a passport with a credit card in it

All the literal travel rage in recent months centered around airlines refusing to refund passengers who’d paid considerable amounts of money in cash, and were legally due one. In a world where points and miles are everywhere, from things as simple as sipping lattes in the sun, not all bookings are paid for with cash, and many are paid with miles.

One question I’ve gotten a lot of recently is about what happens if the airline cancels your points booking, and what happens to any vouchers used during that booking. Here’s a breakdown of what rights you have for re-booking.

a pink lights on a planeFlight Cancellation: It Doesn’t Matter How You Paid

Airlines like to play hardball with points bookings, telling people they’ll need to work with other dates that offer availability using points. If the airline cancels your flight however, that’s not how it works – they must put you on the flight of your choosing, provided seats are available using cash or points.

Example: you book a flight on an airline with amazing first class suites, and the flight gets cancelled. You call, and they tell you to find another date with points availability. You should push back, because you’re entitled to any date the cabin is for sale.

Worst case hang up and call back, or ask for a supervisor who better understands law.

A friend of GSTP once had a points booking with a major airline in Asia cancelled. The airline told them award space only for re-booking, but the customer engaged the local regulator (CAA) which promptly told the airline their stance was inaccurate and the customer must be accommodated on any flight.

There are nuances, but that’s the gist.

If an airline cancels your flight booked with points, they must also offer the alternative of a refund for the points and any flight vouchers used, such as 2-for-1 companion tickets. Basically, you have the  choice of a new flight, or a full refund of whatever you used to pay with, be it cash, vouchers, miles or all.

The key here is the airline, not you, must be the one cancelling the flight. If you need to cancel a flight booked with points for your own reasons, cancellations at least 7 days in advance typically receive a full refund of the points, and only a minimal cancellation or change fee under $100.

This is one of the many reasons that points are a great way to speculatively plan future travel right now, with the hope it goes ahead, but little to lose if it does not.

Delta one Suites CabinThe Nuances Of Points Cancellations

Getting a positive result when your points booking is cancelled is a lot easier when the airline whose miles you used is also the airline flying – aka operating – the flight. With many of the greatest points redemptions, that’s not always the case, so it’s even more important to correctly frame the booking conversation properly.

On both sides of the pond, a flight cancellation is a flight cancellation and even though front line phone or Twitter agents may try to tell you it’s not the case, you’re absolutely able to move to another date regardless of if points availability exists, as long as cash availability does.

If there’s a ticket for sale in your cabin using cash on a flight you want, you should be able to grab it, even though there may not be any option using points. Supervisor? Yeah, you may need one.

If your reservation involves flights on an airline partner of the airlines whose miles you used, you’d need to escalate the issue to a supervisor, who can hopefully speak to the “partner liaison” desk and assist in ticketing onto another flight of your choosing.

This is where the airlines work together to bend the rules to keep their end of the bargain, and it’s (imagine all caps) much-much easier to push for when the cancellation is in the near term of a flight, like the day of travel. But even if it’s not, it’s something you should always keep in your back pocket in the realms of possibility.

Come Prepared With Knowledge

People stress about cancellations and re-bookings, but it’s important to remember that the phone isn’t the only means of contact airlines have. Some offer text, chat or WhatsApp support, in addition to Twitter and Facebook. Find the contact for your preferred method and get it done.

It’s always good to proactively find what you’d like to change to, and make sure tickets are still for sale using cash on that flight. You can then feed this information to the agent, who can hopefully get the switch done. It also never hurts to have a tab open with relevant information on rules for when a flight is cancelled. Here’s a good resource on that front.

As noted, the governing bodies in aviation don’t care if you paid cash or points, and the rules are purely centered around getting you where you need to be, when you want to be there. Don’t let airlines tell you differently.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. I guess another nuance would be if the airline cancels due to liquidation and shutting down. Then you’re screwed.
    That’s currently my biggest concern with points bookings.

    1. I’m going through the same thing. They converted my money to cash points and now they have “suspended” the program. They are hiding in bankruptcy court and are trying to keep everyone’s money despite not providing service. I’m trying to figure out what to do next. This is wrong. They are also getting a bailout from the Norwegian government.

