If you fly a lot, you know that the only thing certain about airline pricing is a lot of uncertainty. Fares change all the time, seemingly at random, and trying to time the market so you buy your ticket on the absolute rock-bottom day is usually a fool’s errand.
The good news is that once you buy your ticket, your rate is locked in. No matter how much an airline may increase the price in the future, they can’t come back and say “We’ve raised our prices, you owe us the difference.”
But what happens in the opposite case? What happens if you buy your ticket one day and later find that the fare has gone down? Are you out of luck?
The short answer, unfortunatley, is “probably”, but it does depend on the airline and the circumstances. All of the airline policies are similar in that, if you purchase a non-refundable ticket (which almost all of the lower fare tickets are), you are never entitled to cash back or a credit to your credit card, even if the fare goes down. What some airlines do allow, is a travel voucher for some or all of the difference, which you can use toward a future flight on that airline.
Among the U.S. airlines, Alaska, JetBlue, AirTran, and Southwest have the least amount of restrictions. If the fare goes down after purchase before you use any portion of your ticket, you will be entitled to a travel credit for the difference. Of course, you have to notice this on your own and call them at just the right time; they won’t go out of their way to alert you to a fare drop. For help on that front, you might want to check out a site called Yapta. No matter where you purchase your ticket, Yapta can automatically track fares for you and tell you when the fare for your itinerary has gone down.
As for the other airlines, they do offer the same type of “downgrade” credits, but they deduct a “service” fee for processing them. For American, Continental, Delta, United, and US Airways that fee is $150 for domestic flighs and up to $250 for international flights. This means that if the fare drops by $200 on a domestic flight, your travel credit will only be $50 ($200 minus the $150 fee). And if the fare drops by less than $150, you won’t get any credit at all since the fee would wipe out the entire savings. Virgin America is a little more reasonable — they charge only $75 and they at least let you process the credit on-line.
There is one other important caveat for all of these airlines: to the extent that credits are available, you can only obtain them when the fare goes down for the exact same itinerary that you purchased. If you buy a ticket for $300 on one set of flights and then find a week later a $250 fare on another set of flights, even the most generous airline will not consider that a price drop and will not offer any form of a refund or credit.