SALT LAKE CITY — Flight times change all the time as airlines constantly tweak schedules to get the most bang for their buck. Those changes can throw a big wrench into your travel plans, but travel experts said you can also use them to snag much better flights.
Last summer, the pandemic left only 30% to 40% of flights operating as scheduled. Today, that number is closer to 90%-95% said Scott Keyes, founder of Scott's Cheap Flights.
"That's still 5% to 10%, sometimes a higher percentage of flights that are going to be changed in advance," he explained. "And that likelihood is much greater when you're talking about international flights."
By law, you are entitled to a full cash refund if a schedule change is significant. But what counts as significant?
In United's case, a change by 30 minutes is enough to be considered significant. For JetBlue and Alaska Airlines, it's 60 minutes, and for Delta flights, it's 90 minutes, while American says four hours is long enough to be considered significant.
Other changes that qualify as significant include a route change in your arrival or destination airport, or if your nonstop ticket suddenly grows a connecting flight.
But you are not legally obligated to take the refund from the airline, and Keyes said this is where opportunities open up.
"They're (airlines) trying to do whatever they can to make sure that you don't exercise that right," explained Keyes. "And so, they're actually much more willing to work with you to switch flights to make sure to keep you as a customer. But you must proactively call them up and ask to make these changes. They won't necessarily mention it."
Keyes said if your flight gets changed, your first move is to find a new flight with the same airline or a partner airline. Use booking sites like Google Flights, Kayak or ExpertFlyer.
"Ignore the fares, just purely look on the schedule," advised Keyes.
Say, 'Hey, this new schedule that you gave me is not going to work. Can you switch me to this other flight that is better for me?'" said Keyes. "That gives you a lot of leverage to be able to now bargain for a better flight.
–Scott Keyes, Scott's Cheap Flights
Step two: Call the airline and let them know about this new flight.
"Say, 'Hey, this new schedule that you gave me is not going to work. Can you switch me to this other flight that is better for me?'" said Keyes. "That gives you a lot of leverage to be able to now bargain for a better flight."
A better flight could mean snagging a flight with a 10 a.m. departure instead of 6 a.m. Or it could be taking off on Monday night instead of waiting for the Tuesday flight you originally booked because it was half the cost. Or now, you have found a nonstop ticket, instead of the original flight with tons of connections.
If the airline representative says no, Keyes' advice is to hang up and call again. Airlines have hundreds of agents, each with discretion.
"I would say the odds are very, very good that the next agent will grant that request," he said. "And the reason why I know is because I've done it dozens and dozens of times."
The airlines bristle at the thought of giving out refunds for schedule changes, so overall, they are willing to ignore fare differences and let you switch to a new flight for free. The thing is: You must ask, maybe even a couple of times.