cancel flight refund

Can You Get a Refund Instead of a Voucher For a Canceled Flight?

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Coronavirus has decimated the travel industry – and upended travel plans left and right. And with few signs that the COVID-19 pandemic is slowing down, the unpredictability of travel may be part of our new normal for some time.

Travelers have canceled their travel plans in droves to guard against coronavirus. Planes are still regularly going out nearly empty, and airlines have cut flights left and right as they enter survival mode.

But what if you want a cash refund, not a voucher for future travel, when your plans are forced to change? Well, that starts to get complicated. You can’t always get a refund, even in these trying times.

Many major airlines are offering free cancellation for any and all flights scheduled through the end of 2020. But if you choose to cancel your flight, the best you’ll get is a voucher or credit for future travel. And that may still be true even if you’ve got an upcoming flight to a foreign country that is rejecting travelers from the U.S.

If, however, your airline cancels your flight outright, that’s when you’re entitled to a refund. 


Let’s dive into how this works and what you need to be aware of if you want your money back.


What the Law Says About Refunds

The law is clear: If an airline cancels any flight that touches U.S. soil, you should be eligible for a refund. No questions asked, no bones about it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re flying with a U.S. airline or a foreign carrier.

Here’s an excerpt from Department of Transportation regulations:

If your flight is canceled and you choose to cancel your trip as a result, you are entitled to a refund for the unused transportation – even for non-refundable tickets. You are also entitled to a refund for any bag fee that you paid, and any extras you may have purchased, such as a seat assignment.


Notably, it doesn’t matter whether the airline offers to put you on an alternate flight – you still have the right to request a refund. You could also be eligible for a refund if schedule changes result in a “significant delay” – though airlines have much more leeway to decide in those cases. United’s initial, slimy move to issue refunds only when the delay is 24-plus hours earlier this spring is proof of that (though the airline has since backtracked.) Delta recently increased that threshold from 90 minutes to a two-hour change on domestic flights.

cancel flight refund 

It seems pretty cut and dry – and by the letter of the law, it is.

But airlines are in crisis and they need every penny they can get. So even when you’re clearly owed a refund, it may not always be so simple.

Watch Out for Games

In theory, it should be simple to get a refund. If an airline cancels your flight, it’s legally obligated to give you one. 

But airlines are employing new ways to try to keep the money that you are entitled to. They range from the creative to the wrong to the blatantly illegal.

First things first: It’s up to you to know your rights. Airlines often won’t tell travelers when a refund is on the table. When canceling or changing flights, the airline may only mention a voucher in hopes that passengers unknowingly accept it.

Some airlines are trying to encourage travelers to take vouchers rather than a refund, and sweetening the deal to do so.

  • Frontier Airlines, for example, offered a $50 bonus voucher to any traveler who proactively canceled an upcoming flight this spring. That offer likely came ahead of mass cancellations – clearly Frontier was hoping to get as many flyers as possible to take a voucher before they’d have to start doling out refunds.
  • American Airlines has reportedly targeted some travelers with canceled flights with an offer to take a 20% bonus on a voucher rather than a cash refund.
  • Qatar Airways has offered a 10% bonus if you take a voucher rather than a refund.

But it gets worse. Some airlines simply made it hard to even request or process the refund they owe you after canceling a flight. Head for Points reports that British Airways essentially hid the ability to request a refund – you can only find it with an obscure workaround.

And then there are the truly egregious examples of airlines outright denying the refund that they owe you after canceling a flight. United Airlines – which has earned a reputation for shady tactics while dealing with coronavirus –  flat-out refused to issue refunds in many cases throughout March and April, leading to a massive spike in complaints to the Department of Transportation.

Among foreign airlines, Air Canada has been among the worst offenders. The Canadian flag carrier has flat-out refused to issue the refunds they legally owe travelers whose flights were canceled.

