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Airlines

Need to Cancel or Change a Non-Refundable Ticket? This Is Your Best Bet

Need to Cancel or Change a Non-Refundable Ticket? This Is Your Best Bet
Mariel Loveland

Budget travelers know the deal: you save a lot — a lot — of money not purchasing a flexible airline ticket, but it’s also like rolling the dice. By all means, you intend to go on your trip. You intend to be there on time, but life doesn’t always go as planned. Maybe you find yourself met with 100 different subway closures and circle around JFK airport for hours before you decide to take an Uber and miss your flight anyway. Maybe your work schedule changes at the last minute. Maybe you get sick or fall and break a bone, or maybe — if we’re talking about this specific moment in history — a global pandemic grounds flights across the globe.

Airlines typically charge between $200 to $500 for change fees, which can amount to more than your low-cost, non-refundable fare was worth in the first place. If you decide not to travel at all, your fate is usually relegated to a small tax refund. At best, you may get a credit for a future flight if you manage to extract some sort of sympathy out of the customer service agent (they’ve heard every excuse in the book, so good luck).

So, are non-refundable flights truly, genuinely not refundable? Yes, but not all the time. There are some strategies that can help you get a refund or at least a free change. Rules are meant to be broken — sometimes.

Book with a flexible airline

This goes without saying, but you’ll have the most luck getting a refund or changing your flight if the airline you choose has a flexible cancellation policy. For example, Frontier and Southwest are known to be a little more lax than, say, Delta or British Airways.

Even though airlines have upped their flexibility because of the coronavirus outbreak, it’s still not a catch all. For example, at the time of this writing, American Airlines is only currently allowing a free, one-time change for flights booked before May 31, 2020 with some fine-print stipulations. You still won’t get a full refund. You’ll only get a credit.

In other words: do your research. The more flexible the policy, the better.

Cancel within the first 24 hours

If you’ve made an impulse purchase you instantly regret, you’re in luck. The U.S. Department of Transportation requires airlines to refund all kinds of tickets — not just flexible or refundable tickets — within 24 hours if the flight is more than a week away. Some airlines have slightly different rules, allowing you to cancel closer to the date if you booked last-minute.

At the time of this writing, you’re going to need to be persistent. Hold times are a lot longer than usual because of the mass disruption COVID-19 has inflicted on the travel industry, so it may take a herculean effort just to get through (ask my German roommate who spent 8 hours on hold trying to change her Lufthansa flight in early March). Be patient.

If the airline cancels your flight

This is another situation that’s a veritable get out of jail free card (or at least get out of jail sans change fee). If an airline cancels your flight, they are required to give you a refund. They’ll also typically waive change fees because it was their fault, not yours.

Again, this may require a lengthy call to customer service, but some airlines have begun to temporarily auto-issue refunds or credits on flights affected by the outbreak. Make sure you check the airline’s policy before you book, especially if you’re booking non-essential travel in hopes that the situation will be resolved in time.

If the airline makes a significant schedule change

Many airlines also give refunds or waive change fees if they make a significant change to your flight. Typically this applies to significant changes in departure time, duration of layover, whether or not your flight is nonstop or connecting, and equipment changes.

Remember all those Norweigan flights that were transferred to wet leased jets without in-flight entertainment a couple years ago? Everyone was eligible for a refund, and as I stared at the back of a seat for eight hours, I wish I took them up on their offer. At least my seatmates were nice.

Forget Priceline, Expedia, and other budget booking sites.

Flatly put: booking directly with the airline increases your chances of a refund. It may be extremely tempting to book a discounted fare through a booking site like Priceline or Expedia, but online travel agencies (OTAs) can be a whole new headache that makes getting a refund feel — or actually be — completely impossible.

Under normal circumstances, most of these bookings are firmly non-refundable barring the 24-hour rule or an airline’s own cancellation. Yes, even in extraordinary circumstances. For example, Priceline will not refund any flight purchased through an Express Deal even in a global pandemic. Even if they did, odds are you’d be shuffled from the OTA to the airline and back to the OTA in an endless loop until you gave up.

Like airlines, OTAs have also become slightly more flexible since the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s likely that if you’re eligible for a refund, you’ve already received an email with directions. Unfortunately, most refunds right now are at the mercy of current travel restrictions, which means if you book future travel and the restrictions are lifted, you’re probably out of luck even if you don’t feel safe to fly.

Try for a refund through travel insurance or your credit card

Some airlines are apt to offer vouchers for extreme circumstances like if your military orders change or you have a valid medical reason, but your best bet for a refund is either travel insurance or a credit card with built-in travel protections. The former typically costs just $50 to $100 and will give you a full refund on non-refundable tickets for a variety of circumstances like illness, accidental injury, airline bankruptcy, jury duty, and trip interruption (i.e. when you’re forced to cut your trip short and need to fly home ASAP).

Of course, travel insurance or credit card protections aren’t a catch all. They many of them don’t cover pandemics, so read the fine print.

Try using someone else’s status

Having an elite status with an airline doesn’t hurt. You might get free cancellations, waived change fees, larger baggage allowances, and the occasional free upgrade — but that’s not a reality for most of us. Seriously, if spent enough on my Amex Gold Delta SkyMiles card to qualify for any sort of elite status, I’d be bankrupt, but even without that, it may be possible to piggyback on someone else’s high standing.

If you happen to be flying with someone who does have elite status, try to link your itineraries. You may get the same benefits, even if your reservation numbers aren’t the same.

Try calling a second time

My mother always said ask and you will receive, at least until someone says no. Either way, there are few things you get without asking except for bad luck. Airline representatives are all different — maybe someone is having a great day, maybe someone just spent 40 minutes being screamed at — so it’s a toss up. If someone says no, there’s no harm in asking for a supervisor or hanging up and trying again.

Be genuine and be kind

A little kindness goes a long way. Since some agents are authorized to give refunds or waive fees at will, they may be extra apt to help you out if you’re not berating them. Just be genuine. For example, a kind woman at Delta once refunded my flight because I was dumped out of the blue and my boyfriend of many years had left me to foot the cost of the $689 flight I booked to see him. I told her what happened, and she felt bad enough for me that she threw me a bone.

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