How To Change a United Airlines Flight For Free

In order to convince people to fly again without worrying about unforeseen events due to ever-changing testing requirements and border policies, airlines have eliminated change fees for many people. However, fare difference on voluntary changes still applies. Today, we will look at how to make a flight change without paying fare difference on United Airlines flights.

A while ago United Airlines rolled out the option to allow people to change their flights online due to a schedule change. This is great for those without elite statuses because hold times have been abnormally long as airlines battle staff shortage as travel returns, with Delta Air Lines being the worst offender, with hold times that can last 10+ hours.

I used this self-serve tool on for the first time today, and I noticed some interesting differences between it and the traditional method of calling United reservations.

Schedule Change is the Key to Free One-Time Change

Once your reservation has a schedule change, depending on how your booked your ticket, you may be eligible to change your flight for free once. For United, your flight should be changed by a minimum of 30 minutes in order for it to be eligible for a free one-time change. Changes to routing and aircraft types are also eligible for schedule changes. 

Now, when your itinerary has been affected by schedule change and is eligible for that free change, look for this message when you check your reservation on the United website:

This trip is eligible for a free one-time change
Due to a prior schedule change impacting your trip, you have the option to make a one-time change to your flight(s) at no cost. Select “Change flights” below to search for new flights.

There are many reasons why one might want a schedule change, and we won’t go into that here. The easiest way to make sure you get a schedule change is to book early. While this isn’t always the case for international flights, domestic schedule changes are usually made multiple times, at least 2 months before departure date. So by booking as far in advance as possible, you are giving yourself a chance to make changes for free. And in the event of a major schedule change, you can even get refund out of that non-refundable basic economy ticket! So to recap, book early, and then monitor and wait for the inevitable schedule change, and then you can select a more desirable flight / routing / day of travel.

If you use the United App, the search / change process will happen on a in-app browser, so it’s really just the same experience but on mobile.

What Can You Do With a Schedule Change?

There are, of course, many restrictions with changing your flight using a free change as a result of schedule change. Also, there are differences in making changes online versus over the phone. In this article, I will focus more on the online experience, complete with screenshots. But I will also highlight a few key differences between making the change online versus calling a phone agent.

In general, when making your one-time change online, your must satisfy these following conditions for the change to be free:

  • Your new travel date is not more than 1 day before or 1 day after the original date
  • Your departure and destination airports remain the same
  • Your new ticket is in the same cabin and fare class as the original ticket
  • Your new flight is operated by United or United Express

If you are an experienced United flyer, you will immediately notice there are some differences comparing to the more generous schedule change policies phone agents follow if you call the United reservations line. In my experience, you can generally make a change +/- 7 days, and you are also allowed to make changes to departure or destination airport to alternate airport that is within 100 miles. So if you want more flexibility, you should still call it in.

Now, let’s see how easy it is to search for a new flight and make your free change online.

Making your Free One-Time Change

In my example, I will look at some alternatives for a Vancouver – Miami ticket I booked for next year, which a schedule change of around 1 hour occurred on the last segment from Houston – Miami:

I immediately tried to change to a date more than 1 day before or after my trip, and sure enough, there are no free changes available. Same thing if I try to change to an airport within 100 miles (for example, Fort Lauderdale). So if you do want those changes for free, you cannot use the self serve online portal, and you must call it in and hope to get an agent who won’t give you too much push back.

Obviously, you should only pay attention to flights that cost $0 to change. Now, I am noticing some interesting things in the search results. One can also rebook into higher fare classes (L is higher than G), which would have cost more if this was a cash ticket. This may be beneficial to elites who want a better shot at complimentary upgrades.

While the online portal may give you an alternate itinerary in a higher fare bucket, there is no guarantee phone agents will do the same. In fact, an agent who goes by the book will probably not allow you to rebook into the itinerary above for free, and will most likely try to collect fare difference on it instead. As you can see, there are pros and cons on using an automated system versus phone agents!

Once you have chosen your new flight, you can continue and make the change for free!

Keep in mind, if you want to make any changes after this free one-time change, you will have to wait for a subsequent schedule change which will give you another one-time change for free. Otherwise, you will have to pay any fare difference, and maybe even change fees.