Changing the name on your flight booking: Why airlines charge so much for changes

Made a mistake when you typed your name into an online flight booking? Not uncommon. Can it be changed? Or what if you can't make the flight you booked for any reason, can you reassign the ticket to someone else? The answer to both questions is "possibly", but it's probably going to cost you, and how much depends on whether it's a domestic or international flight, the class of travel and who you bought it from.

Virgin Australia charges $88 for a name change on a domestic ticket, but not on their cheap "Getaway" fares. Your only choice with a Getaway fare is either to cancel that booking, collect the refund and make a fresh booking or else upgrade to an "Elevate" fare, in which case a name change is permitted.

The reason airlines make it so difficult to change a name on an international flight ticket is mainly down to the need to protect their revenue stream.

For a domestic economy class fare Qantas charges $99 for a name change, but name changes are permitted only for Flex fares. If it's a Red e-Deal fare you're out of luck, name changes are not allowed.

Qantas does not permit name changes on any ticket to an international destination, regardless of class and fare category. If the name needs changing your only recourse is to cancel the original ticket and buy a new one. You'll get a refund but you'll also pay a cancellation fee, and that will also depend on the class and fare category.

Most other airlines follow the same rule, but if it's a one-letter typo in the name, or "Ben" on a flight booking when it's "Benjamin" in your passport, there's plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that you'll probably get onto your flight without more than a raised eyebrow or two.

If it's an international flight the name on the booking needs to match with the name in your passport but again there's wiggle room in the ruling. Particularly with long names. Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Martyr Patricio Clito Ruíz y Picasso was a Spanish gentleman. Thankfully he signed his paintings "Picasso", and booking a flight in the name "Pablo Picasso" would probably not have caused any grief at the check-in desk.

I have two different passports with different Christian names in each. It sometimes happens that the name in the passport I use at the check-in desk is different from that on the booking. The surname is the same but the first names aren't, but that's never caused any awkward questions, nor blocked me from my flight.

The reason airlines make it so difficult to change a name on an international flight ticket is mainly down to the need to protect their revenue stream. If airlines made it possible to change the name on a flight ticket without a significant penalty they would enable a secondary market in the trading of airline tickets. A discount ticket seller could buy up a swag of sale fares in the name of "John Smith" and sell them at a higher price when the fare rises.

By comparison, changing your legal name with the state authorities is a relative bargain. In Victoria, for an adult born in that state, it costs $110.50 to register a name change. In NSW it's $195 for the same service with the state government's Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages.


Qantas' "same day no mistake" policy

If you make a mistake in your Qantas booking you can make a change until midnight on the same day as the booking with no change fee – provided you made your booking via rather than – say – Flyguy's Whizzbang Fares or some other third-party site. That covers the spelling of your name, the time or date of travel or swapping the to/from airports. For example if you booked a return flight San Francisco to Melbourne when you intended to book the other way round. All that's required is a phone call to Qantas. If you change the date and/or reverse the flight sectors and a higher fare applies, you'll pay the extra.

Most other airlines have similar policies, with changes permitted up to 24 hours after the time you make the booking. Emirates has a name correction facility. If your name is misspelled or doesn't match with your passport you can make the correction for a fee of $US30 ($A44) per ticket for bookings made via the Emirates website, through Emirates ticket offices or through a travel agent. For tickets bought direct from Emirates you need to call one of their contact centres. If the booking was made through a travel agent, make the request with them.

Name changes on bookings made via an online travel agency are more complicated and will likely involve an extra fee on top of whatever the airline charges to make the change.

All too hard? If you're not 100 per cent confident of getting names and dates correct when you make flight bookings online, get a travel agent to do it for you. It's up to them to make sure all the details on the booking are correct, and if they aren't what you asked for it's up to them to set it right. Even if you pay a little more for their service it probably won't come close to what you'll have to pay if you make a mistake on your booking and need to make changes.

See also: The 11 common mistakes we make when booking flights

See also: The 11 biggest rip-offs in travel named (and how to avoid them)