As this airline crisis drags on, we may see more and more airlines resorting to these methods. Sure, airlines need money. But so do Americans right now. And most importantly, airlines are breaking the law by not giving it to you after canceling a flight.

The Department of Transportation has repeatedly warned these airlines and others that they’re breaking the law.

Only time will tell if they start behaving. So what can you do if your airline refuses to cough up the money they owe you?


What You Can Do to Get Your Money Back

If you’re due a refund, don’t give up easy. If you don’t want a voucher for future travel, don’t settle for one.


What If You Already Accepted a Voucher?

Now we’re getting into some gray area.

If your airline canceled your flight but forced you to take a voucher, you may be in luck. The Department of Transportation has instructed airlines to contact, “in a timely manner, the passengers provided vouchers for flights that the carrier canceled or significantly delayed to notify those passengers that they have the option of a refund.”

If you fit that description, your airline may reach out and offer to replace your voucher with a refund. It doesn’t hurt to reach out proactively and ask, either.

But if you chose to cancel your flight and, later on, the airline canceled it … well, that gets tricky. Odds are, you missed your chance at getting a refund. That’s why we caution travelers against

Technically, the airline would be under no obligation to give you a refund. You chose to exchange your ticket for a voucher for future travel. You don’t have a ticket to refund anymore.

That said, it’s still worth asking your airline to reconsider. The new guidance from federal regulators may give you some ammunition to convince your airline to give you a refund. 


What If You’re Flying to a Country Closed to Tourists?

As the pandemic rages on in the U.S., our international travel options are limited, to say the least. From nearly all of Europe to much of Asia and even Canada, most countries around the globe have shut out U.S. tourists.

But just because you can’t enter the country doesn’t mean your flight will be canceled, triggering that refund. Believe it or not, major airlines are still operating many international flights this summer. And just because you can’t get in once you get to your destination doesn’t mean your airline owes you your money back.

For example, Delta is currently running more than a dozen flights to major destinations throughout Europe from its hubs in Atlanta (ATL), Detroit (DTW), Boston (BOS), and Seattle (SEA). The numbers are similar for both American Airlines and United.

So once again, it comes down to whether or not your flight has been canceled or significantly changed. That’s why you should monitor your reservations, and wait for a change or cancellation to your flights before proactively scrapping your international trip.

Bottom Line

Want a refund? If your flight has been canceled by the airline, they owe you your money back.

Unfortunately, airlines aren’t all playing nice when it comes to giving you what they legally must. And if your flight is still scheduled to depart as normal, the best you can do is get a voucher for future travel.


Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

32 Responses

  • The US airlines took in almost $5B in baggage fees. Are they honestly operating on that slim of a profit margin with it comes to the cost of their flights? One stipulation that should be involved with any bailout for the airlines is they are NOT allowed to oversell a flight. As soon as all the seats are taken, the flight closes. Oh, and lets not talk about “change fees”…it shouldn’t cost me $200+ the difference to just change a name on a ticket. I love flying, and I hope the airlines rebound, but some of this right now is karma for the way they have been treating us over the past decade or 2….

  • This is a good post. I was notified on Tues. (March 24) by JetBlue that my outbound and return flights in late April had been cancelled, and I was automatically re-booked on other outbound and return flights on the same days, albeit about 9 and 10 hours earlier than those in the original itinerary. Understandably, the telephone associate attempted to lure me into cancelling the auto-booked itinerary and retaining the funds for future travel, but I emphasized that both original flights were cancelled and a refund is required both by law and JetBlue’s contract of carriage. After 2 lengthy holds, the associate granted the refund. According to my TrueBlue account, the trip was cancelled, but the credit card refund hasn’t posted yet…hopefully it will by tomorrow. I have nothing against an airline offering an incentive to take a future travel voucher or put the funds in a travel bank, but if the flights are *cancelled* and you want a refund, ask for it. If not granted, do as Kyle says and initiate the chargeback request and the DOT complaint.

