Ten Tips to Clip Travel Cancellation Fees

You booked a great vacation, but now your spouse is sick and you have to cancel. The question is: Will your money be leaving while you stay home?

Not all of it. Smart moves can help curb cancellation costs, although you usually can't avoid them altogether. In any case, the earlier you start, the better.

Here's your top 10 list to help see to it that if you have to cancel, the only thing you're losing is the trip:

1. Read Cancellation Policies Before You Book Reservations.

Many times airlines and travel sites will have more than one set of change/cancellation policies. Travel consolidators sometimes get special rates on certain blocks of rooms, so not all their offerings will fall under the same cancellation/rescheduling policies.

For airlines, different types of fares get different treatment.

Buy an unrestricted ticket and you can usually exchange it without any penalties, says David Lytle, editorial director for Frommers.com. But, he says, "If you're like most people, you're buying a low-fare, restricted ticket."

Rescheduling fees run the gamut, frequently between $10 and $100, depending on the airline, the time/day/route and how you cancel, says Brice Gosnell, regional publisher for the Americas with the Lonely Planet, a leading travel publishing company.

Want phone help? Many times, that's extra, says Lytle.

There is one instance where you can change reservations for free: If it's the airline's fault (i.e., mechanical problems), the carrier has to reschedule at no charge.

Booking online? Before you reserve a specific flight or room night, look for a button with cancellation or rescheduling information. Click it, read it, then print it out.

To check airfare rules before you buy, look at the "conditions of carriage" section on the airline Web site.

"It's a couple of extra clicks, but it's worth it," says Jennifer Paull, senior editor for Fodor's Travel.

If you're booking by phone, "the key on this is: Just ask," says Gosnell. Hotels get this question all the time, he says. "Some people think, 'It means I'm being cheap.' No, it means you're being savvy."

You want to ask two questions, says Lytle: If I have to change or cancel, when do I have to notify you? Second, what's the penalty if I don't?

Throw your notes or print-out into a folder or notebook with your other trip information. That way, if a question comes up, it's handy.

2. Make Friendly Cancellation Policies a Consideration.

If you're laying out a large amount of money for something like a cruise or tour, you should compare the cancellation policies just as you'd compare the quality of the meals or accommodations, says John Stachnik, president and co-owner of Mayflower Tours and board member of the U.S. Tour Operators Association.

"It's just as important as the level of hotels or level of meals if you're spending your hard-earned money," he says.

One option: Many tour operators offer a cancellation waiver, says Stachnik. This is not travel insurance, and it will apply only to the money you paid for the tour itself, not travel arrangements to the departure destination.

You need to know what circumstances are covered. While some waivers will cover cancellation for a limited list of occurrences like sickness or job loss, others will refund your money minus the cost of the waiver for any reason at all, he says.

What you get back if you cancel will almost always depend on how far ahead you cancel. Your tour operator will give you a schedule for the return policy (and you can often find one on the company's Web site).

Often, with tours, if you cancel during the last month before departure, you forfeit a significant amount of your total, Stachnik says. With his company, there is no fee if travelers cancel up to 45 days before a domestic trip or 60 days before an international excursion.

But that schedule "is fairly liberal" in the industry, Stachnik says. Some operators will want cancellation notices earlier. And many times there is a sliding scale: the closer to the departure date, the more money is forfeited.

While most companies don't have a rain-check policy, it's a good thing to ask for if you do want to reschedule and end up out a large amount of money, says Stachnik. Operators are going to want to help you out even more if they know you're going to be traveling with them soon, he says.

3. Cancel as Early as Possible.

Time is money. The sooner you cancel your plans, the more likely you are to recoup the maximum of whatever you've paid for the trip.

If the hotel, resort, cruise line or tour company has time to resell your spot to someone else, everybody wins.

With smaller, independent establishments, like inns and bed-and-breakfasts, cancellation requirements vary widely.

"In our industry, with B&Bs and inns, they all have their own policies," says Karen Hudgeons, director of membership and member services for the Professional Association of Innkeepers International. Establishments will often post policies online and almost all will e-mail or fax a copy after you register.

