Airlines now offer free changes on many plane tickets. Except these. And these. And these.

  • Pandemic-induced policy changes have fine print attached to their "free flight change."
  • Major airlines have long conceded that they hope the restrictions on basic economy tickets drive passengers to buy the higher-priced regular economy tickets.
  • Some travelers may be better off buying higher-priced economy tickets for more flexibility.

Airlines eliminated pricey fees to change or cancel a ticket more than a year ago and tout the newfound flexibility at every turn.

"Welcome back to travel with no change fees," American Airlines' website proclaims.

"Book your next trip now and enjoy peace of mind with no change fees," Delta tells online ticket shoppers.

Hawaiian Airlines' pitch: "Say hello to effortless travel. Book now, change if you need to."

The pandemic-induced policy change, which airline executives now say was long overdue, has been a major win for passengers.

Pre-pandemic: Is Delta Air Lines going to shake up those onerous change fees?

Pay up: Delta to allow changes to basic economy tickets, for a fee 

But travelers need to beware of the asterisks. Every airline from American to Spirit has fine print attached to their free flight change policies. Travelers need to understand the restrictions before buying a ticket or risk a nasty surprise if their plans change.

Basic economy vs. economy on American, United, Delta

On major airlines, travelers who buy the cheapest tickets will still find restrictions on changing or canceling flights.

A keyword to look for in flight search results: basic.

American, United and Delta call their cheapest tickets basic economy tickets, while JetBlue Airways calls them "Blue Basic" tickets and Hawaiian Airlines calls them "Main Cabin Basic." Alaska Airlines calls them "saver" fares. No-frills airline Allegiant even has a basic fare.

Southwest Airlines does not offer a basic economy ticket or charge change fees; its cheapest tickets are changeable but a fare difference applies.

Southwest ticket shakeup: Airline to introduce new fare class in 2022

Just don't call it basic economy: Is Southwest Airlines considering a no-frills ticket? 

Buying basic economy tickets early in the pandemic carried little risk because broad airline travel waivers eliminated most of the restrictions.

The waivers started to expire last year and any existing ones no longer cover new basic economy ticket purchases.

That means travelers buying basic economy tickets face the return of one of two issues/restrictions: no changes or cancellation allowed, or changes allowed but with a cancellation fee.

On some airlines, including United, American, Alaska and Hawaiian, basic economy tickets cannot be changed or canceled even by paying a fee. That means travelers lose their money if plans change. No travel credits are issued.

United Airlines' basic economy tickets carry the most restrictions of any ticket.

Delta, JetBlue allows changes on basic economy tickets – for a fee

On other airlines, including Delta and JetBlue, basic economy tickets can be changed or canceled for future flight credit but only if you pay a change fee. Delta's is $99 for domestic flights and flights to Mexico and the Caribbean and $199 for other international flights. JetBlue, similarly, charges $100 for domestic flights and short international flights, and $200 for others. On cheap tickets, the fees can wipe out all or part of a ticket. 

Passengers buying JetBlue's cheapest tickets, called Blue Basic fares, can change their tickets but have to pay a cancellation fee. There is no cancellation fee for its regular economy ticket, called Blue. Fare differences apply in each case.

The change fees on those basic economy tickets are in addition to any fare difference. Do you need to move the dates for that bargain $250 basic economy ticket to the Caribbean? Fork over the applicable change fee plus any difference in ticket price since you booked. (Fare differences also apply when buying regular economy tickets despite no change fee, so even those changes aren't free.)

Changing a ticket on Spirit, Frontier, Allegiant 

Major airlines created those basic economy fares in response to the cheap tickets dangled by budget airlines, which have long been rife with restrictions.

Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant have long had fees to change their cheapest tickets and those restrictions have returned, too, as pandemic travel waivers expired. The only exceptions? Frontier and Spirit offer free changes made at least 60 days in advance, a policy Frontier introduced in 2019.

Travelers on those airlines who want the flexibility to change their plans need to buy a pricier ticket that comes with perks – the airlines call them bundles – or purchase an à la carte option to cancel during booking. Spirit calls the à la carte option "Flight Flex," Frontier, "Flight Flexibility," Allegiant, "Trip Flex."

