For the last year and a half, COVID-19 has upended travel plans left and right. Travelers canceled trips en masse as the pandemic first struck last spring. And despite hopes for a return to normal in 2021, the unpredictability surrounding travel may be with us for some time.
Another wave of COVID-19 cases has many travelers rethinking their upcoming trips, near and far. Fortunately, most major airlines have gotten rid of change fees – at least if you paid for the right kind of ticket. But what if you want a cash refund, not just a free change or a voucher or credit for future travel?
If you choose to cancel your flight, the best you'll get is a voucher or credit for future travel. And that's still true even if the U.S. warns you not to travel abroad or the country you're heading to decides to ban Americans.
If, however, your airline cancels your flight outright – or changes it significantly – 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 last year is proof of that, though the airline has since backtracked. Delta increased that threshold from 90 minutes to a two-hour change on both domestic and international flights.
It seems pretty cut and dry – and by the letter of the law, it is.
But airlines haven't always played nice with customers – especially during the depths of the pandemic. United and JetBlue initially refused to give passengers refunds, leading the Department of Transportation to issue two separate warnings regarding refund laws. Air Canada was among the worst offenders, refusing to follow the law for many months. The DOT is cracking down on them, too.
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 your money back.
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.
But it gets worse. Some airlines simply made it hard to even request or process the refund they owe you after canceling a flight.
And then there are the truly egregious examples of airlines outright denying the refund that they owe you after canceling a flight. United Airlines flat-out refused to issue refunds in many cases throughout March and April of 2020, leading to a massive spike in complaints to the Department of Transportation. The same happened with Air Canada through much of 2020.
As this pandemic drags on, we may see more and more airlines resorting to these methods. Sure, airlines need money after the worst year in industry history. But so do Americans. 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.
- If your flight hasn't been canceled or changed, wait! That's likely to change – and if it does, you could get your money back.
- If you can't find the option to process a refund online, call your airline – or better yet, send them a direct message via Twitter.
- If you booked through an OTA like Expedia or KAYAK, you'll have to call that company.
- Cite the Department of Transportation rules, the DOT's April 3 enforcement notice, as well as your airline's “contract of carriage” – both spell out that they're required to give you a refund if they cancel your flight.
- If the airline refuses to give you the refund you are legally owed, hang up and call again – or ask to speak to a supervisor.
- You can initiate a credit card chargeback with your bank, though this should be your last resort.
- File a complaint with the Department of Transportation.
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 cancels it … well, that gets tricky. Odds are, you missed your chance at getting a refund. That's why we caution travelers to wait to cancel their flights.
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.
Want a refund? If your flight has been canceled by the airline, they owe you your money back. The same is true if they significantly change your flights.
Unfortunately, airlines haven't always played nice when it comes to giving you what they legally must. And if your flight is still scheduled to depart as normal but you're rethinking your travel plans, the best you can do is get a voucher for future travel.