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For family reasons, I'm planning a trip from A to B. Airlines are currently not operating the route but flights are already available for the coming weeks, at less than normal prices. Airlines are offering a "safe booking commitment", with no charge for change of date in case of canceled flight (the only obvious and fair thing to do anyway). However, they will charge the price difference. For instance, British Airways states:

We’ve waived our change booking fee so you will not be charged, although you will need to pay any difference in fare.

Imagine this scenario. I book today a flight for the 25th of May. Say on the 20th of May I am told the flight is cancelled. The next available flight is the 1st of June, which was already available today (I just wanted to flight earlier). Naturally, there are less seats available on the 1st of June flight. Moreover, is closer to date. Based on how airline costs seats, that means the price should be higher. Therefore, although there would be no cost for the change itself, if I take the 1st of June flight I would need to pay much more. In other words, I lost. An alternative is to book a much later flight, say the 15th of June. By that time, prices might be closer to normal. I lose anyway. Perhaps the only way of getting the same price is for flights available on July. Too late.

My fear is based on a real possibility. Today, flights from A to B in May are four times higher than yesterday. Well, yesterday I almost bought one ticket for the 10th of May. You would say "what a shame you didn't buy it". But actually, if they cancel my flight, I would have to repay the difference! And all May tickets went up four times! So, it seems I was lucky not to buy the ticket! This is what has prompted this question.

Have you read or experienced this? I haven't found online articles discussing this risk.

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    I'm not sure I'm understanding your question correctly. In case of a flight cancelled by the airline, the airlines (at least the ones subject to EU rules) will be required to re-route you free of additional charge. The British Airways statement is unrelated to that. It says for flights cancelled by the customer for whatever reason, as a special measure, change fees are waived, but you must pay the price difference. – zhantongz May 1 at 16:08
  • @zhantongz how sure are you about this? BA states: in the T&C "Any fare difference between existing booking and new booking must be paid for". The difference you make is by all means not clear from BA website here. – fox_mulder May 1 at 16:14
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    "Has your flight been cancelled?" is different from "Need to cancel your booking?". Your information is from "Need to cancel your booking?". If the airline cancels the flight, you do not need to cancel your booking. – zhantongz May 1 at 16:18
  • @zhantongz Virgin Atlantic, for instance, says it explicitly (as if an act of kindness from them): "There's no change fee, and if you choose to travel on the same route up to 30th November 2020, we’ll also waive any differences in the fare." – fox_mulder May 1 at 16:20
  • It is an act of "kindness" (or rather, an act to maintain their cashflow, but nonetheless not a legal requirement) to waive the differences in fare" if you choose to travel on the same route up to 30th November 2020". If the flight is cancelled by the airline, the airline (subject to EU regulations) is only required to rebook you to the next available flight or via other reasonable routes (e.g. your direct flight could become one with layovers). They are not obliged to change your flight to whichever one you want in the future. – zhantongz May 1 at 16:25
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Is “relatively low” flight prices plus “no fee for change” as good as it sounds?

No.

At the moment it's a bad deal. Airlines are desperate and will do whatever they can to get hands on cash. They may artificially lower price to lure people into booking. If the airline need to cancels the flight, they are legally required to refund the money to you. However, many airlines currently refuse refunds (in violation of the law) and will drag out the refund process as much as they can.

If you need to cancel or change your flight, you do not have to pay a change fee, but you still need to pay whatever price the airline will charge at this time. As soon as travel becomes possible again, airlines are very likely to hike prices: there is a lot of pent up travel demand and many customers are sitting on vouchers with expiration dates that otherwise will go to waste.

So it's a low risk strategy of the airline: they get some cash and can hold onto it and maybe convert you to a more expensive ticket in the future.

There is also the non-trivial risk of airlines going bankrupt. In this case you are out of your money and will get nothing in return (realistically).

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  • The last sentence depends on where you live and how you book. In the UK if you book on a credit card and the price of your ticket is between £100 an £30000 then you are protected by section 75 of the consumer credit act. – Peter Green May 1 at 19:35
  • @PeterGreen: fair point. Where is the money coming from ? From the credit card provider or from the government ? – Hilmar May 1 at 19:47
  • @Hilmar The card provider, and it's general practice in Europe that, if an airline goes bankrupt, you can get a chargeback – Crazydre May 1 at 19:55
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I agree with everything that Hilmar stated in his excellent answer. Airlines are in deep trouble and the danger of bankruptcy is real. In such an event your travel booking could loose all value.

That said, any poorly managed airline can go bankrupt with little or no warning. This has happened many times before and never required a pandemic as an excuse. Its an unavoidable risk of travel and business in general.

A low cost ticket with no change fees can be a good option if you want to lock in travel but maintain flexibility for yourself. If the airline cancels the flight, that is always beyond your control and you'll have to reschedule with them regardless. However, if you don't mind waiting on hold for potentially hours to speak with their representative, this no change fee option obligates them to alter the flight dates based on your whims.

Accurately predicting if the price of alternate travel dates will go up or down is probably impossible and certainly a waste of time. In the event that you decide to change dates, you may as likely end up with a flight that costs less than the original. In which case the airline will give you the difference probably as a voucher towards a future flight.

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  • Thanks. In my case the cost is around 1000 USD. The risk is higher. The ticket I almost bought went up from 1000 to 4000 USD! – fox_mulder May 1 at 20:17

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