United was the last of the main US airlines to announce that they’d waive change fees for flights booked during March, but they’re sadly first with an adjustment to their schedule change policy and it’s truly awful.
In the past, United Airlines allowed you to get a refund if they changed your flight schedule and it would get you to your destination more than two hours after the original arrival time. They’ve now changed this policy so that if they change your flights, you’ll only be eligible for a refund if it results in you arriving at your destination 25 hours or more after your original arrival time.
How much does @united want to conserve cash? Before Saturday, after a schedule change of more than two hours, United happily would refund you. The new policy is 25 hours. Spokeswoman said: "We do everything we can to rebook customers in as timely a manner as possible." pic.twitter.com/BgEQ1PsyHA
— Brian Sumers (@BrianSumers) March 7, 2020
The fact that they can rebook you on flights a day later without any option for a refund is presumably so that they have the option to change their flight schedule to every other day for routes with flights that are currently once-daily. Those will usually be international flights, so this could have a huge impact on your plans, whether you’re traveling overseas for business or going on vacation.
This could have a huge knock-on effect too. What happens if you’ve booked connecting flights which are ticketed separately? Even if you’d accounted for the risk of delays by booking a long layover, a 24 hour delay could still destroy those plans.
And what happens if you’ve booked non-refundable hotels? If you’re arriving a day later, there’s no knowing if the hotel will charge you in full or if they’ll apply some kind of leniency due to the Coronavirus. Even if you’ve booked award stays, you might still be on the hook for the cash cost of the stay if you try cancelling at a hotel when there’s a special event going on.
For example, let’s say you want to visit Louisville for the Kentucky Derby in May. There’s a three night minimum stay if you want to book a Hyatt property using points, but it costs a very reasonable 15,000 points for the Hyatt Regency and only 8,000 points for the Hyatt Place.
Note the cancellation policy for award stays though – you can’t cancel the award and you’d be charged the cash price if you’re a no-show or have to cancel. How much would that be? More than $1,200 + tax per night.
Hyatt isn’t the only hotel chain to do this at some of their properties, as Marriott (unsurprisingly) does the same thing at some of theirs. Although United isn’t responsible for the cancellation policies of hotel chains, the fact that they’re amending their own schedule change policy so that you can’t get a refund for flights that are rescheduled for 24 hours later could mean you’re inadvertently affected by these hotel policies as it’d make it harder to arrive there on time unless you’re willing to eat the cost of the United flights as well as the costs of booking flights on a different airline.
There are a few additional concerns here. For starters, where one US airline goes, the others usually follow. We’ll therefore have to hope that American, Delta, JetBlue, Alaska, Southwest, etc. aren’t planning something similar.
Another concern is that this won’t be a temporary measure. While it’s been introduced due to the dearth of new bookings as a result of passenger concerns about the Coronavirus, there’s a good chance that United might choose to leave this policy change in place once things eventually get back to normal.
One of the worst features of this change is that it’s not only being applied to new flight bookings, but it’s being applied retroactively to include all reservations, even if you booked almost a year ago. If you booked a flight safe in the knowledge that you could cancel your flight and get a refund if United changed the schedule by more than two hours, it turns out that knowledge wasn’t so safe. I’m not a lawyer and so have no idea about the legality of what they’re doing, but it’s extremely shady and non-customer friendly.
As a result, it’s definitely worth reconsidering booking any flights with United right now if being delayed by up to 25 hours would have a significant impact on your plans.