Canceling or postponing a flight due to COVID delta variant? What to know about airline ticket policies

Some travelers are canceling trips amid COVID-19 case surges.

With COVID-19 cases spiking because of the delta coronavirus variant, travelers are again canceling or postponing trips. 

Southwest Airlines warned this week that bookings for travel have fallen amid the spike in cases, with cancellations on the rise. Frontier said it's seeing the same trends. 

One concerned traveler went so far as to ask Southwest on Twitter if it plans to bring back empty middle seats. The airline ended the popular pandemic practice in December. Delta Air Lines kept middle seats open longer, through April. Neither has indicated any plans to bring back the practice in the name of social distancing.

"We're not anticipating any changes at this time,'' Delta CEO Ed Bastian said in mid-July.

Southwest told the traveler who asked the chances of empty middle seats reappearing: "We're currently keeping our middle seats occupied.''

Skittish travelers do have options, though, if they don't want to fly right now. Here are answers to frequently asked questions:

Can I get a refund if I don't want to fly as the delta variant spreads?

The answer is generally no, unless you bought a refundable plane ticket. Passengers with nonrefundable tickets are eligible for a refund only if the airline cancels your flight, regardless of the reason.

Pro traveler tip: If your plans are up in the air, there's no harm in waiting to see if by chance your flight is canceled, in which case you would get your money back. Don't wait too long, though, as Southwest Airlines, for example, requires you to cancel the flight at least 10 minutes before departure or forfeit the money.

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Am I eligible for travel credit or vouchers if I cancel my flight?

In most cases, yes. And the best news is that you won't have to pay a hefty ticket-change fee when you go to redeem it because major airlines eliminated change fees during the pandemic and decided to make it a permanent policy.

Pro traveler tip: Be prepared to pay any fare difference when you go to rebook the trip.

The big exception: Those no-frills basic economy tickets and tickets on most budget airlines are generally nonrefundable and nonchangeable – it's basically use it or lose it. Airlines made them as flexible as other tickets during the height of the pandemic but reinstated the restrictions earlier this year.

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Keep an eye out for changes in those policies, though. Delta recently made basic economy tickets more flexible, and United Airlines joined the club on Thursday. American, JetBlue and other carriers offering basic economy tickets have not adjusted their policies. So check the rules with your airline before canceling a ticket.

Can I change my flight to a later date?

With most airlines eliminating onerous change fees, this is a more viable option than it was before the pandemic. 

Travelers will still be on the hook for any fare difference, of course.

Pro traveler tip: Be sure to read the fine print on how long you have to use the money, and log it into your calendar or set a reminder so you don't forget.

Want to change departure or arrival cities? Things get trickier, with policies varying by airline and ticket type.  

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The U.S. State Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just said travelers should avoid travel to my destination. Can I get a refund for my flight?

Not in most cases. The ticket rules apply regardless of the reason for canceling your ticket, so the best you're likely to do is a travel credit or voucher. Check your airline's website for possible exceptions, or appeal to the airline with special cases.

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I still have travel credits from last year and am still too nervous to board a plane. Will they be extended?

Don't count on airlines extending travel credits unless the spike in COVID-19 cases causes travel to plunge as it did in the first several months of the pandemic. Airlines repeatedly extended travel waivers in 2020 but have been less generous since vaccinations began and travelers returned with a vengeance.

Pro traveler tip: It never hurts to plead your case with an airline. But be prepared for long wait times.

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I bought travel insurance. Will it cover my COVID-19 flight cancellations? 

Check the fine print of the policy, because only the priciest policies generally cover cancellations for any reason.