Why You Should Always Cancel American Airlines Trips At The Last Minute

Airlines want you to join their frequent flyer programs so that they can market to you. When these programs began it was so that they’d know who their best customers were, and because one-to-one marketing was more effective than placing ads about new flights in a magazine. Now it’s mostly about convincing you to apply for their co-brand credit cards.

Delta incentivizes passengers to join SkyMiles by making it a requirement of free inflight wifi. (American’s wifi is the most expensive among U.S. airlines.)

American’s approach to getting customers to join the AAdvantage program has been restricting certain flight benefits to members. For instance, you have to join AAdvantage to stand by for a flight.

Also, only Platinum Pro status members and higher can be added to a flight at the gate, everyone else now has to do it via self-service online or in the app at least 45 minutes in advance.

Another change this year is that if you change your flight plans your flight credit is more restrictive unless you join AAdvantage. American promoted this as an ‘extra six months’ of validity for your credit, but in reality non-members just get a shorter period in which to use any credit. This change went into effect on Tuesday.

  • AAdvantage members who cancel online receive a trip credit valid for one year from the date of cancellation (note that this is better than one year from original date of purchase!)
  • However, non-members only get a trip credit valid for six months.

Technically only one passenger on an itinerary needs to be an AAdvantage member to qualify for all passengers to receive one year’s validity. And if no one is a member, American will prompt to join in order to get the longer use period.

Here’s internal American Airlines documentation on the change:

And here’s what American will present as options when cancelling a flight and receiving a trip credit:

Basic economy fares don’t get an automatic trip credit. The current rule for basic economy is that AAdvantage members now can cancel and retain travel credit, after a $99 fee, which is an improvement compared to forfeiting the value of tickets entirely.

The biggest takeaway from the shift in how trip credits expire is always wait until the last minute to cancel your travel plans.

  • You may think you’re doing someone a favor freeing up inventory on a flight by cancelling inventory

  • And American would love to know earlier if you aren’t going to travel, because it influences their revenue management decisions on how many tickets to sell and at what price

  • But since they’re adopting the date of cancellation as the starting gun for when trip credits expiration will run, you want that date to be as late as possible unless you have immediate plans to use the credit.

American has created a system to encourage you to join their frequent flyer program – but credit an unintended incentive to hold off cancelling trips you aren’t going to take until as late as the day of travel, so that you have longer to use your travel credits. Southwest Airlines, in contrast and to its credit, does not expire its credits.

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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  1. @ Gary — The danger lies in forgetting. I always book backup awards when I need to get somewhere (usually on Premium Airways because I really enjoy cancelling their awards at the last second 😉 ). However, I am always afraid that I will forget or have the app fail. With AA, app failure could be a total disaster since you usually have to wait hours for a return call to speak to a human.

  2. @Gene – I set calendar reminders, but your point about technology fails is well-taken (though I’ve had good luck via DM on Twitter with AA)

  3. Law of unintended consequences! I can only imagine some 40ish VP saying this is going to work, except when it doesn’t.

  4. I think the exception is for award tickets where it’s not only purposeless to keep a reservation you won’t use but the right thing to do so someone else can hopefully get the award space in a timely fashion.

  5. Another benefit of waiting is the flight can have a schedule change, delay, cancellation, and you can get a full refund.

  6. @ Christian — All the while, the airline purposely devalues the award chart constantly. Too bad for the ariline.

  7. Thanks for the timely reminder. As you point out, it’s not ticketing date- it’s cancellation date. So the rate AA thing that is a real improvement.

  8. For fare drops Alaska is also 365 days from the date you call to request a credit. IDK if the same rule applies to cancellations.

    In any case it is better than 365 days from the date of ticket issuance which I recall to be the old rule for some carriers.

  9. Agree about waiting til the last minute. AA, two can play this game. You don’t have my back, so I don’t have yours.

  10. @Gene – My concern is for humans, not the airline. Maybe you’re in a different situation but I have struggled so many times to find award space, particularly in premium cabins. I have also read many a blogger discussing locking up numerous redundant awards that they will not be using simply because FF programs are reasonable about cancellation rules and the bloggers in question had sufficiently large enough balances of award currencies that they didn’t care about the rest of us as long as they had their multiple options. While I could do that in some circumstances it’s just wrong and I’m not more important than everyone else so I cancel what I don’t need.

