When should I book a refundable flight?

If you’re ever been burned when travel plans change and you have to pay a big change or cancellation fee to the airline, you’re probably more likely to entertain the idea of booking a refundable ticket.

After all, that’s why refundable tickets exist — to give you the flexibility of knowing that if you have to change your plans, you can do so without penalty.

But here’s thing: Refundable tickets can run hundreds of dollars more each way than the lowest fare on a standard non-refundable ticket.

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A closer look at booking a refundable flight

To return to our original question, when is the right situation to book a refundable flight?

If you do some Googling, you’ll find examples of moms who advise at least considering a refundable ticket if anyone needs to fly in for the birth of a child. As any parent can tell you, due dates are more an estimate than an exact prediction!

On the other end of the spectrum, consider something like business travel. Business travel tends to be predictable. While things do occasionally come up, you’re more likely to need to cancel your travel plans for non-business travel than you are for business-related travel.

So those are just two examples — one when you might consider a refundable flight and another when it really wouldn’t make much sense.

But we haven’t touched on the cost of refundable tickets yet. When you see the numbers, you’re likely to agree buying a refundable ticket should be done sparingly, if at all.

According to a March 2018 report from Investopedia, the difference in price between a non-refundable ticket and a refundable ticket can sometimes be up t0 $700!

Airline Route Non-refundable ticket price Refundable ticket price
Southwest New York, NY (LGA) to Austin, TX (AUS) $348 $598
JetBlue New York, NY (JFK) to Austin, TX (AUS) $520 $635
Delta New York, NY (JFK) to Austin, TX (AUS) $183 $875
United Newark, NJ (EWR) to Austin, TX (AUS) $261 $311
American New York, NY (JFK) to Austin, TX (AUS) $184 $679

A few alternatives to consider…

If you’re debating about booking a refundable flight, a better answer may be to consider these alternatives:

1. Book on Southwest when possible

This discount airline has been a longtime favorite of money expert Clark Howard’s. In fact, it was the only U.S. carrier to rank among the Top 10 best airlines in the world, according to one new survey.

One of the best things about Southwest is there are NO change fees when your travel plans falter. In addition, you can apply the full price you pay to a future flight in the event of a cancellation. Southwest also offers a 100% refund on its higher Anytime fares and Business Select fares.

And finally, the carrier lets your first and second checked bags fly for free — so there are no baggage fees either!

2. Remember the 24-hour rule

Since 2013, there’s been a Department of Transportation (DOT) rule on the books that requires airlines flying within or to the United States to provide a refund if a cancellation is made within 24 hours of booking on reservations made more than seven days in advance.

Maybe your plans are likely to be highly changeable within 24 hour of booking. But if you’ll definitely know one way or the other if your travel plans will ultimately get the green light within 24 hours of booking, then you might want to invoke this DOT rule.

Just note that each major airline differs in how they implement the rule. Here are links to each carrier’s explanation:

3. Consider travel insurance

Finally, it can often make more financial sense to pay for a lower-priced non-refundable fare rather than a costlier refundable fare — and then just add on a ‘Cancel For Any Reason’ travel insurance plan. You should expect to pay around $50, according to travel expert Clara Bosonetto, and receive a 75% to a 100% refund should you have to use the policy because of work obligations or illness. 

Keep in mind that the traveler in the $1,150 seat still has to pay [a] $200 [change fee] every time they make a change. Whereas the person in the $450 seat just needs to throw the ticket away and use the insurance policy if a flight needs to be canceled,” Bosonetto says. 

If you do decide to go this route, you’ve got to read the policy carefully to see what situations it covers and what it excludes. If you don’t have time to read through the entire trip insurance document, at least read through the “Summary of Coverages” section.

Clark has other key info you’ll want to know before buying a trip insurance policy here.

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