If you’re like me and schedule award travel many, many, months in advance, there are bound to be schedule changes between when you book and when you fly. The natural tendency is to just accept the schedule change as is, and nine times out of ten this is probably all that you can do. Still, when airlines change schedules on you, especially on award tickets, you have a tiny bit of leverage that you might be able to use to improve your flights. The goal of this post is to show you how you might be able to use a schedule change to leverage better award flights (routing wise) without having to pay a change fee.
Knowing when a schedule change has occurred
It’s in your best interests to stay on top of schedule changes, both so you don’t get blindsided at the airport and so that you can be proactive with flight changes. There are a couple ways to do this. For starters, the airline should generally send you an e-mail when there is a schedule change. Unfortunately, this isn’t a sure thing because sometimes the computers don’t send the e-mails. This happens to me more often than seems normal, so I never rely only on getting an e-mail from the airline. If it is a fairly last minute schedule change, expect to get a phone call so be sure to update your reservation with the most current contact information. If you do receive a confirmation e-mail (or have one sent to yourself), itinerary trackers like Tripit generally notify you if you have a conflict. So even if I miss the e-mail from the airline, I’ll often get an e-mail from Tripit saying there is a conflict in my plans, which alerts me to the schedule change.
The way I personally keep on top of schedule changes is by checking my reservation from time to time. Most airlines will inform you of a flight change when you check a reservation and ask you if you “accept” the change. Whenever I see that, I don’t accept it – once I see that there has been a schedule change to my flights – I start trying to look for something better. Here’s how.
1. Determine the actual effect of your schedule change on your connection times
The first thing you need to figure out is how much the schedule change is actually affecting you. If it’s a literal schedule change (same flight, different times), the effect might not be too great. Most of those types of schedule changes are 5-20 minutes-ish, though they still matter. There are also schedule changes where they cancel entire flights and put you on new ones. Those kinds of schedule changes can have a pretty large connecting time. Your goal is to figure out the difference between your original and updated connection times.
While airlines generally won’t rebook you into something less than the minimum connection times, it happens. I’d say the magic number is around 40 minutes – if your new connection time is less than that, you definitely have grounds to try to push for a new flight. Or, if you are suddenly forced to overnight somewhere, that’s probably good leverage to push for a new flight as well. The more inconvenient the schedule change is, the more leverage you will have with an airline to push for new flights.
One thing to note: I’ve been assuming that your connections are all on the same award ticket – that’s what would give you the most leverage. However, there are times when you might have a connecting flight that you booked with another carrier – and a schedule change might possibly make you miss that connection altogether! In that instance, you have leverage, but the airline has leverage too since you didn’t book the ticket with them. I’d like to believe in most of those instances common sense and decency would prevail, but technically, the award carrier you are trying to make a change on could probably charge you a change fee.
2. Look for a routing that you would prefer
Once you’ve determined the exact change in your connection time, write that down and start looking for a routing you prefer. The gold standard, obviously, is turning a two segment flight into a direct one. I generally don’t look for more amazing flights, I don’t want to get to greedy. Instead, I just look for flight segments that are more convenient for me. For example, I’ll try to avoid a redeye if I can, or change the times so I can leave a little later, those sorts of things.
Now, the easy version of this is to just search award space as you normally would. If award space is open on the routing you want, then what you are technically trying to do is just move your award seats into other flights that have space and get the airline to waive the change fees. That you can do via the regular award searches.
However, sometimes you might have a chance to get on a flight without any award space available. This will work if you can find empty seats on the carrier that you booked the award ticket with. So for example, I had an award seat from Rio de Janeiro to Boston via Sao Paolo and DC. United canceled the Rio to Sao Paolo flight, so they automatically rebooked me from Rio to Houston to Boston. That cut one flight out of my itinerary. In my case, United had to do it because the original flight I was on no longer existed. Still, as long as a flight has an empty seat, an airline could technically move your award ticket onto that flight – provided they are feeling generous and you do the proper amount of convincing.
So what I will do after a schedule change is search for cash tickets between my origin and destination. Then, I’ll write down any flight segments that seem to have a lot of empty seats that I would prefer to the schedule change. With those flight segments in hand, you can proceed to the final step – calling the airline and crossing your fingers.
3. Call the airline with information in hand
After you’ve found flights that you prefer, call the airline. I usually say something to the effect of, “I noticed on line that there was a schedule change to my flights. That schedule change will not work for me because of _______”. You can fill in that ___ with things like the connection time is too short, it will cause me to miss my connection on a different airline, the connection time is too long and I don’t want to stay overnight, etc. etc.
Then, I’ll ask, “I was wondering if we could look at other possibilities for my flights.” At this point, you can either let them look, or you can suggest the flights that you have already looked up. Depending on the airline, the response you will receive might be different. Delta is super accommodating with schedule changes; it’s like the #1 post on the Delta Points blog. I’ve personally found United to be very accommodating, while I haven’t had much luck with American Airlines. United reps seem to have the power to move you into seats even if there isn’t award space open, while AA seems to go really by the book when it comes to award space so you need a REALLY bad schedule change to move things around I think. Of course, with AA it isn’t as big of a deal because you can change dates and routings free of charge anyway.
When you have a schedule change forced upon you, don’t just accept it. Look for alternate flights that you might prefer, and call the airline to try to get your award seats moved to those flights. The worst that can happen is they say no. The more your flights have been moved, the more leverage you have to move your flights. Try it out, and feel free to ask for specific advice via e-mail or the comments!