  11. Especially in Premium Cabins.
    Sit in the back and quit whining about people who need to think wisely on how to keep their money, not award or upgrade, as long as they can.

  12. @Christian That’s a very noble gesture however not the way revenue management works. Just because you cancel award doesn’t mean that space will go back to the original award bucket inventory or any other award inventory. “Back in the day” your supposition may have held true but dynamic award pricing has changed that forever.

  13. this just in – cancelling your award ticket does not put that seat back in to award inventory

    revenue management, person or algorithm, has to do it

  14. Whether or not award space goes back into inventory depends on changes in loads/sales – it isn’t a manual decision but generally an automated process – however there is no reason to wait on an award because there’s no longer a fee for cancelling and you get your miles back in your account (you aren’t getting a trip credit).

  15. Stupid rule that’s bad for everyone.
    If everyone follows Gary’s advice, it will cost the airline money by increasing the number of non-revenue flights. Which will result in… higher fares.

    There’s also the fact that if it’s a full flight, you’re needlessly taking up a seat someone else could have used.

    The voucher term should run from the date of the flight, not the date of cancellation.

  16. Well put. When I read the article title, I thought you were a jerk who liked to hog inventory, but clearly American incentives passengers to wait till the last minute to cancel. I hope they change the rules to benefit both the passenger who wants to cancel and passengers looking to buy tickets.

  17. So if I understand, I have to pay $99 to get my used miles back to my Advanttage àccount when I buy basic economy fare , is that correct?

  18. Thanks for this very useful post. I hadn’t thought at all about the cancellation date factor. Is this “one year from cancellation date” approach unique to American, or is the the case with other airlines as well?

  19. So to clarify. On an, obstenibly, FF blog. The advice is that if you’re not a FF on AA you should hold out.

    I’m willing to take a punt and suggest that the non FFs of whom this would affect ( no membership of scheme) is minute and that the rest of us have no issue signing up if it doubles any crediting period and/or moves us up a queue for upgrades in exchange for an email address and 4-10 minutes of our time at POE.

    Imho the entire point of such schemes is so that the ‘ins’ get more than the ‘outs’. That’s what benefits are. As for waiting. If the airline makes the change +X hours/ Results in ‘Fail/ inability to connect/ cancel flight then ANYONE can demand X credit to be effective based on date of travel ( opposed to date of notification) based on simple contract law. They breached, you didn’t, they’re bound over to settle their breach to your advantage. A cut n paste/pro forma “notice of further action” to their legal dept will correct any contact centre agents training. Alternatively cash in full is your right and at your discretion, IRRELEVANT of any published T&C.

    AA: Sorry Frank. We’ve cancelled your flight in July that you booked last December. We’ll give you a credit valid for months from Dec 9th as you’re not an AAAd’ member// 12 coz you are.
    YOU: Actually I’ll take the credit based on date in contract for service provision. Scrap that, I’ll have cash including all taxes, charges and fees.
    AA: That’s not our.policy, sorry.
    YOU: That’s nice. Neither I or the law care what your policy is.
    (( 2.mins downloading and placing an X on a form then sending it))

  20. @Sal Every AA flight I’ve been on isn’t just full, it’s oversold. Instead of preventing AA from reselling a seat and it remaining empty when someone else wants to fly, it’s much more likely that you’re preventing AA from reselling an EXTRA ticket for an already oversold flight-which gives the extra benefit of one less person getting bumped to a later flight.

  21. I just spoke to a rep at AA, and she insists that this information is incorrect. She said that if I cancel my flight (I am an Advantage member), the flight credit is good for 1 year from the date that I purchased the original flight NOT the date that I cancel the flight. She said that this is the current policy as of today (4/24/24). Can anyone confirm which is correct for me? Thanks!

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