How To Use The 24-Hour Rule To Your Advantage When Booking Your Next Flight

Picture this: You're up late one night browsing airline ticket prices to your dream vacation destinations. Maybe your wall calendar shows some picture-perfect beach in a tropical place. Whatever the circumstances, when you're in need of escape and have been bitten by the travel bug, it can be tempting to use an online travel agency like Priceline or Expedia. But before you even have the intention of buying a ticket, you might start window-shopping for cheap flights.

You input your destination or a specific airport name in the flight search and, voila, suddenly you've found a deal that seems too good to resist. The only problem is, the site says it's a non-refundable ticket.

The good news is there's a way to circumvent that if you're using a U.S. airline for a domestic flight or any flight to or from somewhere in America. When you follow the 24-hour cancellation rule, and you book directly with the airline at least seven days before your scheduled departure time, there's no such thing as a non-refundable airline ticket. This rule comes straight from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which has regulations in place for aviation consumer protection.

The 24-hour rule ensures you a refund or free cancellation

The Department of Transportation's website has a whole section for aviation consumers on canceling a ticket purchase or reservation within 24 hours. It lays out the rules for how airlines are required by law to either allow cancellation and a full refund for a purchased ticket within 24 hours, or they must hold the flight reservation at the quoted price without payment (or cancellation charges) for 24 hours. Most airlines go with the first option since they're not required to offer both. Nor are they required to allow free changes to your ticket.

This is why the Department of Transportation recommends checking the airline's policy before you buy. It also notes that available ticket prices can suddenly fluctuate. In some cases, it may be cheaper to ask for a refund and rebook your ticket rather than pay a change fee.

Essentially, what we have here is the government itself hinting at a bit of travel advice. If you've found a cheap flight, you can lock in the price for 24 hours while you keep shopping around for an even better deal. Or you can just use that time to work out the specifics of your trip. Just be aware that third-party travel agents or agencies aren't covered by the 24-hour policy, and they have their own rules.

Online travel agencies differ

The only downside of the 24-hour rule is that it limits your search options to one airline at a time, since you have to book directly with each airline for it to work. By contrast, online travel agencies with search engines for flights give you a bird's-eye view (no plane pun intended) of competitive rates across different airlines. While they're not bound by the 24-hour rule, you may find that some slightly extend the free cancellation window.

Priceline has been known to offer free cancellation within 40 hours or more in some cases. When you see their site display a $369 nonstop Delta flight from Tokyo to Los Angeles, for instance, it might seem like an offer too good to pass up. This is especially true when the price calendar keeps changing, with that low fare disappearing from surrounding days and the cost going up every minute.

Fortunately, even with a non-refundable ticket, Priceline gives a fair warning on the booking page about how long you have to cancel. Expedia, on the other hand, might well have a different policy for the same hypothetical flight, allowing cancellation within the usual 24 hours. You may encounter different options, so just shop around, and make sure you read the fine print regarding cancellation policies for third-party sites. If nothing else, the 24-hour rule serves as good protection for consumers booking directly through airlines.