Think you deserve a plane-ticket refund? Before you get to the ticket counter, work with the gate agent or call the airline's customer-service number, there are things you should know.
Let's start with the most basic info: There are two types of airfare: refundable and nonrefundable plane tickets. Though this is a strict separation in classes of tickets, you'll find that there is some blurring of the lines between these two types.
Most cheap flight tickets are nonrefundable, and that move helps airlines keep their prices low because they minimize their risk. If you want refundable tickets and more travel security, you typically have to fly business class or first class and pay extra—sometimes three to five times more than coach tickets or bargain airfare.
Though refunds are achievable, experts say that actually getting them is becoming more and more difficult.
“It used to be that [the airlines] wanted to make you happy,” said Chris Elliott, the long-time travel advocate behind Elliott.org. "It was based on customer service. Now it’s about making money and keeping it. When I started this, airlines were looking for a reason to give you your money back and now they’re looking for a reason to keep your money.”
Plane Ticket Refunds: Who Gets Them and When
The good news is that there are a few scenarios that will always garner a refund.
“Anytime a flight is canceled by the airline, you get a full refund,” said Elliott. “Most people don’t realize that and the airline will try to give people a voucher. You’re entitled to a full refund if the flight doesn’t fly.”
Another way to get a refund is if the airline delays the flight longer than acceptable. "Acceptable" is defined for each airline in its contract of carriage, which is the agreement between the passenger and the airline. The contract defines delays, rescheduling and other terms in which the airline will partially or fully refund airfare. You can find the contract of carriage for most airlines fairly easily; just do a web search for the name of the airline together with the words "contract of carriage." Beware the thickness of these legal documents. For example, United Airlines' contract of carriage is a lengthy 48-page PDF download; the section on refunds isn't found until page 39, and the legal language on refunds continues through page 42.
There are some scenarios that crop up commonly for airfare refunds.
“The most common situation a frequent travel faces is changing a flight,” said Daniel Durazon, the director of communications for travel insurance provider Allianz Global Assistance. “The second-most common situation is needing to cancel a flight due to an unexpected situation such as an illness or injury to the traveler, their family member or a traveling companion."
Other common refund situations besides health issues include changes in military orders, jury duty requirements and even death (in the last case, it's the estate of the deceased which typically receives the refund).
While getting travel insurance is one option, travelers can also try to go straight to the source. If no contract of carriage breach is committed but you still are seeking a refund, Elliott said that there are few ways to try to score a reimbursement.
"As a general tip, if you have a non-refundable ticket and are trying to get a refund, attitude matters more than anything," Elliott said. "Usually for non-refundable airfare, you’re not entitled to a refund. Rather than demanding one, it seems to work better to ‘throw yourself on the mercy of the courts'."
Elliott added that he has seen more flyers have success by appealing to an airline representative’s good side rather than going with the vinegar-to-catch-a-fly method of vehemently demanding a refund for extenuating circumstances.
Self-Advocacy in Travel
Elliott cautions that getting a refund usually depends on what kind of case you present to the airline reps.
“It’s no problem for the airline because they can almost always resell the seat unless it’s last minute,” said Elliott. “If you give them plenty of advanced notice, they’ll usually work with you.”
Though travelers have a contract of carriage and can rely on travel insurance to ward off some or most fees, there are also Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations on refunding airplane tickets.
Fly-Rights is a prominent consumer resource to understand the DOT rules regarding airfare refunds, overbooking, passenger rights regarding lost or delayed baggage and more. One thing you'll find, for example, if your airline is refunding your flight, they'll also be refunding baggage fees."
More than knowing your legal rights, Elliott advises to keep records during any airfare dispute. Applications for a refund are available on most airline websites and are a good place to start a paper trail during the refund process.
“Keep a record of the transactions,” said Elliott. “If there’s a long time between communications with the airline, you can go back and prove prior communications if you need to. If that doesn’t work you’d go to the DOT.”
Elliott said that if you can get a member of the DOT to side with your complaint in a refund issue, the DOT will send out a letter to the airline, who will then usually comply.
A last-ditch effort for those really intent on a refund is small claims court for directly challenging a non-relenting airline or applying for a refund through the credit card used to book the tickets.
Refund or Voucher?
More often than not, once you get the airline to agree to a refund you'll get offered a voucher, good for future travel with the airline, instead of a cash or credit refund.
“I would always start by asking for a refund,” said Elliott. “Real money is always better than ‘airline funny money.’ They can put limits on it [the voucher], and real money in your bank account is always better.”
On a positive note, Elliott said that if you do your homework and read the contract of carriage sometimes taking a voucher isn’t always bad. The case of involuntary denied boarding versus voluntary denied boarding is an example.
An involuntarily denied boarding is when an airline has overbooked a flight and shifts you to the next available flight. You can receive a voucher or a refund on your airfare when this happens depending on the contract of carriage. A voluntarily denied boarding occurs when the airline asks for volunteers at the gate to forgo boarding the flight in exchange for a voucher for a later flight or future travel.
Some airlines won't refund voluntarily denied boarding or will argue against a refund.
“Even thought the person at the gate will tell you one thing you still need to verify it,” said Elliott. “Not in an aggressive way though. Step back, look up the rule on your smartphone and then, when you know that taking the voucher is the right thing for you, get back in line and ask for the voucher.”
Sometimes vouchers can be the best option but Elliott warned against jumping for a voucher too quickly.
“Once you’ve accepted a voucher," said Elliott, "you give up your right to do anything; to take the airline to court or to complain to the DOT.”