Refund policies on the largest airlines in the US

In 2023, almost 196,000 flights from U.S. airports were canceled, and even more were late. 

According to the Department of Transportation, that number represents the lowest rate of scheduled flight cancellations in 10 years. Still, refund policies for flight cancellations, delays, or schedule changes are more important than ever.  

The coronavirus pandemic highlighted airline issues bubbling beneath the surface. Planes were parked or retired in response to low travel demand, leaving them unprepared for the era of revenge travel years later. Pilots were hard to come by, and jet fuel shortages began cropping up. Other staffing shortages, outdated technology and infrastructure, plus surging demand when COVID-19 restrictions eased meant airlines couldn't meet their schedules without cascading problems. When problems happen, long holds on phone calls, offers for flight credits instead of cash, and a host of other obstacles further add to a frustrating situation.

The Biden-Harris administration is trying to solve the problem, and the Department of Transportation outlines general refund policies for tickets and fees. Foremost among them is the ability of consumers to cancel purchases within 24 hours or hold itineraries for that same period as long as the tickets are purchased at least seven days before a scheduled departure.

To help air travelers sort through the fine print, Airalo compiled a list of the five largest airlines in the United States — using data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics — and researched their refund policies. Airlines were selected based on domestic market share from December 2022 to November 2023.

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A woman checks in for her flight as a family celebrates at a Delta Airlines check-in counter.
Brandon Bell // Getty Images

Delta Air Lines

Delta Air Lines clearly outlines its steps to cancel refundable and nonrefundable tickets and apply for a refund. Cancellation fees start at US$99, though some "main cabin and above" tickets are exempt.

Travelers will be rebooked or credited for future travel if a flight is canceled or delayed for more than two hours. Nonrefundable tickets for flights that have not been canceled or delayed do not qualify, nor do tickets purchased from third parties.

Delta encourages customers to cancel or change tickets if their plans change. Failure to do so prior to departure will result in the cancellation of all remaining flights on the itinerary. Basic economy tickets are not changeable.

Passengers check-in for their flights on American Airlines at Long Island MacArthur Airport.
James Carbone // Getty Images

American Airlines

American Airlines generally does not refund nonrefundable tickets, but it does make exceptions for death, schedule changes by the airline, and illness if international travel is involved.

An unused or partially used ticket must be canceled before the first stated departure time, or it becomes valueless. The remaining value of the ticket may be used toward purchasing another nonrefundable ticket, though the trip must be completed within a year of the original travel date.

American, per federal guidelines, will refund tickets purchased by credit card within seven business days and tickets purchased by cash or check within 20 days — excluding fare adjustments, international tickets, and tickets purchased in international currencies.

A Southwest Airlines airplane taxies from a gate at Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
Kevin Dietsch // Getty Images

Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines "will consider reasonable requests for reimbursement of meals, hotel stays, and ground transportation to/from the hotel" in the case of cancellations and significant delays within its control, naming mechanical problems and plane swaps as examples.

When Southwest cancels a flight, customers are entitled to ticket, bag fee, and extras refunds, including for nonrefundable fares. When customers cancel, the tickets may or may not be refundable. Depending on the fare, funds from tickets not canceled at least 10 minutes before departure will be credited or forfeited.

Southwest flight credits do not expire, and most can be transferred once between Rapid Rewards members.

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United Airlines planes sit on the runway at Newark Liberty International Airport.
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United Airlines

United Airlines customers who book at least a week in advance can change their flights within 24 hours of purchase.

In the case of canceled or significantly delayed flights, travelers are eligible for credits or refunds if the cause is weather, air traffic control, or mechanical problems. Change fees are waived, and you can request a return to your departure city — in addition to your credit or refund — if you're stuck in a connecting city without available flights.

Customers can also request refunds with documentation of an unplanned event — death, illness, jury duty, or military order. Flexible booking offers unlimited fee-free changes, though fare differences apply. Basic economy tickets can't be changed.

 An Alaska Airlines plane takes off from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
Mario Tama // Getty Images

Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines lists several requirements to determine refund or credit eligibility.

The reservation must have been made from its website, call center, or Alaska ticket counter and not contain a "saver" or government fare. It has to be within a year of purchase or, for a partially used ticket, within a year of the original outbound travel date. Group or vacation package bookings, fares that include an unaccompanied minor on another carrier, and tickets not bought with U.S. dollars are also excluded from eligibility.

Nonrefundable tickets that meet these terms can be credited after the initial 24-hour purchase window, plus change fees.

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Story editing by Carren Jao. Copy editing by Paris Close. Photo selection by Clarese Moller.

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