Cancelling a trip you were looking forward to is never fun, and it can really be a downer if you paid for that trip with hard-earned rewards miles.
The good news, though, is that cancelling rewards trips is often less painful than cancelling trips paid for with cash.
“I think people are really intimidated by miles tickets and think they might be harder to cancel, when, in fact, it’s the opposite,” says Tiffany Funk of rewards-travel booking company PointsPros.
We’ll walk you through multiple rewards-trip-cancellation scenarios – and share some tips for using these cancellations to your advantage.
Scenario 1: You booked with airline miles
Whether it was via a credit card sign-up bonus, or lots of time in the air, you earned enough miles for a free ticket – but your plans changed.
What your refund looks like: If you cancel, you get your miles back, but sometimes you have to pay a fee. Miles-redeposit fees vary by airline and are subject to a variety of factors, including timing and fare type. The PointsPros sister blog One Mile at a Time has a table that neatly outlines these fees and terms.
Meanwhile, if you cancel a ticket you bought with cash, your refund comes in the form of a credit that’s tied to the original name on the ticket that must be used by a deadline. That deadline is generally tied to the date you purchased the original ticket, not the date you cancelled. Plus, to use the credit, you have to pay a change fee and the difference in fare.
For Ari Charlestein, president of rewards-booking service Award Magic, there’s no question which type of refund is preferable. When you cancel a rewards booking and redeposit your miles, “Those miles are now back in your account, he says. “Namely, I can book a future trip anytime I want, the miles don’t have to be used by a certain date, and I can use them for any of my friends and family.”
In fact, Charlestein compares the flexibility of booking with rewards to buying travel insurance for the flight.
“For me, the flexibility of points and miles, knowing I can cancel at any time, is invaluable,” he says.
Things get even better for those with elite status, Charlestein and Funk say, as airlines generally waive change and cancellation fees for those who have reached the upper tiers. That means reward bookers face no penalties whatsoever if they cancel before take-off.
Being strategic: The flexibility of cancelling rewards bookings makes airline miles ideal for tentative travelers with large enough mileage balances. Because reward space is often fleeting, a couple may, for example, book three mileage trips to Bali, Tokyo and London for a spring trip and then cancel the two trips they don’t want when the time comes, Charlestein says. But you don’t need to be an international jetsetter to take advantage of this flexibility.
“We have a lot of people who will want the grandparents to come and visit before the baby’s born, but they don’t know exactly when the baby’s coming,” Funk says. “So you can book a couple tickets and, if you need to, redeposit the points.”
Whatever the reason you cancel, Charlestein stresses this: Even if you know you need to cancel months before your trip, wait until the week before to actually cancel. If you’ve ever booked a flight far in advance, you’ve probably received emails about schedule changes. Depending on the airline’s policy, those schedule changes might entitle you to a no-strings-or-fees-attached refund of your points. For example, here are United’s terms on cancelling based on schedule changes:
“To me, that email’s the hook,” Charlestein says. “Now I don’t have to pay to cancel my ticket. I call them up and say I appreciate their offer to re-accommodate, but the schedule change doesn’t work for me, so I’m going to have to cancel the trip, and I’d like them to put the miles back into my account.”
Scenario 2: You booked a hotel with hotel points
If you used thousands of your hotel points to book a stay, you’ll be relieved to know that cancelling hotel rewards bookings is even less painful than cancelling rewards flights.
What your refund looks like: Assuming you cancel by the hotel’s deadline (24 hours in advance or several days in advance, depending on the property), you’ll get all your points back, no fee required.
Hotels are flexible when it comes to non-rewards bookings, too, though. Cancelling before the deadline also carries no financial penalty.
If you cancel a rewards booking after the deadline, hotel policies vary. IHG, for example, will refund your points but charge the credit card used to secure your reservation for one night:
So, if your plans change last minute (maybe you encountered an emergency the day of your arrival), Funk recommends calling the hotel directly. It may be able to adjust your rewards reservation to different dates without charging a fee.
“If you were planning on staying Thursday, Friday and Saturday night and now it’s Friday, Saturday, Sunday, they can maybe change it in their system,” she says.
If you have to cancel entirely, you still may be able to avoid the penalty fee by pleading your case to the hotel, Charlestein says. Having status definitely helps.
“I’m not the normal case, so I wouldn’t say my experiences are the norm,” Charlestein says. “But my experiences aren’t always what the terms and conditions say should happen.”
Being strategic: If your hotel plans are tentative (perhaps you haven’t booked your return flight yet), you might consider booking reward nights for a multi-night stay of undetermined length separately.
“I might book for three nights and then, for the fourth and fifth night, I’ll book separate reservations,” Charlestein says. That way, if you decide to cut your stay short, you can cancel the final nights (up to the hotel’s deadline) without worrying about the consequences to the nights you know you want to stay.
Scenario 3: Booking with generic points/via a portal
Various rewards cards will allow you to redeem your points at a fixed value for travel and/or book via its travel portal.
What your refund looks like: It depends on the program. As Funk points out, some programs simply allow you to cancel out travel purchases with points for a fixed-value redemptions (which is essentially like redeeming for cash back), while others offer travel-booking services that act as the travel agent. Just because you used a card’s travel portal does not mean the issuer is acting as the travel agent.
If you need to cancel, you can start by calling your card’s rewards program, although you may be instructed to contact the airline, hotel or cruise line directly.
Assuming the program did not act as the travel agent, your trip was booked with cash from the airline’s/hotel’s/cruise line’s perspective.
“From a systematic perspective, you might as well have redeemed for gift cards,” Funk says. “If [the issuer is] not the ticketing travel agent, they’re really not involved at that point.”
So, your refund will likely be processed by the airline, hotel or cruise line in whatever way its terms and conditions state it will process refunds for cancellations. In the case of most major U.S. airlines, that would be as a credit tied to the passenger’s name that must be used by a deadline. In other words, those 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points you used to buy a flight in Chase’s portal probably won’t end up back in your account.
Being strategic: Speaking of Chase Ultimate Rewards points, redeeming them like cash in the portal is generally a poor value, Funk and Charlestein both say. Instead, if you have the Sapphire Preferred and want to use your Ultimate Rewards points to book a flight, consider transferring them directly to one of Chase’s partner airlines, where you can use them to book reward flights directly with the airline — and avail yourself of all the flexibility described in Scenario No. 1 above. Cards tied to the Membership Rewards program from American Express (a CreditCardForum advertising partner) also offer points-transfer partners, as do the Citi ThankYou Premier and Citi Prestige.