Airlines are in a bind. Because of the coronavirus outbreak, passengers are scrambling to postpone or cancel upcoming travel. Governments across the world are also adding travel restrictions, and some are even closing borders.
Airlines are responding to this massive reduction in demand by canceling (or significantly rescheduling) flights. With very few new bookings, the cash flow is drying up too. Plus, with all the cancellations, airlines will need to refund passengers for existing reservations.
But airlines are going to great lengths to avoid giving refunds. They recognize that they’d be out a lot of cash, so they’re doing all that they can to convince you to take a voucher or future travel credit instead.
Your rights to a refund
For domestic flights, as well as international ones departing or arriving the U.S., you’re covered by the rules of the Department of Transportation. As it says on the DOT’s website, if your flight is canceled — no matter the reason — you are entitled to a full refund back to your original form of payment for the unused portion of your itinerary.
In addition to the DOT’s guidelines, airline tickets are governed by each carrier’s contract of carriage. You can find the full text for the major airlines here:
If you read each, you’ll find clauses that state that if your flight is canceled, you are entitled to a full refund — in line with the DOT regulations. But just because you’re entitled to a refund doesn’t mean airlines are going out of their way to hand them out.
What should you do if airlines are offering future credit instead of a refund?
In light of all the cancellations, airlines have been enticing passengers to take future travel credit instead of cash refunds.
We’ve heard reports of American Airlines offering passengers 20% extra value on vouchers in lieu of a refund. Aer Lingus is doing something similar, but the bonus is just 10% more value.
Meanwhile, other carriers that have taken the opposite approach. Instead of incentivizing people to take future credit, they’ve just made it much harder to get refunds.
United’s new schedule change policy — requiring you to wait a full year for a refund — is a perfect example. Swiss has also removed most references to getting a refund for canceled flights from its website.
Qatar also no longer mentions the option of getting a refund should your flight be canceled. But again, even though the airlines are trying to convince you otherwise, you’re still eligible for a refund if your flight is canceled!
Best strategy to get a full refund
The first thing to note is that the process of getting a refund typically isn’t automatic. You’re going to need to physically request one (again, airlines making it hard to get your money back).
Though some carriers have online forms to request a refund, you may need to call in to speak to a representative. In that case, make it clear (politely) that you want a refund and not a travel credit.
If the agent gives you a hard time, you can always hang up and call again (something you’ll often see referred to as “HUCA” in the points & miles world). If you still don’t get the answer you’re looking for, it pays to be patient. Airlines are still updating their policies and procedures. I’d also try using Twitter to reach the airline.
If the airline flat out refuses a refund, your next best course of action is to dispute the charge on your credit card. After all, the carrier is violating the DOT rules, as well as its contract of carriage. While you’re at it, you should also file a complaint with the DOT.
When your flight is canceled, you are entitled to a refund — no questions asked — according to the DOT rules. However, some airlines have been trying their hardest to convince travelers to go with a voucher instead of a refund – despite the rules. The airlines are doing this to maintain as much positive cash flow as possible.
If you’re offered credit for a future trip and would prefer your money back, the best course of action is to call an airline’s customer service desk. Cite the DOT rules and contract of carriage you agreed to when you purchased your ticket. If you’re still out of luck, consider a credit card charge back.
But either way, knowing your rights is the first step in getting what you want.