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.
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.
- If your flight hasn’t been canceled, wait! That may 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 agency.
- 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 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.
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.