a temporary move. Others like American Airlines, Delta, United, have already announced that the elimination of change fees would continue beyond the pandemic times, setting the new standard in airline policies. For the time being, we should celebrate the newfound flexibility and not expect fees to pop up anytime soon.
In the further part of the article, we will look at the details of the change fee policies of the largest airlines.
Free change doesn’t mean free cancellation! Many people mistakenly equate “free changes” with “free cancellations” but they are two different things. If your ticket comes with a change fee waived, you still can’t get a refund – you are only allowed to switch flights without penalty cost, and that’s it.
Cancellations, refunds, and travel vouchers
The global decline in demand for flights forced airlines to reduce headcount and trim their flight schedules. Additionally, following guidance from the WHO and the IATA (International Air Transport Association) resulted in even more flight cancellations around the world.
In the early days of the pandemic, customers had to fight hard to get their money back for those canceled flights. But over time, to help quell travelers’ worries over trips that were being disrupted, airlines have begun introducing flexibility to their refund policies.
Normally, when you cancel a flight, the airlines charge you a cancellation fee. For some ticket classes, you may not even be eligible to receive a refund at all. Fortunately, those strict policies have changed during the pandemic, allowing more choices and flexibility when canceling your booking. If your travel plans change due to the reasons related to COVID-19, most airlines will allow you to cancel the flight free of charge and receive a full refund in a form of credits or a travel voucher – to be used later to book another flight with the same carrier. Some airlines even offer a form of cash sent back to your bank account or credit card.
Basic Economy (also: Promo Economy or similar) is a class of tickets that airlines brought in some time ago to offer rock-bottom prices but with a lot of restrictions. Those tickets can’t be changed at all and are non-refundable. The good news is that those strict rules have been relaxed during the pandemic, but the details depend on the airline.
Should I accept travel voucher?
Some airlines get creative about handling canceled flights. Obviously, they would rather see you rebooked with them, so they try to find ways to encourage it.
For example, Turkish Airlines presents an offer for those who reschedule existing flights instead of canceling. You’ll get a 15% bonus to the value of your ticket if you decide to postpone your flight, as opposed to refunding it.
Other carriers have taken a different, dissuasive approach – instead of incentivizing customers to postpone flights, they’ve just made it much harder for them to get refunds. It’s not unusual that the airline requiring you to wait a full year for a refund (!), which basically forces passengers to accept the airline’s credit or voucher.
Surely, travel credits are not that bad if you are still intending to take that trip in the future. A travel voucher represents the value you paid for your ticket, and you can choose any date throughout the year to get the flight at the same price you’ve already paid. In most cases, if you’re unable to use the full value of your travel credits within 12 months you will be entitled to a refund of the unused amount.
Make sure you read and understand all the terms of the offer before you accept a voucher. Most can only be used and flown by the originally ticketed passenger. Some have quite short expiration dates (just 90 days or even less). Lastly, some airlines only accept cancellations for a strictly defined list of reasons – usually they must be closely related to pandemic and travel restrictions introduced by the country you are flying from/to.
It’s worth remembering though that many airlines still offer higher class tickets with flexibility, alongside their new, no cancellation fares. They usually come with much fewer restrictions and allow for more flexibility – although this comes at a price.
Should I buy a plane ticket now, and travel later?
New airline policies give you amazing flexibility to plan ahead of your trip. And flight prices when booked in advance during the pandemic are so hard to resist! Just imagine all those destinations formerly outside your budget, being reachable just for a couple of hundred dollars. And even if you are unsure if you will be able to travel in the next few months because of “the unknown” in the form of lockdowns, travel bans, and visa restrictions – flexible tickets are there to protect you from losing money and help you easily change travel dates.
So, should you lose your worries and rush to book that flight to the Maldives?
Well, answer yourself a few questions first:
Do you know for a fact that the airfares will not remain this low? If the fares on offer for your itinerary are only slightly better than usual, it may be not a good idea to book the ticket now. The risk related to constant travel bans and border restriction changes is probably not worth it.
How much you can save? You should only book tickets that are well below the average price for the route you are considering flying. There are deals out there with several hundred or even thousands of dollars off the normal prices, and only those are worth booking now (and keeping your fingers crossed!).
When you intend to fly? Basically, the farther out in the future you can book, the better. If you are making plans now for several months out, there’s a much bigger chance that the coronavirus impact will be mostly over by then, and you can actually take this flight.
Do you really have to be there? If there is a destination you absolutely have to be really soon, and there are no travel restrictions currently in place, you should consider booking your plane tickets now. With each day of delay prices will increase, and this is just a standard rule that applies to both pre-pandemic times and the present.
Does the airline offer really flexible tickets? Don’t get too excited before you read all terms and conditions that come with the new airline policy. The fee waivers tend to have a lot of conditions and exclusions. Especially, make sure that in case of travel plans change, you will not be responsible to cover the changes in ticket prices.
Now, let’s take a look at some popular airlines, and see how they adapt their policies to the “new travel” era. This should give you an idea of what you are entitled to if you are booking flexible tickets these days.