  • Thanks for the write up Kyle. My Delta flight on 4/19 to Rome was canceled out of DTW and auto rebooked a few days later to add a leg and 3.5 hours…and an adjusted time going back home. Needless to say, trip is being postponed ha. I talked to Delta today asking for a cash refund and the lady was great…she could not have been more helpful. She said the computer allowed her to process the refund but said she could try to get manager approval if it didnt. Anyways I got my refund processed and they are telling people it could take up to 21 business days for the credit to appear (maybe under promising/overdelivering but we will see). In response to some of the other less fortunate folks…my guess is some of these airliners have serious cash issues at the moment and protocol is to try and keep all cash in house as much as possible. This could tell us that Delta is in decent enough financial shape to continue to put customers first instead of clawing for survival. Im no Delta loyalist/cardholder/super gemini medallion status or whatever, but damn. A+ Delta

  • Sun Country Airlines has “changed” my flight by 9 hours. The new schedule will not work for me. Am I entitled to a refund?

    • Sun Country typically will not issue refunds unless if your flight schedule gets changed by at least a day, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

  • air canada cancelled a flight from YUL->MCO April 8-14th.
    In response to the DOT policy, air canada said

    Thank you for reaching out to us. We regret to inform you that effective March 19, 2020, for all schedule changes occurring on/after March 19, 2020, refunds are no longer permitted. We understand that for many of our customers travel plans have been disrupted. As these are exceptional circumstances, we do continue to monitor the fast-changing situation. We have implemented a flexible rebooking policy, allowing one free change for our customers.

    I’m going to followup with air canada, then if nothing happens start a chargeback.

    • Canada’s government has changed its regulations to no longer require refunds. That’s what Air Canada will reference in denying you a refund.

      That said, the US DOT policy legally requires all airlines, foreign or domestic, to issue refunds for cancellations on flights that touch U.S. soil. So it will be a fight to get Air Canada to recognize the US policy and give you a refund. I would recommend filing a complaint with the DOT, reference that complaint in your next communication with Air Canada, and only initiate a chargeback if they continue to resist.

      • I already issued a chargeback request. Aircanada’s site broke on a request yesterday, and reading it carefully “refund requests take 6-8 weeks”. DOT is overloaded too. In past experience, its easier to let amex deal with it. Thanks for your article.

          • Took a long time for the dispute to be “finalized” — I received a note that the
            closure is “pending” and if they don’t hear from them by last week, its final
            (Good thing — I can’t find my vouchers — I want to see if they’re still good)

  • We had flights to Spain via Lisbon on Air Portugal for late May. They cancelled the flights two days ago and offered a voucher. According to their rules of carriage, refunds are only required if the cancellation is within two weeks of the trip. Is there still a case to be made for a refund?

    • The Department of Transportation has no such rule about the timing of a cancellation for a refund. Absolutely make the case to the airline that you should get a full refund instead.

      • Thanks, Kyle. This may be an uphill battle. Checked the TAPortugal FB page and it is flooded with complaints about the airline’s handling of cancellations. They are holding firm on vouchers only – when they respond, which I guess isn’t often. They are stating that it was a government decision to cancel flights which affects their ability to only offer vouchers not refunds. Folks are going immediately to the step of filing a claim with their credit card companies. I feel fortunate that there are so many dogged travelers who have done the necessary homework to help with the issue.

        • Its probably easier to let the credit card company handle it (if they’re any good). I found amex is very good. Once you approach the airline, and they refuse….turn to the credit card company….At least while the dispute is in progress, you won’t have to pay the bill….

          I have a hunch if you complain to the DOT, you may not hear from them until next year.

          • Thanks, Martin. That’s our plan at this point. TAPortugal is overwhelmed and not responding. But then so is American Express. We’ll see what happens.