For those who don't pay for the extras and can't change their flight at least 60 days in advance, here are the per person change fees at the three major discount airlines:

Spirit: $49 for flights departing in seven to 59 days; $79 for flights departing in three to six days and $99 for last minute changes. (Flight changes are allowed up to one hour before the schedule departure.) Fare differences apply.

Frontier: $49 for flights departing between seven and 59 days and $79 for flights six or fewer days before departure. Fare differences apply.

Allegiant: The Las Vegas-based airline has temporarily lowered its change fee to $25 per one-way flight (due to the pandemic. Fare differences apply.

Can I change or cancel my cheap airline ticket if I test positive for COVID?

The stated policies for basic economy tickets and no-frills tickets are strict, but travelers holding the cheap tickets still have an out in some instances.

With coronavirus cases rising again, American, Delta, United and Alaska all told USA TODAY they are working with basic economy passengers who test positive for the virus before their flight.

►Delta spokesman Drake Castañeda said the airline is waiving the airline's new basic economy change/cancellation for passengers. Delta tries to rebook them on a flight at least five days in the future given Centers for Disease Control and Prevention isolation guidance, he said. Those who opt not to travel will be given a credit for future travel valid for one year from the date of original purchase.

►United said basic economy passengers who test positive for coronavirus can't fly and should contact the airline for options including changing their flight to a minimum of five days after the positive test or requesting a travel voucher.

►American said basic economy passengers who test positive for coronavirus are covered, too, and Alaska said travelers who buy its saver fares can change or cancel them if they tested positive for coronavirus or were in close contact with someone who did and has had symptoms in the past five days.

►Frontier and Spirit said they handle flight changes for coronavirus infections on a case-by-case basis. 

Major airlines and bargain airlines also generally allow exceptions to their change policies for basic economy and cheap tickets during storms and other events that disrupt their operations.

Bottom line: Check with your airline for their policy.

With change fees and restrictions back, should I avoid basic economy tickets and other no-frills plane tickets?

Major airline executives have long conceded that they hope the restrictions on basic economy tickets drive passengers to buy the higher-priced regular economy tickets. Budget airline executives similarly hope all the restrictions on their bare-bones tickets prompt travelers to buy the extras it pitches.

With so much uncertainty remaining around COVID-19 trends and ever-changing travel restrictions, more travelers are asking whether the cheap tickets are worth the risk.

In its annual State of Cheap Flights report out Monday, travel deals site and subscription service Scott's Cheap Flights said travelers are paying more attention to cancellation policies.

One member surveyed said, "I am now willing to spend more to have the option to change or cancel a reservation. I always bought the cheapest option available before.”

Andrew Nocella, United Airlines' chief commercial officer, has noticed it too.

Before the pandemic, he said, more than 20% of United's tickets booked were basic economy tickets. Today, that figure is in the high single digits for domestic flights.

American Airlines cheapest ticket, basic economy, cannot be changed or canceled. "Main cabin'' tickets can be changed without a fee but travelers must pay any fare difference will apply.

What's a skittish traveler on a budget to do? Do the math when searching for flights. If the gap between basic economy and regular economy is reasonable, pay it so you can change the flight or change it without a fee. (I never shun basic economy tickets but paid up to main cabin on a one-way flight I booked for my sister last week because the price difference was $25).

The difference between basic economy and regular economy (called main cabin) on American for a Phoenix-New York trip priced last week for mid-February travel was $16 one way.

Spirit Airlines sells bargain tickets with no extras as well as ticket "bundles'' with perks including free flight cancellations includes. Travelers can also buy individual perks a la carte.

The calculation is more complicated on the budget airlines because of their upselling and variety of products for sale. The cheapest options on Spirit and Frontier are generally to add the option to cancel when booking the flight, especially if you want the ability to change flights last minute.

Before paying more for a ticket with the option to change or cancel a flight on any airline, keep in mind that ticket flexibility is not the same thing as refundability. Passengers won't receive their money back. They generally will be given the option to rebook their flight or cancel and save the money for a future trip. The only way to guarantee a refund is to buy a pricier refundable ticket.