Traveling from or to the United States?
If you’ve purchased such a ticket you may cancel it without penalty within 24 hours of your booking – as long as that reservation is made one week or more before the departure date. It’s a customer service standard set by the US Department of Transportation.
AirAsia: not entirely flexible tickets
AirAsia offers just partially flexible bookings, as only flights that were canceled by the airline itself are subject to a full refund. The refund comes in a form of credits to be used for future bookings. For any other situation that a traveler may face (sudden change of plans due to pandemic, for instance), AirAsia applies the rules from the pre-covid era, and that usually means no flexibility and high cancellation fees.
Cancellations and refunds
AirAsia flights are fully refunded but only if the flight was canceled by the airline. The full amount you paid for the ticket will be refunded to the credit account (in a form of AirAsia BIG credits) available through the AirAsia website or mobile app. The credit is valid for 2 years and can be used to make any future flight booking, extra baggage allowance, seat selections, inflight meals, and any other optional services provided by the airline.
In a case where the ticket cancellation comes from the passenger, the refund policy is not that generous and you will be charged the cancellation fee. The rules are quite complex and depend on the route, flight date, refund method (cash or credit), and how early before the departure date the cancellation was reported. For example, a refund request for domestic in Indonesia will cost you up to 90% of the ticket fare (!).
If a flight is canceled by the airline, the passenger is entitled to “unlimited flight changes”. We have used quotation marks here due to strict restrictions: the free date change only applies to bookings made before April August 2020, and the latest possible reschedule date is December 31 December 2020. Fortunately, you can first ask for a full refund, then use credits to buy a new flight (at a new price).
For date changes that were not forced by the flight cancellation, the standard AirAsia fees apply. Additionally, a fare difference must be paid.
AirAsia does not allow route changes.
As AirAsia doesn’t have call centers anymore, the process of getting a refund or changing the date can be made online, using AVA live chat. To check your credit account, you just need to login on the AirAsia website or their mobile app.
Air New Zealand: travel credits valid until June 2022
Air New Zealand gives its customers full flexibility when it comes to flying during pandemic by waiving their fees for any ticket changes and offering travel credits for cancellations. There is a time limit for this offer though: the flight must depart before 31 March 2021 (domestic) or before 30 June 2021 (international). Those dates may change in the future.
Also, for changing flight dates, fare differences may apply.
If you decide to cancel your trip, your ANZ account will receive travel credits. Those credits can be used to book any Air New Zealand domestic or international flight, regardless of your original ticket type. You can also use your credit to buy a flight ticket for someone else. The credits will remain valid until 30 June 2022. As the travel date must be within 12 months of making your booking, it means that you can travel until 30 June 2023. You can redeem your credit and make a booking using the online form.
Please note that ANZ also offers two types of Flexi fares for some flights, with slightly different conditions for domestic and long-haul routes. They are part of the general airline pricing policy and are not limited by the pandemic-related dates mentioned above. They allow you to have more flexibility, including free date change and fully refundable tickets in case you need to cancel your trip. Even a “no show” is fully refundable if you choose to pay a higher price for a Flexi fare ticket.
Emirates: free change of date and destination for 2 years
Emirates has one of the most generous policies regarding ticket flexibility. In fact, the airline could be an example of a customer-focused airline that goes the extra mile to give its passengers the peace of mind so much needed during those unusual times. Emirates not only offers 2 years of ticket validity and free of charge change of destination but also provides travelers with 30-days free travel insurance that covers any medical expenses and quarantine costs related to COVID-19.
The flexible tickets are issued automatically for all bookings until 31 March 2021 (this deadline may be extended in the future). There are some other conditions attached, so please read on.
Cancellations and refunds
If your plans have been affected by COVID‑19, you can easily cancel your Emirates ticket and request a refund using a simple online form.
There will be no cancellation fee applied if your situation falls under the requirements of Emirates’ relaxed policies due to the COVID‑19 outbreak. Otherwise, you still may be charged a standard cancellation fee (the amount depends on the fare rules of your ticket).
The valid reason to apply for charge-free cancellation/refund are:
Flight cancellation by Emirates
Travel restrictions: entry ban or mandatory quarantine at your destination
Travel warnings and stay-at-home orders preventing you from leaving the country
Here’s the best part of the new Emirates’ policies: instead of canceling your ticket, you can keep it with the flexibility of flying at any time in the next 24 months. There are no rebooking fees and no fare difference to be paid.
However, to dodge the price difference, tickets in the same booking class must still be available on the flight you wish to change to. You cannot change your booking class (economy, business, first).
Please note: similar to flight cancellation, you need to have a valid reason to apply for a charge-free flight date change.
The new airline’s policies of a 2-years ticket’s validity give you the option to change the flight destination free of charge. There is one condition though – the new destination must be within the same region as the original one.
