In general, the least expensive airline fares are nonrefundable. While business travelers may want or need flexibility, leisure travelers automatically go for what they perceive to be the best deal. But, as with most generalities, this isn’t always true.
Even the most budget conscious travelers can find that nonrefundable isn’t always the best value in the long run. Here are seven examples of when it’s worth thinking before automatically booking nonrefundable fares.
1.When traveling during busy times (especially for short flights) the difference may be negligible.
For example, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, a nonrefundable fare as of today on many flights is $157-$198. A refundable fare, with no penalty for changes, is $214. The small price difference might be well worth it for the flexibility, especially with change fees starting at $200 on legacy carriers.
2. For seniors, Southwest’s fares, while not their lowest, are also changeable and refundable. In many cases these airfares might be the least expensive available for anyone 65 and older, since they aren’t booked in the most limited fare class.
3. When bulk fares are available. Sometimes consolidators and tour operators have what are known as “bulk fares,” usually to international destinations or vacation spots like Hawaii. These fares may or may not be the lowest available, but are usually refundable for a penalty, as opposed to being completely nonrefundable.
4. In a few cases, the refundable and nonrefundable fares are the same. No joke. US Airways has two last minute fares for their shuttle between La Guardia and Washington-Reagan National airports, a $407 NXA0BSN fare, and a $407 NXA0RA2 fare. The only difference — the first has a $200 change fee.
5. Last minute travel, particularly in markets where airlines are competing with Southwest. Southwest may not have change fees, but their competitors do, and with less than seven days notice, there may not be much difference. For example, a nonrefundable fare from San Jose, California, to Austin, Texas, on American Airlines at time of posting, is only about $75 less than the refundable fare.
6. International tickets are a whole different issue and get quite complicated. Usually the least expensive fares are nonrefundable and refundable fares even in coach can cost several thousand dollars. Often, however, there are discount fares which may be canceled for a few hundred dollars. The fare difference might be a few hundred more than the lowest fare, so they may not be the best option. Plus, most nonrefundable fares can be changed for a penalty.
But for travelers who think there’s a chance they might cancel and won’t be able to reuse the ticket, higher fares could be a good deal, especially if the potential reason might be work or some reason that is difficult or expensive to cover with insurance.
7. When frequent flier mileage matters. Often the mileage credit is the same no matter what the price of the ticket. But tickets purchased on Priceline, for example, often don’t give mileage credit. Plus, in some frequent flier programs, partner carriers like Singapore with United, Lufthansa with US Air and QANTAS with American, don’t give miles on the least expensive tickets. It’s worth checking, especially when the mileage involved is potentially worth hundreds of dollars or is needed for an upcoming trip.
Now, with all of the choices except getting mileage credit, there is always insurance, and there are products that cover cancellation for any reason, though those policies are generally quite expensive.
Most often the lowest nonrefundable fare is the best deal. But, it’s worth considering the situation and, if necessary, check alternatives. Better yet, have your travel agent do it for you.