The era of rip-off airline flight change fees may be coming to an end

US based Frontier Airlines is changing its fare structures to remove change and cancellation fees
US based Frontier Airlines is changing its fare structures to remove change and cancellation fees - Getty

One of the great psychological barriers to booking a flight or rail ticket is the need to be absolutely certain of your plans. Because if you have to make an unexpected change, more companies impose heavy financial penalties.

Want to alter the date of your Ryanair flight after you have booked it? It will cost you at least £45 each way. EasyJet’s fee is £25-£49 for changes and cancellations, and on economy tickets, BA charges up to £50, though changes on the day of departure are free. With all these three airlines – and throughout most of the industry – you will, in addition, have to pay any difference between the original fare and new one. In fact, in many cases, you will be better off ditching the old flight altogether and starting again.

There was a brief window of respite during the pandemic. Indeed, from a travel point of view, one of the few benefits of the Covid years was that airlines and other travel operators introduced more customer-friendly booking conditions in order to encourage us to travel. But as demand has surged over the last couple of years, most companies have reverted to type.

There is a hint of change in the air (and on the tracks), however. Eurostar has announced amendments to its booking conditions across all its international services to France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Since April 23, customers travelling with both Standard and Plus tickets have been able to cancel for a refund up to seven days before departure or exchange their ticket as many times as required until one hour before.

It is not quite as generous as it seems at first sight. For a refund, there is a charge of £25 per person, per leg. So, if you paid £100 for a return ticket, you will lose half of your money if you cancel. And, as with airlines, while alterations are free, you will have to pay the difference if the new fare is more expensive. But it is an improvement on the previous rules which meant you also had to pay a £30 fee to change a ticket. Remarkably, customers in Eurostar’s top Premier class can exchange or refund their tickets, without any fee, up to two days after their departure date – which is, presumably, conditional on their not having travelled.

Meanwhile, there is news from the United States – which has, historically, led the way in cheaper, more flexible air travel – that two major airlines have eased restrictions on their standard booking conditions. Last month, Denver based, Frontier Airlines – one of America’s biggest no-frills carriers – is changing its fare structures to remove change and cancellation fees on all Economy, Premium, or Business fares (though not on its cheapest “Basic” fares). And within days, its rival Florida-based rival Spirit Airlines eliminated nearly all change and cancellation fees from its booking conditions (group bookings are the exceptions). Until now, the airline charged from £54 to £94 for changes or cancellations, depending how late the change was made.

There is obviously no guarantee that what is happening in the US will filter through to the UK. But airlines and rail companies make their decisions on hard financial grounds. They now seem to be calculating that, by removing such a major psychological barrier to booking and allowing more flexibility in making changes, that more people will go ahead and commit sooner than they would have done.

Given that the technology means that it is virtually cost- and admin-free to allow customers to make changes online, the only worry for travel companies is if – on balance – they lose revenue by allowing people to do so. Eurostar obviously doesn’t think this is the case, and nor do Spirit and Frontier. It looks like a win both for companies and the consumer.