Is It Ethical To Book Backup Flights On Another Airline In Case Your Flight Is Cancelled/Delayed?

The single best way to protect yourself against airline screwups is to make more than one flight booking to get where you are going. And doing this has been made easier and less costly by changes to airline policies over the past two years.

If you absolutely have to be somewhere, you may want to buy more than one ticket. This summer we’ve seen numerous airline meltdowns. The airlines blame weather, and the FAA (including air traffic control), and those are contributing factors. But fundamentally they haven’t had the staff, o sufficient staffing margins, to run their operations. Several airlines, like Delta and JetBlue, have scaled their schedules cancelling flights in advance to make things more manageable but still throwing passenger schedules into chaos.

When your flight is delayed and you’re going to misconnect, or your flight is cancelled, other flights ae often too full – your airline may not be able to re-accommodate you quickly or even for several days.

Against that backdrop one of the things I’ve advised is booking a backup itinerary.

  • Airlines have broadly eliminated change fees (except on basic economy fares and on some tickets originating outside the United States), so if you buy a ticket you aren’t going to use you can cancel it and retain full credit. That’s great for a frequent flyer on an airline they normally fly, but since these credits generally expire after a year that isn’t great for everyone or on airlines you may not fly as often. I won’t really benefit from a Delta or JetBlue credit the way I’d benefit from an American or Southwest one.

  • That makes booking a backup award itinerary more attractive. American AAdvantage eliminated cancel and redeposit fees. Southwest never had them. United still officially has these fees but hasn’t been charging them. You get your miles back and you aren’t letting the airlines hold your cash.

  • You probably need to book your backup travel on a different airline than your planned itinerary. American, for instance, has cancelled out backup reservations when both trips are on its own metal and booked too close together for you to possibly travel on both. Before the pandemic they also instituted a tool to prevent customers from having backup flights in the same itinerary unless they ae a Concierge Key or Executive Platinum member.

The idea is that you have two different bites at the apple. If your first flight goes off, great, you cancel the backup. If it doesn’t, refund the first ticket and travel on the second one. This is another reason why it’s better to travel on one way tickets now.

A month ago reader JorgeGeorge Paez commented here,

…..book cancellable backup flights…..” which leaves less options for others (and some airlines are cancel[l]ing proactively because, reasons) but I guess in that scenario it’s dog eat dog?

Scott Mayerowitz, Executive Editor at The Points Guy, addresses the ethics of booking backup itineraries.

In general airlines have rules against making reservations you do not intend to fly. Although you do intend to fly the backup if the airline cancels on you. You’re making a contingent reservation, which is exactly what airlines have encouraged customers to do for decades in selling much more expensive refundable fares.

Mayerowitz suggests airlines will more or less look the other way in this ‘challenging environment’ based on his conversations with half a dozen carriers. I could see if you did this at a big enough scale, at some point in the future, never actually needing those backups you could draw extra attention to yourself. And airlines mostly decide what their own rules mean, relying on a compliant DOT and court precedents making it difficult to sue.

But as a one-off or occasional tactic you just won’t have a problem. But that’s addressed just the ethics vis-a-vis airlines and not with respect to other passengers also fighting for space. It’s possible though that they are no worse off,

  • If you do not take the backup flight, the seat is still available for someone to travel on

  • You might discourage someone from booking that seat in advance (if you’re taking up cheaper inventory and the flight becomes more expensive) but that means an extra seat for re-accommodating someone, creating the slack in the system for poor operations that the airlines should be providing themselves

  • And if you do take the backup, you are freeing up a seat on your original delayed flight, and you are one less person for your original airline to have to re-accommodate meaning there’s one more seat on that airline to help out someone else that was inconvenienced on your flight.

With a fixed supply of seats, and more passengers trying to get somewhere than an airline’s failing operation supporting, one person taking a seat may mean someone else not taking it. There are tradeoffs which are largely the fault of the airline, and you cannot know who benefits or loses most of the time. You just have to do your best trying to get where you’re going for yourself and your family, and let others do the same, within the confines of a system the airlines have set up.

Meanwhile, be attuned to the needs of passengers around you. Have patience and goodwill. I’ve more than once over the years given up a seat and taken a later flight to help someone out that needed the seat more than I did.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. 100% ethical and STRONGLY RECONMENDED, With all the standbys trying to get on the flight you cancel it actually can help an airline day of.

  2. Is it “ethical” for these stupid airlines to offer(and accept payment for) flights they have no intention of actually flying?

  3. Ethical or not, in today’s climate of never knowing what’s going to happen next, then I definitely double book where possible…usually with Miles or Points or cash if necessary.

  4. Flights are full.

    This tactic is wholly unethical.

    While airlines have their share of questionable business tactics, two wrong do not make a right.

    This tactic has the effect of depriving someone else who wants to travel a seat on the flight.

  5. Airlines anyway sell more tickets these days than the actual number of seats on the plane, so I don’t see the ethical problem here. When you cancel your back up plan, someone on the standby gets cleared or someone who may have been bumped to the next flight doesn’t get bumped. And if that seat goes empty after you cancel it, it wasn’t meant to be filled in the first place. In either scenario, I don’t see how you blocking a seat for back up plan makes someone else’s life difficult?

