How to Negotiate Airline Change Fees

Nobody wants to travel with a sick child (and even fewer people want to be stuck on a plane with one) but airline change fees are so punishing that parents sometimes feel like they have no choice. I want to share a recent experience and how we were able to work with the airline to change our ticket at the last minute.

6 month old E eating his airline ticket
6 month old E eating his airline ticket

When we returned from Disneyland a few weeks ago, E suddenly started vomiting just as we were leaving for the airport. Small kids (especially if they're related to me) throw up a lot. Sometimes it is an isolated incident and you never find out what caused it. Other times it is a sign that they are very sick, and in rare cases a young child can even become so ill that that require hospitalization (usually for dehydration). Unless you know that a stomach virus is making its way through your play-group, it can be hard to predict what will happen.

With our bags already loaded in the car, we decided to proceed to the airport, but when E continued to be sick on the way, I called the airline to find out what our options were. With a few hours rest away from the motion of the car or an airplane, he might recover. If not, we'd be best able to give him the care he needed in a hotel room or at his grandmother's house.

The airline was unsympathetic, the flights for the remainder of the day were almost full, meaning that if we decided not to take our scheduled flight we would have little chance of getting on a later flight. Securing seats on a later flight (either that day or on a future date) would incur a $125 change fee per person ($500 for the entire family) plus any fare change.

Obviously we felt stuck. $500 was a huge additional expense... should we split up the family? Take our chances on standby and risk sitting in the airport for hours with a sick child? Drag poor E through the airport and hope he started to feel better once he was out of the car?

When we arrived at the airport, we parked the car and my husband ran in to talk to a supervisor in person. After lots of negotiating, the supervisor grudgingly booked us on an afternoon flight with no change fee. That gave us enough time to confirm that E was, in fact, fine before proceeding on our journey.

Here's how he made it happen:

  • Don't Phone it In
    It is a lot harder to look a concerned parent in the face and say no than it is to say the same words to a phone caller. Obviously this isn't always possible, but when you can, an in person visit is more likely to pay off.
  • Talk to a Supervisor
    Once he had explained his problem, my husband's first question to the ticketing agent was whether she had the authority to make the change. When she said no, he immediately asked to speak with a supervisor. Choosing not to waste her time or his own energy arguing showed respect for her and helped him stay collected.
  • Stay Calm
    It can be hard to stay calm when you're worried about a sick child or upset about obscene change fees, but remember that "calm but concerned" is more effective than "angry" or "emotional."
  • Explain the Problem in Terms that the Airline Can Identify With
    Instead of focusing on how worried we felt about flying with a sick child my husband focused on things that would cause the airline pain (or potential liability) too... phrases like "I'm concerned about what might happen if he becomes sicker in the air" and "Without knowing why he is throwing up, I'm worried about what germs I might be exposing other passengers to" cause more concern for the airline than "I think the best thing for him is to get some rest" or "I can't believe you don't care about a sick child."

When all else fails, remember that you do have other options. . . one way fares from LA to Seattle, even at the last minute, are often lower than the change fees + fare change that the airline quoted us. Or, if you are particularly worried about the risk of changing your flights when a child gets sick, you might consider purchasing trip insurance when you fly.

Have You Convinced an Airline to Waive Their Fees Recently? Share what worked for you in comments.

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  1. Shelly Rivoli (Travels with Baby) on January 5, 2009 at 1:54 p.m.

    Excellent advice! A really good point about the one-way airfares in particular--in many cases that could be a savings indeed. When I recently booked "bargain" airfare for our family, I realized that it would still be $400 for changes one way for the 4 of us. One-ways on that route are generally very expensive, so I got the extra travel insurance for about $60 to cover all of us instead.

  2. jen laceda on January 5, 2009 at 6:19 p.m.

    These are super tips!!!

    By the way, I just want to congratulate you for a job well done with Passports With Purpose. It's great to surpass your initial goals!! yipee!

    by the way, Folie a Deux was nominated as a finalist at the <a href=""> 2008 Weblog Awards</a>. Vote for me <a href="">here</a> if you think I deserve it. *only one vote per 24-hour period.

    thanks for your support,

  3. Kara/MountainMama on January 5, 2009 at 9:20 p.m.

    All great points! I have no tales from the trenches like this one, but will keep in mind if I'm faced w/ something similar in the future!

  4. Nomadic Matt on January 5, 2009 at 11:05 p.m.

    great tips debbie!!! I'll keep this advice in mind

  5. Paula on January 6, 2009 at 5:55 a.m.

    Those are great points - I am so glad it all worked out for you (mostly that E felt better).

    I have tried negotiating the fees to travel with my dog, in a kennel, in cargo. Both times the fee to bring her along has been more than my own ticket - both attempts to negotiate this have failed. My husband completed a survey and wrote "I wonder why my dogs fare is more than my wife's - no one had to load my wife on the plane and she only barked at me once."

    No reply :)

  6. London78 on January 7, 2009 at 10:15 a.m.

    It is important to purchase travel insurance for these very reasons! I am a travel agent and have seen many families lose thousands of dollars because of a sick child that prevented them from travelling.

    You did a great job and were able to get the airline to make a change for you at no charge, but that definitely doesn't happen normally.

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  7. Debbie on January 8, 2009 at 9:14 a.m.

    @london78 I think travel insurance makes a lot of sense when you are booking an expensive fare or an expensive all inclusive vacation that cannot be changed.

    For most short flights, tough, I'm not convinced. In the 3 1/2 years we've been traveling, this is the first time we've needed to change a flight due to illness. We fly a lot, so the cost of insurance over the years would have added up to much more than even the $500 in change fees that we were quoted for this trip. I think that for short flights, especially when there is no hotel or the hotel has a 24 hour cancellation policy, it makes more sense to self-insure.

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