  2. Your advice depends greatly on programs, countries where they are located, origins, destinations, connections, etc.

    With AC Aeroplan, for example, since Feb, they’ve started insisting to rebook with award spaces only. In Feb, one flight of my multicity itinerary got cancelled by the partner airline, I had to negotiate to get it rebooked on revenue seat. I wanted to rebook most of my itinerary, but in the end, I accepted to get the affected portion only for a revenue seat. The phone wait time was insane (spent 10 hours total), and my departure was approaching, so I accepted it.

    Will you show us some laws or regulations that support your argument, that the programs need to rebook us on revenue seats when award seats are unavailable?

  3. Very helpful. My biggest concern is what another commenter said. For example, if I book a flight on ANA using Virgin miles and Virgin goes belly up. Then what rights do I have, if any?

    1. From what I’ve read, you’re pretty much boned. Frequent Miler discussed this a week or two back since Greg is sitting on some massive Virgin Atlantic miles. Anyway, my understanding is that the program you use pays the airline that’s actually flying you when you actually take your flights. If the airline program that you used is closed down or insolvent, you pretty much have no recourse. If the airline enters Chapter 11 or equivalent they want people to keep flying with them and using the program since frequent flyer programs have value, so they will publicly announce that the program is staying intact. Accordingly, your booking really should be safe. It’s what happened to the big US airlines through multiple Chapter 11 bankruptcies, although British law may differ substantially. Please don’t take this as absolute fact, but it does make sense. Hope this helps some.

  4. I booked a BA flight to HEL via Avios.com and a lloyds voucher. BA cancels route and says contact Avios.com as they are agent. Avios.com refuses to reroute as they only use BA and says contact airline. Constant merry go round with no result likely. Have no idea how to get my desired outcome of a switch to finnair.

  5. My recent experience of this with BA was that they would only allow a change to a date 3 days before or 7 days after the cancelled flight. Do you know if they can legally enforce that stipulation, or can I legally insist on a change to any date with cash availability?

  6. there seems to be an issue with the US flights where the flight was operating for repatriation but non-US residents or visa holders were to be denied disembarkation.

    The Flight Centre is refusing a refund because the BA flight was still operating and not eligible for a refund, even though the passengers were unable to enter the country. I would have assumed this would have been eligible for a refund from Flight Centre?

  7. Been holding onto this ready for action but after Twitter DM to BA they are trying to blow me away saying as tickets ABZ to KUL 1st Class were ‘purchased using Avios & Amex 2 for1’ in Oct 2019 for June 2020 cannot move flights to next year as ‘ tickets run out’ in Oct 2020 and BA can only offer voucher or refund.
    But as available Avios seats are very rare would prefer if at all possible to get BA to allow changes for next year (2for1 still valid to Nov 2021)

    ANY thoughts or feedback would be appreciated ie is this true re validity of tickets!

    1. Wanted to share my experience with a Virgin Atlantic award flight I booked with ANA. First class roundtrip ticket to Japan from U.S. Less than 30 days before departure, ANA swapped the aircraft to one that doesn’t have first class. Ticket was in suspended status afterwards, eventually cancelled after I made first call to Virgin. Called ANA, who told me to contact Virgin since they issued the ticket; after five calls to Virgin, escalating twice to managers, no resolution though some small attempts made to contact ANA (supposedly) to sort things out (after I specifically requested they call, like pulling teeth). ANA always cites this is a Virgin ticket when I call them. Both airlines keep shuttling me back and forth and neither will take responsibility to actually help make a change. There are business class seats available on my original flight, so this is not an issue of an oversold category or flight.

      I researched DoT rules and the Civil Aviation Authority’s website. If the flight doesn’t originate or land in the UK, CAA rules no longer seem to apply. Frustrating. DoT cites need for refund or rebooking, but doesn’t clearly specify passenger gets to choose. I cited Virgin’s Conditions of Carriage to representatives and no one cared. Told protection doesn’t apply in this case because it’s Virgin + ANA, as if that combo is somehow exempt from consumer rights laws.

      Bottom line: I ended up having to research alternatives myself and fortunately less than one month out was able to find Singapore availability and have the points. Total mess and still wondering how anything can be enforced in this type of situation? Or maybe it can’t…

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