The Emirates regions are:
The Far East
The Gulf, Middle East, and Iran
Indian Ocean Islands
For example, if your original booking was for Kuala Lumpur (The Far East), you can rebook it for Singapore, Jakarta, or Bangkok for no extra charge. But if you’d like to fly to Sydney or Auckland, it will cost you, as Australia and New Zealand belong to a different region (Australasia).
Just remember that to rebook your ticket to a new destination, your original booking must be for travel on or before 31 March 2021.
Please note: similar to flight cancellation, you need to have a valid reason to apply for a charge-free route change.
Etihad: cancel the flight and keep fare as travel credit
If you book the flight before 31 December 2020 to travel any time until 31 March 2021 your Etihad ticket is fully flexible. If your trip has been affected by COVID-19 you can change your flight to a later date or to another destination with no fee. You can also cancel your flight, and receive a travel credit (with some bonuses) which can be used towards any flights at any time within 2 years.
Etihad goes the extra mile to keep the passengers protected by including complimentary COVID-19 global insurance cover with every booking. If you are diagnosed with COVID-19 while traveling the insurance cover will cover the medical expenses and up to 14 days of overseas quarantine.
Cancellations and refunds
You are entitled to a full refund if the flight has been canceled by Etihad or if you are unable to travel due to a positive COVID-19 test result. Start the refund process by visiting the Request a Refund page. Refunds take between 14 to 30 working days to appear on your card or bank statement.
Date change with an open ticket
If your flight has been canceled by Etihad, you don’t have to go through the refund process or convert your ticket into travel credits. You can simply keep your ticket open instead. There is no need to contact the airline or do anything until you’re ready to travel again. The ticket will stay open and you can rebook it anytime until 31 October 2021. Changing the trip date is free and the airline removes the fare difference even if you pick another destination (but it must be within the same zone) if you travel before 31 March 2021.
If you don’t use the ticket within 12 months of your first canceled flight, you will be entitled to a refund.
Cancel and get travel credit
If you can’t travel at all, you can cancel your flight anytime and for any reason without a punishment fee if you agree to receive Etihad Credits (a travel voucher system) and use their value to book your next flight. To encourage passengers to use this form of flexible tickets, Etihad will even increase the value of your credit from $40 to $400 and will throw in some extra miles (2500 for economy and 5000 for business/first). You will have 2 years to use the credit for your next journey. You can even buy a flight for someone else.
To claim Etihad Credit, the booking must have been made before 31 December 2020, with the departure date before 31 March 2021 (these deadlines may be extended in the future).
Garuda Indonesia: rebook without penalty in November
Garuda Indonesia uses its flexible ticket policy more as short-lived promotion than a long term strategy to attract customers. Flexible tickets are only offered for bookings during November 2020 and with a travel period from 1 November 2020 to 20 June 2021. Group bookings and international flights to Middle Eastern countries are excluded.
Those who book their flights during the promotional period are eligible for up to 3 reschedules (time windows closes on 31 March 2021), and during each one, the fare difference and tax will need to be paid. Alternatively, a free refund in a form of a travel voucher is available (with validity until 31 December 2021).
Singapore Airlines (SIA) has one of the most generous policies when it comes to flexible tickets during the pandemic and post-pandemic era of travel. Its Global Travel Waiver Policy gives all passengers a complimentary rebooking option for tickets of all classes – as long as the original booking was made between 5 March 2020 and 30 June 2021. Rebooking is free of charge and you can change both date and destination (fare difference may apply).
There are 4 important rules:
before 30 June 2021 unlimited changes are permitted
after 30 June 2021 only one additional change is permitted
any ticket change must be made within a year of the date of issue or before original travel date (whichever is earlier)
newly issued ticket comes with new 12-month validity period
These rules allow you to book the ticket now and fly on any date until 2023 (!). For example:
Book a Singapore Airlines ticket in March 2021, with a travel date in June 2021
If you can’t fly in June 2021, rebook for free to January 2022
If you still can’t fly in January 2022, use the last complimentary change to postpone your trip to January 2023
Do not use the Manage Booking page if you want to be eligible for free rebooking. Singapore Airlines provides Assistance Request Form for that purpose. For tickets purchased through a travel agency, you should contact your agent for assistance.
Singapore Airlines new waiver policy only applies to ticket changes, not cancellations. SIA uses the ‘old’ rules here, and if you want to cancel your ticket, the fees can be quite high. Basically, cancellations are subject to the standard fare conditions of your ticket. For example, If you cancel a non-refundable ticket, only the taxes will be refunded.
One important exception to the above regulations is when the flight is canceled by the airline itself. In that case, you will be able to rebook your flight or get a refund for the unused portion of your ticket. Refunds will be processed via your original mode of payment and it may then take up to 6 weeks for the amount to be credited back.
Maksim is an industry expert and digital editor at Tiket2. He is also a frequent flyer, travel writer, photographer, and the truest evangelist of the company.
Flexible ticket policies
Have you ever use a new waiver policy from an airline to fly during the pandemic or in the post-pandemic era of travel? Was the date or destination change an easy process to go through? Were travel vouchers a convenient tool in case of travel plan changes? How would you rate your experience with an airline?