For some, a week's notice might be enough, she says. But for anything in a hot area during high season, you could need a month's notice.

With hotels and motels, it also pays to read the cancellation policy. Many allow you to cancel without penalty as long as you contact them at least 24 hours before check- in. Some resorts, boutique hotels or seasonal lodges will require 48 or 72 hours' notice, or you could forfeit the equivalent of your room cost for a night or two.

But there is no one-size-fits-all, Lytle says. One five-star Hawaiian resort requires 15 days advance notice of changes or cancellations, says Lytle. The penalty: the equivalent of a two-night stay, (at a minimum of $850 per night).

"And that's sort of a standard for high-end resorts," he says.

4. Talk to The Right People.

When you have a problem, sometimes it can't be solved through discussions of "company policy" with a low-grade employee. "Sometimes it helps if you get the right person on the phone," says Lytle.

Have to cancel hotel or resort reservations? Call the front desk and ask for the general manager, says Banks Brown, general counsel for the American Hotel & Lodging Association.

It can also be an argument for making arrangements through a travel agent. "A good agent will often work with you as an ombudsperson," says Linda Kundell, spokeswoman for the U.S. Tour Operators Association.

If you book through a third-party Web site, in most cases you're required to reschedule through its customer service department. The fees will vary with the packager and the purchase.

However, if the site takes you to the hotel or airline site to actually make the purchase, then you would deal directly with them to cancel or change reservations.

This is another case where you really need to read that fine print before you buy.

5. Call Rather Than Going Online.

Many airlines will charge extra if you want to make your changes by phone rather than online. But some situations require human intervention.

So if you're having problems making a change or are floored by the potential fees, "that's when it's a good time to talk to a phone agent," says Lytle.

6. Know the Code.

If you cancel lodging by phone, ask for a cancellation code and hang onto it, says Brown. It will act as a receipt and guarantee you a refund if your card gets charged in error. If you cancel online, just print out a copy of your cancellation confirmation and save it.

7. Be Polite.

Canceling is rough. But venting won't get you what you want. In fact, anger and attitude will likely have just the opposite effect.

"Once you start getting rude or angry, forget it," says Gosnell.

So hold it together, keep negotiating and politely work your way up the chain of command.

If you have a true emergency, tell your story. "The only thing you can do is try," says Gosnell. But if you're polite and honest, many times people will respond, he says.

Bottom line: Unless you're dealing with a call center, you're probably talking with someone who likes being in the hospitality business.

"And most travel professionals want to help people have a good trip," says Gosnell.

8. Purchase Travel Insurance.

A travel insurance policy averages 4% to 8% of the cost of your trip, according to Ed Walker, president of the U.S. Travel Insurance Association.

If you're spending four or five figures for that dream vacation or booking many months in advance, it can be a great investment. Of the travelers who buy it, one in six will file a claim, according to the association.

9. Look for Alternatives Other Than Money.

Ask for a rain check. If you just need to postpone, find out if you can switch your reservations to a later date.

If you missed a connecting flight, rather than ask for a new ticket, see if you can fly standby, says Gosnell. While there are no hard-and-fast rules, "most of the time, they will say, 'Let's see what we can do to accommodate you on a different flight,'" he says.

If you don't have a specific date in mind, airlines will often trade your ticket for a voucher that you can use within a year, but there is frequently a fee. You can ask a rep to waive the fee, but that's the exception rather than the rule.

With a cruise or a tour, it will depend on the company and its policies. Even though it may not be part of the company's policy, tour operators are more likely to accommodate you if they know you'll be traveling with them soon, says Stachnik.

10. It Helps to Be a Club Member.

If you rack up so many hotel stays or airline miles that you belong to an affinity club, that could come in handy when you need to rearrange plans.

As a frequent repeat customer, "you have a lot more bargaining power," says Lytle. Especially with hotels, you may find they are "much more willing to work with you," he says.