  6. All is fair in love and war. Considering how airlines are treating us, paying public, and all the rules and restrictions they create (purely for their own benefit), it’s war. And I don’t see any reason not to use every available method to protect myself.

  7. My advice is be careful with these double bookings. Sometimes you cannot cancel as the phone lines can be hour long waits and websites sometimes error out saying you can’t cance online and need to phone in. Hard to phone in while you are in the air.

  8. I don’t have an opinion on the ethical issue but I do have one in the mental yoga required to claim that double booking does not negatively impact other fliers.

    The math is simple. If you cancel a reservation at the last minute:

    * Sometimes the seat will be used by someone else

    * Sometimes the airline will not be able to reallocate the seat even if there is demand.

    Therefore, on net, fewer travelers will be accommodated if you double book and cancel last minute. Any ethical “calculation” must include the fact that your double booking runs some risk of denying the flight to another potential flier. Whether that’s one chance in five or one in five hundred I don’t know.

  9. Airlines have sophisticated algorithms which estimate how many passengers will cancel or no show, and overbook flights on this basis. So this behavior is both expected and predicted by the airlines. There’s no ethics issue here at all.

  10. “If you absolutely have to be somewhere, you may want to buy more than one ticket.” I’d add at a time certain.

    In that case, I see no ethical problems in booking a backup flight, subject to the risks cited in other comments.

  11. Ethical to whom? To the airlines, who will screw you over in a second – as someone said, all’s fair in love and war. But realize that doing this on discount tickets isn’t really what this was intended for – and may result in restoration of change fees.

    Is it ethical to your fellow customers? That’s more doubtful. Your buying a ticket you have a high chance you may not use drives up the price for everyone else when we have dynamic pricing. I can see doing it when you absolutely must be somewhere, but if it’s for mere convenience, it’s a bit selfish to do it a lot. I know that we really shouldn’t consider others when making our market decisions in purely economic terms, but too many people manipulating the system like this is often why we can’t have nice things.

    I’m not going to condemn someone who always does this for every flight, but it is a bit sketchy toward your fellow travelers.

  12. I get the point but it’s not unethical if you think you might need it. My argument would be, is it ethical for airlines to sell more tickets than they do seats on an aircraft? That can lead to people being bumped against their will and could lose money, time, and even fallout from missing the flight. It should be illegal.

  13. @geoff nailed it. They sell tickets for flights they have no intent on flying.

    They roll delays knowing damn well they’re going to cancel the flight anyway.

    So yea, I’ll book a back up flight whenever I want and won’t feel an ounce of guilt when doing so.

  14. I’m the best man at a wedding. 2 adults+1.5 year old. Flying in day before ceremony. Reservation on Southwest with backup on Alaska. Hell no I’m not going to trust the airlines will deliver on our contractual agreement. I’m happy to work with them but they are unreliable and I have to protect my interests as well. Leaving IRROPS handling in the hands of airport staff, phone staff, or glitchy apps without a plan B is the travelers fault. Especially for savvy travelers who know better.

  15. Many years ago I interned in a congressional office. If the congresscritter needed to go somewhere, the airline would book them on about 5 flights on the same day just to do everything possible so the rep would get where they needed to be. This was on the same airline and was actually how the airlines dealt with “vips.” If it’s good enough for our representatives, no problem with doing it myself.

  16. Positively ethical. Airlines schedule flights they do not intend to operate. They sell seats they do not have through oversales. It’s no different.

    For that matter, at this point we may wish to start double booking rental cars as well. Too many times, there are no cars available even with reservations – even prepaid ones.

  17. Regardless of whether it is ethical: I double booked a UA flight (using miles) from first from Sacramento to Nashville and then from SFO to Nashville in October– following earlier advice from Gary. They did not catch in for a few weeks but yesterday they did, and they threatened by email to cancel unless I addressed the issue immediately.

    I did so this morning and after a wait of well over an hour, while an agent sorted out the booking, canceled my double booking.

    So, buyer beware, as you could lose all reservations and be left with nothing!!! This strategy may work for some if they are lucky, but my suspicion is that the airlines are catching on and clamping down on double booking.

  18. As one of the 40-some percent of US taxpayers that actually pay any sort of income tax and thus as an involuntary contributor to the billions of grants these airlines received for what turns out to be absolutely nothing, I consider myself having paid whatever fee might be necessary to book whatever I please whenever I please, and I suggest anyone who desires the protection of a backup flight do the same, at least until these clowns figure out how to run an airline again. When the next option is three days away to an airport one hundred miles away, it’s every man and woman for himself or herself.

  19. @Dan Cornford Most of us double booking aren’t trying to secure a second flight on the airline that originally screwed us over anyway so your situation doesn’t apply to most of us here.