  • Thank you for this article. I booked my tickets using (for the most part) USBank Flexperks. We were booked on United Airlines to fly to Ireland today (3/29). I called USBank Flexperks on March 24 and learned that my flights had been cancelled, and after an hour with a USBank Flexperks travel agent, was issued waivers with United Airlines. I definitely want a refund instead. Do I go try to work with United Airlines for a refund… Or with USBank Flexperks? Since I was given credit with United Airlines… Am I stuck with that now?

  • My Business Class Aer Lingus flight was due to leave in a week but has showed as cancelled by them but active by Travelocity (where I purchased my ticket). But…my fare rules stated that I can cancel at any time for an 85% refund. When I finally found the cancel for refund form I got an email 1 minute later saying they are giving me an airline credit (w a Jan 2021 expiration!). I only want a refund and will keep pushing until they follow the Fare rules.

  • I have flights booked in May on American Airlines. If at least one leg of a four-flight itinerary gets canceled, am I entitled to a refund for the entire trip? How long should I wait to see if the flights are canceled before requesting the voucher so I at least get something?

    • In our experience, one leg of an itinerary getting canceled triggers the ability to cancel the entire trip for a refund. But your mileage may vary.

  • If i already accepted a credit with the airlines, would i have any chance of winning a credit card dispute if i explained to my bank I asked for a refund and they only gave me a choice of a credit? Id have no problem giving up the credit for my refund

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you! I just called KLM after they cancelled our flight to Uganda. Of course, we were offered a voucher, and were told that was the company’s policy. I had to request speaking with the initial agent’s supervisor, and was placed on hold quite some time, but eventually our refund request was submitted. We should receive confirmation by email within 24 hours that the request was submitted, and we are told it could take up to 20 days for the refund to be authorized, but we are in line.

  • Second round of flight cancellations…. From Uganda we had booked a flight to South Africa through CheapOair. The tickets are on South African Airlines and have a South African Airlines flight number (although the flight is “operated by” South African Airlink). CheapOair has offered to provide us with credit on South African Airlink and for this so-called “service” they’ll charge us $70! Their credit would be available only to us (we cannot transfer the credit to anyone else). If we had booked directly with South African Airlines w the credit would be transferable.

  • Related question. The voucher we’re issued by TAPortugal is good for a year from the time the original flight was purchased (Feb 14). If we were to use it and book airfare for say, October, and the ban continues and THAT trip can’t happen, what do airlines do about vouchered travel? Issue another one? Stick to the original date? The announcement today from Delta about extending e-credit for two years was welcome news, and if Portugal air did that I’d feel better. Obviously I’m not experienced with using travel vouchers for airfare, and the precarious nature of some of these airlines that might go bankrupt from all of this, makes me wonder about the chances of losing the funds all together. Thank you.

  • I wish I would have found this article sooner! My family had a trip booked for Ireland leaving next week. After the announcement of the travel ban, we cancelled our trip. I was refunded all but $300 per ticket (cancellation fee but received due to a travel waiver)and given that as a voucher. I contacted Delta yesterday after being made aware that because the flight is now cancelled we should have been given the entire amount as a refund. Delta advised that since I had already cancelled our trip before they cancelled the trip that there was nothing they could do! They have extended the voucher use until May 2022 but we would rather have the cash back and use it how we need it now. Any advice?

  • The airlines cancelled 3 out of 4 flights. I was able to request a refund. I am praying they will follow through. Many people have posted On Facebook they are not getting refunds they have been promised and have waited months.

  • For what it’s worth, I talked with AMEX about our hypothetical refund from TAP. The agent had worked in the travel area and had experience with processing time. She said that in ‘normal’ times to expect at least 2 billing cycles. With the deluge of refunds and other delays, they are now telling folks to expect at least 12 weeks. She also advised that anywhere during the wait that we could initiate a dispute. Given TAP’s erratic behavior and current change of practice (like due to the DOT complaints), I’ll give it the two cycles then start the process.

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