In the US, airlines abide by something known as the “24 hour rule” which states that within 24 hours of your purchase you are free to cancel your airline ticket free of charge so long as you booked it beyond seven days of departure.
Sounds simple and straightforward, right?
Well, the rule is not quite as simple as you may think because there are exceptions and airlines have adopted their own versions of this rule. In this article, we will take a detailed look at the rules and how different US airlines have chosen to implement their 24 hour cancellation policies.
What exactly is the 24 hour airline cancellation rule?
The 24 hour airline cancellation rule means that you can receive a full refund if you cancel your flight within 24 hours of booking when flying on airlines operating to, from, and within the U.S.
However, you also need to abide by additional rules that may require you to cancel a certain amount of time prior to departure.
You also need to be mindful of exceptions to this rule which can cause you to forfeit your ability to rely on the 24 hour cancellation rule such as when you make changes to your flight, make a group booking, etc.
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DOT’s version of the 24 hour cancellation rule
The DOT requires “carriers to hold a reservation at the quoted fare for 24 hours without payment OR allow a reservation to be cancelled within 24 hours without penalty.” The airlines do not have to offer both options.
This is a federal rule mandated by the Department of Transportation’s consumer rule “Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections” (14 CFR 259.5(b)(4)) and applies to all airlines operating to, from, and within the U.S.
The seven day limitation
The rule requires reservations to be made seven days or more prior to the flight’s scheduled departure time.
As you will see below, airlines can choose to be more customer friendly and allow you to take advantage of the 24 hour rule within seven days of departure. Some do and some don’t.
Airlines must publish this rule
Each U.S. and foreign air carrier that has a website marketed to U.S. consumers must post its commitment to the 24-hour rule on its website in an easily accessible format.
Airlines are required to mention the 24 hour rule in various spots on the website. It should not be difficult to find the stated policy in the FAQ related to cancellation, cancellation terms and conditions, etc.
If you do not see this policy displayed during check-out it could mean the airline is failing to comply or your booking may not be subject to this protection.
Failure to refund is a big deal
The failure to notify consumers of the 24-hour reservation requirement or to offer a passenger a full refund in the original form of payment is considered an unfair and deceptive trade practice in violation of 49 U.S.C. § 41712.
If an airline refuses to refund your ticket within 24 hours this is a major violation. However, you always need to double check that they are not abiding by some type of disclosed exception (and I will talk about some of those below).
If you need to file a complaint, you can do that here.
Check out: Can TSA Check Your Phone & Electronic Devices?
Airlines’ version of the 24 hour cancellation rule
Airlines are allowed to essentially modify the 24 hour cancellation rule as long as they do not provide for limitations that are more restrictive than what the DOT allows.
For example, an airline could not state that you have to cancel outside of 10 days prior to departure to trigger the rule.
Below, I’ll outline a few major factors to look at whenever you are reviewing an airline’s 24 hour cancellation policy.
Applies to all classes
The 24 hour cancellation rule applies to every type of class including first class, business class, premium economy, economy, and basic economy.
The seven day requirement
Some airlines will allow you to take full advantage of the 24 hour rule even when you make a booking inside of seven days prior to departure. Those airlines include Alaska, American, Delta, and others as you will see below.
One thing that you cannot do is rely on the 24 hour rule if the flight has already departed. So if you book a flight that departs in six hours and then you “cancel” it 12 hours after booking, that is not going to work.
Calculating “24 hours”
Every airline does not necessarily calculate 24 hours the same.
For some airlines, they calculate 24 hours based on the exact time from your purchase. So if you purchased a ticket at 5 PM one day you will have until 5 PM the next day to cancel for free.
However, some airlines are a little bit more liberal and basically give you the date of your purchase plus the full day the next day.
So for example if you purchased a ticket at 3 AM, you would have that entire rest of that day plus the full next day of 24 hours to make your cancellation.
I would always assume that they are utilizing a 24 hour clock to determine your cancellation deadline but it would not hurt to clarify how the airline will calculate the time when you go to book.
Sometimes you are not issued a ticket at the time of booking. In fact, I’ve had times where my ticket does not arrive until many hours later. You may want to clarify if the clock begins when you book or when you receive your ticket.
Related: What Time Does the Airport Open? What 24 Hours Really Means
Some airlines will not provide you with a full refund within 24 hours if you initially make a change to your itinerary and then later cancel it. So not only do changes not reset the 24 hours but they can end the 24 hour period prematurely!
(Where refunds are not given, you will likely be given travel funds.)
For this reason, sometimes you may want to consider just canceling an itinerary altogether instead of making a change if you are still a little bit on the fence about the flight.
This may be the easiest way to take advantage of a price drop because some airlines may push back on changing your flight to the lower fare or limit you to only one change.
Note: you may not be able to make free changes to the cheapest type of airfares such as basic economy or saver fares.
When receiving your refund you can usually choose to receive your payment back on your method of payment or to receive a flight credit.
The default option set by the airlines should be to get your money back in your same form of payment. If for some reason the airline refuses to do that, that is a DOT violation.
Keep in mind that some of these refunds may take several days to be processed so part of your credit limit might be tied up for up to a week or two. (For some reason these cancellations can be notoriously slow to process.)
If you utilize a hold, you may be forfeiting your ability to later rely on the 24 hour rule.
That is to say that after the hold is over and you purchase the ticket, you cannot cancel it for free after 24 hours since you have effectively already utilized that perk.
Not every airline follows this policy but it is something to be on the lookout for.
Also, you may not be refunded the fees that you had to pay for the hold.
Sometimes whenever you book as a group you can take advantage of cheaper fares and so a lot of large groups like to book together. However, group bookings often do NOT get to take advantage of the 24 hour rule.