  20. VIP lines (360, CK, etc.) do this proactively and happily – pre and post COVID. I will often have the desk put me on 3-4+ flights based on likelihood of getting to destination fastest and with least hassle. that might be different connection cities in case weather hits one. might be LGA vs. JFK to mitigate one airport having excess delays. might just be holding 2pm, 3pm and 4pm shuttles on a day with iffy weather, and I just grab the first one to take off. all fully refundable J/F fares. I cancel online once in air. I spent $100K+ per year on air travel, so airlines are happy to accommodate.

  21. Is it ethical to. Take billion$ of taxpayer dollars to maintain staffing and then reduce staffing anyway? No.

    Book anything you want.

  22. @Heavy: Point taken–to a degree. Many of us have stacks of miles with one airline thata we want to use up–and are being advised to do. I am not a frequent flyer, so again like some, I concentrate my flights/miles on airline that serves Sacramento and SFO well, especially the former., and I think a lot of people fall into my category.

    In such cases choices are limited as I/we don’t want to start another mileage program with another airline. Is it also not the case that it is much easier (far fewer penalties) for canceliung a flight booked with miles?

  23. This is absolutely unethical. Anyone saying differently is engaging in whataboutism where they try to justify their wrong actions by saying that another party is acting badly and that somehow makes it okay to screw over fellow passengers.

    If someone wants to do this, they need simply be upfront about the fact that they’re a selfish a$$w!pe who couldn’t care less about other people and not hide behind petulant excuses. It’s a bad look but has the benefit of being honest.

  24. Christian, I understand and respect your position. And, I’m not saying you’re wrong. But, I do have a question. The airlines schedule flights they know they will not fly . . . flights they know they will cancel. The Sec’y of Transportation has called them on it. What does a passenger do?

    Recently, a colleague had both legs of a round-trip cancelled (with less than 24 hours notice). Another colleague had three of four segments cancelled (with less than 24 hours notice). As my wife and I were on the road to the airport, our flight was cancelled — about three hours notice — when we were ready for our return leg, it was cancelled.

    I’m searching for an answer. I have not as yet engaged in such “contingency planning.” But, given the state of things, what does one do? Thanks in advance for any suggestions.

  25. I’m in Abu Dhabi on my Birthday RTW. Flew AA DCA to LAX to get UA Polaris (oh, so tight) to Sydney to catch Qatar A380 in First. Fly home tomorrow on Etihad DreamLiner seat 2K

    I flew Same day to LAX so needed to GET there. AA1275, the morning nonstop had shown cancellations for a few days a couple of weeks going So I backed up on AA via LAS on through equipment. Now the LAS flight left a half hour earlier (Didn’t want to cut into my LAX Lounge (Star Alliance since I’m SQ Gold & Polaris) access 😉 ). So after checking in the day before with several days of my nonstop operating, I canceled the Backup

    The Airlines/Government make the rules. Playing inside the rules is totally acceptable (clenched fist emoji)

    I certainly agree with John on if elected officials get bennies, so should we. plus I Love the term congresscritters <3

  26. @Reno Joe – First off, I greatly respect you. You don’t do crazy troll comments or arguments and in fact tend to have pretty reasonable perspectives. Does doing something that will presumptively intentionally screw over other customers become okay because it happens to work in your favor? Nobody loves the way that airlines are doing things right now and I’ve commented about how the government should read airlines the Riot Act and force them to act as they promised or else return all government funds received during the last couple of years. Nonetheless, one customer screwing over another (barring certain situations like a child needing a heart transplant on the following day) for personal gain is simply wrong. Is it fine if someone takes two parking spots in a soon-to-be-busy parking lot? Same principle since the spots will both comparatively soon be vacated.

  27. Given the mess at various European airports, some travelers at AMS, ARN and elsewhere have been booking fully flexible, refundable business class fares to use to check-in to get boarding passes to access the premium security lines to avoid the massive wait times to clear security. And then after getting airside, there is the cancel check-in, cancel booking (to get a refund with the money back within a week or less) and then proceeding to the other flights for which they are checked in in economy class and fly as originally intended.

    Some of those refundable tickets used for that purpose even include lounge access.

  28. John is completely right about how this was being done rather routinely by the airlines catering to the governmental VIPs in DC..

    The airlines and their lobbyists catering to the governmental VIPs in DC had a habit of not only allowing but encouraging booking such persons on multiple same-day flights out of DCA.

  29. Buying a business class ticket to avoid lines, then flying economy is the very definition of loser. It also means you can’t check bags. I can also see airlines tightening restrictions on things like this – as in you check in, the ticket becomes a voucher, not fully refundable. You use it to access the lounge, then refund it, you get charged the lounge access fee.

    Yes it’s all within the rules now, but this is why rules get changed. Don’t moan when they do. I’m about to change the rules in my own business because I’m starting to see the same sort of abuse. You try to be nice and someone always takes advantage. Please take your business elsewhere.

  30. Awww, the poor airlines got robbed by some traveler using the fast lane in security? Seriously? She’s the abuse here? It’s a win for the poor shmucks at the economy line, and is perfectly within the airlines’ rules.

    I swear to God, there is no one whinier than airline lobbyists and their willing, moralizing, fanboys on here.

    The only problem with this tactic is that some Euro airlines, like LH, charge EUR70 on refunding a “refundable” ticket.

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