Almost every airline will let you exchange a ticket for any reason and use it up to a year from the date of exchange. However, unless you have booked an expensive refundable fare, most will charge you a fee. In most cases, you can exchange nonrefundable tickets without paying a fee only under special circumstances.
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If you think you will have to exchange your airline ticket, you should consider buying a refundable or unrestricted ticket when you make your initial purchase. Such tickets can be exchanged or returned at any time before the flight departs with no fee. However, refundable tickets often cost hundreds of dollars more than nonrefundable tickets (even thousands of dollars more if you're flying internationally). These tickets are usually purchased by business travellers who are flying on short notice. If you have a refundable ticket, call the airline or visit its website and follow the instructions to exchange your ticket or obtain a refund.
Most airlines will allow you to exchange your ticket at no cost if you must change your trip due to a family emergency, such as a death in the family or the severe illness of a family member. In most cases, the airline will require you to provide proof of the emergency, such as a death certificate or doctor's note for the affected family member. Call the airline and explain your circumstances if you must exchange a ticket due to a family emergency.
If you are too ill to fly, you may be able to change your ticket without having to pay a fee. Most airlines will require you to prove that you are too sick to fly. You are more likely to avoid a change fee if you can prove that you would endanger other passengers if you were to stick to your original travel plans. If you have a confirmed diagnosis of H1N1 flu, the airline will probably allow you to change your plans at no cost. Call the airline and explain your situation.
In the event of severe weather such as a winter storm or hurricane, airlines will often proactively offer travellers the option of changing their plans at no cost. If you expect severe weather to disrupt your plans, call the airline and discuss your options.
Many airlines and other travel websites will offer you travel insurance for a small fee before you book your trip. This insurance may allow you to change or cancel your travel plans for covered reasons without a surcharge. Be sure to read the fine print; your reason for changing your plans may not be covered. If you bought travel insurance and must exchange your ticket, follow the instructions on your policy.
As of January 2010, Southwest Airlines does not charge a fee to exchange any ticket for any reason. You can receive a full refund and apply the amount of the refund to a new ticket. You may, however, have to pay more if your original fare class is unavailable. Go to southwest.com to exchange your ticket before your flight departs.
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