Avoiding change fees


A pretty significant amount of my obsession with flying and points focuses on making sure that I have elite status on the airline(s) I’m likely to fly. For the most part the benefit is using the shorter check-in lines and access to lounges on international trips, but I actually haven’t been traveling all that much recently to take advantage of those benefits. There is one HUGE benefit that I think is often overlooked that comes with top-tier status, at least in the USA-based programs: The ability to change reward reservations without any fees.

Reward travel on airlines is one of those things that everyone is always complaining about. Whether it is an inability to find seats or taxes and surcharges, the experience of redeeming miles for a flight is rarely an enjoyable one. Of course, I love it. I like the challenge of finding available seats on flights, mixing and matching partner carriers and connections until I get the perfect itinerary. I’ve actually been helping a friend try to get to Europe for the week before Memorial Day, and we keep going back and forth, changing destination cities and other fun bits, optimizing the ticket as we go. Of course, I’m not sure if she’s actually issued the ticket yet, since that is where the fees start to kick in. Once a reward ticket is actually issued, changing it costs money. The amount varies from airline to airline, but it can be as much as $100 per change. That’s a lot of money to spend just to switch your flight dates or even to a better connection option. With top-tier status, however, the changes are free, so I keep making them on my reward reservation.

Right now I’ve got two tickets for me and my wife to go to Europe at the end of the summer. We leave NYC just before Labor Day and get back 11 days later, after visiting a handful of airports and various connections. But the tickets I have right now actually have none of the same flights as the ones I originally booked. Because the availability was limited, I started with a connection in Paris that required moving between Orly and Charles de Gaulle airports. Yech. And the flight from Istanbul to London had an overnight of 10 hours in Paris. Just enough time to land and waste some obscene number of Euros to get a room by the airport and then leave again in the morning. I was pretty excited when the better connection via Amsterdam showed up on the initial connection, and I managed to move the Istanbul – London connection to Prague, saving us the joys of a CDG connection. Then there was another switch to fly on an earlier connection in Amsterdam, saving us ~3 hours of sitting around, and even with the lounge access it just isn’t that much fun. And another switch to fly in and out of Bristol rather than London. The taxes are a bit higher, but avoiding Heathrow seems worth it. And I’m still pondering another change that would have us fly into Southampton and out of Bristol, letting us see a bit more of the English countryside. That would be another change. The progression of the reservation looks like this:

JFK-ORY/CDG-IST//IST-CDG/CDG-LHR//LHR-JFK
EWR-AMS//AMS-IST//IST-CDG/CDG-LHR//LHR-JFK

EWR-AMS//AMS-IST//IST-PRG-LHR//LHR-JFK
EWR-AMS-IST//IST-CDG-BRS//BRS-EWR
EWR-AMS-IST//IST-CDG-SOU//BRS-EWR

On two tickets I’ve probably made $500 worth of changes (and that’s just this time), all because they are free to me. I’m not forced to accept a less than ideal routing, nor do I have to bend my schedule to fit that of the airlines (at least not too much). The agent on my last call actually laughed with me about the number of changes I’d made and started searching the schedules to make sure that there weren’t any connections I had that could be done as non-stops, just to save me another call.

This is, by far, the most valuable benefit of top-tier elite status in my opinion, assuming you ever decide to actually cash in the miles instead of just hoarding them.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .
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