As a result of a US Department of Transportation (DOT) ruling in August 2011 and subsequently amended, all airlines operating flights out of the US must offer the ability to cancel a ticket within 24 hours of booking if the reservation is made at least a week before the flight’s departure date, or alternatively allow customers to hold a flight for the same 24 hours.

Each airline has taken it’s own approach to implementing this restriction, and this post focuses on how it works with Delta. Delta refers to their implementation of this policy as their 24 Hour Risk Free Cancellation Policy. The full terms and conditions of their policy is detailed here. Delta’s policy goes beyond the requirements set by the US DOT:

  • Tickets can be cancelled risk free up until midnight the day after the purchase is made, or midnight of the date of departure, whichever comes earliest

What that means is in theory the risk free cancellation policy is possibly almost 48 hours in duration. You could buy a ticket for example at 12:01am on a Thursday morning and have until 11:59pm on Friday night to cancel it risk free. If you buy a ticket for travel the same day, you only have until midnight that day to cancel (i.e. if you don’t show up for your flight and fail to inform Delta until the next day, you will be subject to whatever the cancelation policy of the underlying ticket is). Delta does not implement the restriction that the ticket must have been purchased at least a week before flight departure – you can buy a ticket on the date of departure and still cancel risk free up until midnight that day.

The other key restrictions are how and where the ticket is purchased:

  • Does not apply to travel agency tickets and bookings, paper tickets, or partially-flown reissued tickets.
  • If you wish to pay for your ticket with any paper currency—such as cash, or check, Delta Dollars, or denied boarding voucher—you may make the reservation over the phone, which will guarantee the fare for 24 hours. Your ticket must be purchased at a Delta ticketing location by midnight of the following day, or your reservation will be cancelled. Once purchased, these tickets will not be eligible for cancellation under the Risk-Free Cancellation policy.

So one key point to understand is that if you book through a travel agency, including an online travel agency such as Expedia or Orbitz or the like, you do not get the benefits of Delta’s policy. Of course most travel agents have their own versions of cancellation policies and you deal with the agency rather than with Delta. For example Expedia offers a “Free Cancellation Within 24 Hours” guarantee. Interestingly is that if you want to pay with cash or check (which I assume these days is very unusual) or with a denied boarding voucher (which is likely more common) then the policy is different. In that case they offer a free 24 hour hold option. But once you have ticketed, you are not eligible for the Risk-Free Cancellation policy. I presume this is due to technical difficulties they would have in offering cash or voucher refunds.

Note that there is no exclusion for award tickets, which enjoy exactly the same benefits as paid tickets. Where this gets interesting is when making bookings at short notices. One of Delta’s most controversial recent policy changes is to not allow any changes to award tickets within 72 hours of departure. So what happens if you book a new ticket as an award within 72 hours of departure? Well the good news is the Risk Free Cancellation policy overrules the no-change rule. So if you book a ticket on say a Wednesday at 7am for a departure on Friday at noon, you can cancel (or change) that ticket without charge until midnight on Thursday. I recently had direct experience of putting this to the test. A family emergency meant I needed to book a flight to Europe at short notice and I managed to find availability with Delta SkyMiles (yes that’s right!) and so I booked the ticket, which was for a departure in two days time, so within the 72 hour window. The flight times I had booked were not entirely perfect so the next day I checked availability and a better set of flights had become available. I was able to cancel the existing booking I had made a day earlier for no cost (*) and make the new booking. (*I did incur a telephone booking charge of $25 which was not refunded – the rebooking I managed to do online so did not incur this cost twice).

Conclusion: Delta’s 24 Hour Risk Free Cancellation Policy is very friendly for last minute bookings, giving you up to 48 hours potentially to make a booking and be able to cancel it without cancellation fees, including flights booked as SkyMiles awards.

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  • Neil

    Thanks – this was fantastically useful to me. I had booked Delta award tickets for my parents but my dad took ill the week before and it was unclear if he would be up to the trip. I had told them they’d need a final decision 72 hours before the outbound, but after reading this post (and confirming the same seats were still available at the same price) I cancelled the ticket about 73 hours out and rebooked the next morning. Worked out perfectly as dad was feeling better 4 days out but then majorly relapsed shortly after I rebooked …. they have some high Medallion status due to having the Black Amex so no fees for both cancellations.

    • MilesAbound

      This is great, I am glad this was helpful. It really is a very beneficial feature.