May 24, 2024


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The best airlines to book for 2021 travel to get the most flexibility

  • Airlines are offering unprecedented flexibility for travelers in a bid to get them back in the skies. 
  • American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, and Alaska Airlines have all eliminated domestic and international change fees, though with some caveats. 
  • Even ultra-low-cost carriers like Allegiant Air and Frontier Airlines are doing away with some fees. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

There’s never been a better time to be a shrewd consumer when it comes to booking flights.

The coronavirus pandemic has inflicted a devastating 2020 for the industry with consistently subpar flyer numbers lingering for nearly 10 months now and airlines are desperate to get flyers back in the air. Luckily, a perfect combination of cheap flights and flexible booking policies is putting consumers in the driver’s seat when booking travel for 2021.

With multiple COVID-19 vaccines nearing emergency authorization, experts are predicting a return to normal by this time next year and perhaps by the end of summer, opening the door for travel once again. And even though there’s no set date on when the pandemic will end, the good news is that airlines are giving consumers unprecedented levels of flexibility.

The big three US airlines including American Airlines, United Airlines, and Delta Air Lines, as well as Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines, have all eliminated change and cancel fees on domestic and international flights, though with some caveats. Even the notoriously fickle ultra-low-cost carriers have amended their rules to allow flyers to make some changes free of charge.

But not are airlines are jumping on the trend, with varying degrees of flexibility across the industry. 

Here’s a list of the best of the 11 major US airlines to book with for 2021 travel.  

Tied for first: American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and Southwest Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, and Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, and Delta Air Lines at LAX

Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, and Delta Air Lines aircraft at Los Angeles International Airport.

Philip Pilosian/

American Airlines no longer charges change and cancel fees for any domestic flights, as well as short-haul international flights to the Caribbean, Canada, or Mexico. International change fees on trips that originate in North or South America to Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, South America, and the UK have also been eliminated. 

Basic economy tickets, however, are still bound to change fees for all flights. One exception is that all tickets booked before December 31, 2020, including basic economy fares, are exempt from change fees. 

Award tickets purchased using AAdvantage miles are subject to the same rules, including those limit basic economy fares booked after December 31, 2020.  Using miles, points, or a travel credit can be an easy way to maximize flexibility. 

Delta Air Lines announced on Wednesday that change fees for all international flights on trips that originate in North America would be eliminated, an extension of a previous elimination of all domestic change fees. The rule doesn’t apply to basic economy tickets or to trips that originate outside of North America, though Delta is waiving change fees for those tickets purchased through March 30, 2021.

Award tickets purchased using Delta Sky Miles on all North America-originating flights are also eligible for free changes and cancellations up to the time of departure. Basic economy award fares are exempted, however, and will still incur fees. 

Alaska Airlines similarly did away with change fees on all of its flights. That includes domestic and international itineraries as Alaska flies to cities in Latin America, however; basic economy tickets, known as “saver” fares, are not included.

Hawaiian Airlines has eliminated change fees for all flights, international and domestic, including flights purchased with HawaiianMiles. Main cabin basic tickets, the airline’s version of basic economy, are not included but customers booking by December 31, 2020, in any cabin can take advantage of a travel waiver in place by the airline.

Southwest Airlines eliminated change and cancel fees for all of its flights, international and domestic, long before the pandemic and remains one of the most flexible airlines to book with for that reason.

Second place: United Airlines 

United Airlines Boeing 767-300ER

A United Airlines Boeing 767-300ER.

Lukas Wunderlich/

United Airlines kicked off the trend of eliminating change fees for domestic flights, including Mexico and the Caribbean, and just recently expanded its policy to international flights on trips originating in the US. It doesn’t apply to basic economy tickets, of course, and the rest of the Western Hemisphere is out of luck, unfortunately. 

Basic economy tickets and non-US originating tickets booked until March 31, 2021, however, will still be exempt from change fees as long as travel is rebooked to a date within 12 months from the ticket’s original issue. 

While this seems identical to the policies offered by American and Delta, there are two important differentiators that knock United down a peg into second place. 

Award tickets booked on the airline still must be canceled more than 30 days in advance in order for the “award redeposit fee” to be waived, as it’s a $125 fee otherwise. United will also not issue a credit when changing a flight if the new itinerary is less expensive while American and Delta will issue travel credits that can be used for future travel. 

United is still a great option in terms of flexibility but the airlines providing the most flexibility for international flights and award tickets are American, Delta, Alaska, and Southwest.

Third place: Frontier Airlines

Frontier Airlines Airbus A321

A Frontier Airlines Airbus A321.

Carlos Yudica /

Frontier Airlines has not eliminated change fees completely but has new flexible booking policies to give flyers more control of their travel travels. The first is a 2019-era policy that eliminated change and cancel fees for flights as long as the change or cancellation is made greater than 60 days ahead of the departure. 

Flights changed between 59 and seven days before departure will be subject to a $39 change or cancel fee and those changed within a week of departure will be charged $59. 

Some Frontier flights are so cheap, however, that buying a new ticket might be more cost-effective than paying the change or cancellation fee, in some cases. 

Frontier is also eliminating change fees for current flights as long as the travel is rebooked for a date through January 7, 2021, which unfortunately doesn’t help travelers looking to book spring or summer travel.

Fourth place: Sun Country Airlines

Sun Country Airlines

A Sun Country Airlines Boeing 737-800.

Sun Country Airlines

Sun Country does not charge change fees when the change is made more than 60 days from departure, much like Frontier Airlines. Changes made between 59 and 14 days from departure will incur a $50 fee per segment while changes made within two weeks from departure will see a $100 fee per segment.

It’s not the most flexible policy but it does give a greater modicum of flexibility into 2021 and is a permanent policy instead of a temporary fee waiver. 

Fifth place: JetBlue Airways 

JetBlue Airways Airbus A321

A JetBlue Airways Airbus A321.

Philip Pilosian /

JetBlue has not yet joined its colleagues in eliminating change and cancel fees but has extended its travel waiver that temporarily waives fees for new and existing bookings made until February 28, 2021. The policy covers all flights, international and domestic, and can be used to rebook flights until the end of JetBlue’s schedule, currently September 7, 2021.

But, unless JetBlue extends this policy past February, flyers will have to book their spring and summer before March to take advantage of it. With experts still debating when the vaccine will bring life in the US fully back to normal, it might not be enough flexibility for summer travel but a great policy for those who are able to book before the cutoff.   

A permanent policy, like those implemented by the carriers above, will always beat out a temporary policy and that’s why JetBlue is so far down on this list despite offering an albeit generous temporary policy. 

Fifth place: Allegiant Air

Allegiant Air Airbus A320

An Allegiant Air Airbus A320.

Markus Mainka /

Allegiant is waiving change and cancel fees on flights booked by December 31, 2020, and will allow customers to make a one-time travel change or cancelation for bookings made through February 2021, a spokesperson told Business Insider.

While a great gesture for travelers, especially coming from an ultra-low-cost carrier, the one-change policy does limit how many times a traveler can make a change and the February cut-off hinders flexibility for spring and summer travel.

Last place: Spirit Airlines

Spirit Airlines

A Spirit Airlines plane.

Ken Wolter/

Spirit Airlines is waiving change fees for bookings made before December 31, 2020. It’s a great gesture but requires travelers to make their 2021 travel plans before the end of the year when there’s still so much uncertainty about how long it will take to get the virus under control, even with a vaccine.

And while some travelers may be alright with booking on the airline by year’s end, those looking to wait a bit to book spring and summer travel may find more flexibility elsewhere.