Usually, the same 24 hour cancellation policy used by an airline for revenue tickets applies to awards tickets. However, it never hurts to verify this.
Online travel agencies
If you look at the terms and conditions for airlines, you may see restrictions on where you can purchase your tickets in order to take advantage of the 24 hour rule. These potentially exclude online travel agencies like Expedia.
For example, Delta states:
“Available only for eTickets purchased at the time of reservation through Delta ticket offices and airport ticket counters, Reservation Sales, or at delta.com.”
Other airlines state similar terms.
With that said, some online travel agencies may have flexible 24 hour cancellation policies.
A good example of this is Priceline.
They calculate 24 hours by giving you the rest of the booking day plus until 11:29 PM ET the next day.
What’s more, in the past they only factored in business days for their calculation. This has allowed people to get something like up to 96 hours of free hold time before the 24-hour cancellation deadline kicks in!
Major US airline 24 hour cancellation policies
Below, we have highlighted some of the key terms related to the 24 hour cancellation policies for the major US airlines.
Alaska Airlines does not allow for truly last minute use of the 24 hour rule but they do offer a nice middle ground. As long as you book 24 hours before departure, you can utilize the 24 hour cancellation rule.
“The 24-hour cancellation policy only applies to tickets booked for travel starting more than 24 hours from the time of purchase. For tickets purchased within 24 hours of departure time, our standard change and cancellation policy applies immediately after ticketing.”
Link to Alaska Airlines policy
American Airlines is another airline that offers a middle ground because you have to book at least two days prior to departure to invoke the 24 hour cancellation rule.
“You have up to 24 hours from the time you first buy your ticket for a refund if you booked at least 2 days prior to departure.”
Link to American Airlines policy
Delta Airlines is another airline that allows for flexible use of the 24 hour rule because you can cancel so close to departure.
They also have a very liberal way of calculating 24 hours since the deadline is set for midnight the day after the ticket is purchased or midnight of the departure date of the first flight.
“Cancellation request must be made by midnight of the day after the eTicket is purchased or midnight of the departure date of the first flight, whichever comes first. Cancellation request must be made before travel commences for the first flight.”
For these reasons, Delta probably has the best 24 hour cancellation rule out of any major US airline.
“All bookings are refundable within 24 hrs of booking for flights over 7 days from departure.”
“Tickets may be cancelled 7 or more days prior to departure without penalty if requested within 24 hours of purchase.”
Link to Hawaiian Airlines policy
JetBlue appears to follow the DOT seven day window. Also, if you make a change you could be killing your chances of getting a cash refund within 24 hours.
“If your travel was booked seven days or more prior to the scheduled departure date, you have 24 hours from the time the booking was made to cancel your reservation without being charged a cancellation fee.
The entire booking must be cancelled to qualify (not applicable for JetBlue Vacations reservations).
Bookings that have been changed are not eligible for a refund to the original form of payment and may be subject to a per-person cancellation fee depending on the fare booked, regardless of being within 24 hours of the original booking.”
Southwest Airlines does not explicitly mention how they apply the 24 hour rule to the seven day window.
However, I confirmed with a representative from Southwest that you can utilize the 24 hour cancellation rule up to 10 minutes prior to departure.
But note that if you make changes to the original reservation you could be losing the ability to receive a full refund within 24 hours.
“Yes, you can choose either to a) receive a method-of-payment refund or b) hold the value of the ticket as a flight credit to buy a future flight. […] Note that this is true only if you don’t make any changes to the original reservation.”
Link to Southwest Airlines policy
With Spirit, you will be charged a fee if you attempt to cancel a booking within seven days of departure, even if you are canceling within 24 hours of booking.
“If a Guest cancels a reservation within 24 hours or less from booking, for a flight that is seven or more days away, they are eligible for a full refund in the original form of payment.”
Here are the current change and cancellation charges:
|Days from Departure||Fee Amount|
|0-2 days from departure||$99|
|3-6 days from departure||$79|
|7-59 days from departure||$49|
|60+ days from departure||Free|
On paper, United abides by the seven day DOT rule and states the 24 hour cancellation applies “if you made your purchase one week or more before the flight was scheduled to depart.”
However, in practice United has not always applied the seven day restriction.
United also has a number of additional restrictions you can find below:
- Applies to tickets booked at united.com, United City Ticket Offices, airport ticket counters or with the United Customer Contact Center.
- The 24-hour timeframe begins at the time you book and ticket your reservation.
- Requests for refunds will be credited back in the original form of payment, except for purchases made with a United Gift Certificate, which will be credited back in the form of electronic travel certificates.
- Group tickets are subject to the terms of the group contract.
- Tickets purchased using e-certificates are excluded.
- Reservations that are being held but have not yet been purchased are excluded.
- Any FareLock® fees paid to hold a reservation will not be refunded.
- Tickets paid for with Money + Miles cannot be changed within the 24-hour flexible booking period – the MileagePlus member must cancel the itinerary and make a new booking.
In some cases you might be able to select Pay in person-> Airport Ticket Office which will hold your flight until midnight CT the following day. That can be an easy way to take advantage of up to 48 hours of hold time. At any point you could always select to pay for your ticket online via credit card. Just know this option will not be available for every flight.
Link to United Airlines policy
In theory, the 24 hour cancellation rule is very straightforward. You cancel within 24 hours of your booking and you get all of your money back.
But in practice, not every airline abide by the same policy. Some are more liberal allowing you to utilize the 24 hour cancellation rule within seven days of departure while others don’t. Some calculate the 24 hour window longer than others. And some penalize you for making changes within that window.
So my advice is to always clarify how the 24 hour cancellation rule will work with the given airline you are trying to fly with. Hopefully, the information above will help guide you in the process!
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time credit card rewards/travel expert and has earned and redeemed millions of miles to travel the globe. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.