I always think that if Jack Bauer could save the world in 24 hours, I should be able to figure out my semi set travel plans in a similar time frame. Damn he was good. Jack hated red tape and so do I but as you well know, plans do change and sometimes we just need to cancel. Here's the simplest breakdown within reason of the major policies and airlines. Too simple and you might get screwed...
24 Hour HOLD or 24 Hour Cancel (US)
Any ticket sold in the US, yes online too, for flights from the US, even if they're on a foreign carrier must allow for one of two things: a 24 hour hold guaranteeing your fare before purchase OR a 24 hour risk free cancellation entitling you to a full refund. Virtually every airline except American Airlines has opted for the 24 hour free cancellation policy. American will allow you to hold a ticket for up to 24 hours for free while guaranteeing the price. After purchasing you're on your own, no free refund.
24 Hour Hold Or 24 Hour Cancel (Outside US)
If you're NOT in the US it's far more complicated because there is less of an official government policy. With that said, most airlines (check yours) do allow for either free 24 hour cancellation or the ability to hold before buying (sometimes for a fee) including British Airways, Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic, Iberia, Air France. KLM and more. Each link above points to the "best practice" policy for each of the airlines. PLEASE keep in mind that wherever you are, if you book a ticket within seven days of flying; you may be subject to a loophole which does not allow for free cancellation or hold. You may be absolutely fine but you should be aware, investigate before buying and do your best to avoid last minute ticketing in most situations.
If you booked and you're outside of 24 hours it's time to hope or forever lose your cash. No, not for your favorite team to win the league, but for a flight delay or schedule change. Airlines jumble their schedules all the time and for almost every airline a change in schedule voids their cheat codes for making you pay to cancel. If they move the time of any of your flights you can argue for a full refund. Don't take no for an answer you are almost certainly right. Especially in the US.
Time is money but being an educated consumer can save you both. If your airline or online ticketing agency like Orbitz, Expedia and so forth don't have a crystal clear policy, give them a call before booking. Sure it may delay you a couple minutes but I promise chasing down a refund or arguing with supervisors is far worse.
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