Regulations in the United States require that a carrier provide either the option to cancel an itinerary within 24 hours after booking for a full refund or to place that itinerary on a free 24-hour hold before booking. United Airlines has also created a service called FareLock that lets customer pay a fee to lock in that price for a longer period — either 3 or 7 days — before committing to a purchase. This delay can be used to arrange for time off with an employer, confirm hotel availability, or coordinate with companions. (FareLock is available on paid and award flights, but it is not offered on all itineraries.)
What if you need more time to decide, or if you want to fly with someone other than United Airlines? It used to be that you had to book a refundable fare or just accept the change fee on a non-refundable ticket. Two services called Options Away and Level Skies try to provide customers greater flexibility in their airfare purchases while avoiding these expensive alternatives.
Options Away is currently my favorite because it provides greater certainty of your final travel plans. Like a traditional search engine, you enter the dates you want to travel, your destination, and any other optional information like the number of stops desired. The fares provided matched exactly what I found on ITA Matrix. Options Away then gives you a range of choices to secure that fare for that flight. You pay an option now and have the right — not the obligation — to purchase that ticket at the advertised price some time in the future.
However, this didn’t always seem to work perfectly. I was shown several carriers and options as low as $4 on each of them for a 24-hour option. But I didn’t find 24-hour options for most of the carriers when I checked the results. One possible reason is that the 24-hour option is more of a convenience than a true option. Because of the mandatory 24-hour hold or cancellation policy you should be able to do this yourself without paying for the privilege. Then again, if someone wants to pay for the convenience, why remove that choice? It’s doubly odd after reading the FAQs, which state: “You will always find a 24 hour hold for all flights we offer.”
I think most people will benefit from hold times of 3 to 14 days, which at $5 to $15 each way is pretty affordable. I found it more helpful to search and secure options for individual flights, which I’m glad is one of the provided search features. Often search results that show the entire itinerary are difficult to peruse since there are so many different combinations of outbound and return flights. Most domestic trips are the same price whether booked round-trip or as two one-ways, so it makes sense to search for each best option separately.
Worth noting: option prices may vary up or down, but I found that the total cost of the options (like the total cost of the ticket) did not vary whether I booked options separately or for the entire trip. As an added bonus, you’ll get a discount for booking multiple options (different flights on the same day, for example).
Another site I looked at with a related service is Level Skies, but they appear to be in a much earlier stage of development. Only select departure airports are available to reserve, and the product is sufficiently different that it bears mentioning. Current departure cities include:
- Atlanta (ATL)
- Boston (BOS)
- Chicago (ORD)
- Dallas (DFW)
- Los Angeles (LAX)
- New York (JFK)
- Philadelphia (PHL)
- San Diego (SAN)
- San Francisco (SFO)
- Washington (IAD)
Level Skies does not sell options on specific flights like Options Away. Instead it sells a Flex Fare that quotes a single price and the choice to book that fare on any of several different itineraries. You pay the full price up front that depends on the prevailing price for those dates of travel, the amount of flexibility in the ticket (e.g., plus or minus one day), and the amount of time you need to decide. If, at the end of that decision window you have not reserved an itinerary, then the large majority of the fare will be refunded automatically. The net cost is comparable to paying for an option from Options Away.
You can probably guess my primary concern regarding Level Skies: It’s not clear what flights will be available when you go to reserve an itinerary. Will they be the same ones mentioned when the Flex Fare was purchased, or will you be routed about at inconvenient times as if you had purchased an opaque fare on Hotwire? Some of the sample flights mentioned are $10 or $20 higher than the Flex Fare. Why would Level Skies sell me a cheaper alternative that gives me access to more expensive (and likely more convenient) flights?
It’s difficult for me to explain or understand how Level Skies is supposed to work. It’s a creative idea, yes, but the goal should be to provide more flexibility. Pre-purchasing a limited menu of itineraries doesn’t sound flexible. Choosing not to book because I don’t like my options does result in a refund but also means I’ve paid for a service that wasn’t useful.
Options Away can be useful even if I don’t book — I chose not to book because I made the decision I didn’t want that flight, not because Options Away decided not to sell it to me. Where Level Skies has the advantage is that you can build lots of options into your Flex Fare. Rather than purchase four or more options to protect yourself on multiple flights, you can tell Level Skies you need some flexibility around the dates. This is valuable as long as Level Skies gives you some flexibility, too.
As I said, Level Skies appears to be in the early stages of development and serves only a few cities. Maybe some of these issues will be resolved or better explained later. But for right now I recommend choosing the specific flights you want with Options Away.