As many travelers are learning for the first time during the coronavirus pandemic, airlines owe you a refund – not just a travel voucher – if they cancel your flight or change it significantly.
The U.S. Department of Transportation warned airlines last week that the policy still applies despite the historic level of flight cancellations that have left airports eerily empty. The warning came after a spike in complaints about denied refunds.
For weeks, travel experts – myself included – have been telling passengers with nonrefundable tickets not to rush to cancel booked flights in hopes the airline will cancel or change it first and refund their money.
I put the advice to the test this week, albeit it without putting much money on the line.
With a planned trip to see my family in Arizona for Easter scuttled, I had no need for my American Airlines return flight from Phoenix to Chicago on April 14. (I used Southwest Airlines frequent flier points for the flight to Phoenix and was able to postpone that trip with no penalty.)
I could have canceled the American leg weeks ago and banked the airfare for a future trip without paying those onerous change fees because my flight was covered by one of the airline's many coronavirus travel waivers.
But I waited because I preferred a refund for the $50 one-way basic economy ticket and wanted a firsthand look at the refund process.
The opening for a refund arrived in my inbox late Monday.
The subject line: "There's been a change in your trip.''
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American has not canceled my flight from Phoenix (yet) but the departure was nearly three hours earlier than scheduled.
Airline policies vary on what is considered a significant schedule change, but American has long allowed a refund if the change is as little as 61 minutes. The airline recently changed the time frame to four hours given the mass schedule changes resulting from the pandemic, but that only applies to new ticket purchases, and pretty much no one is buying airline tickets right now.
First, I tried to cancel my flight on American's website but, like its competitors, the airline does not make it known to those who click cancel that they might be eligible for a refund. They want you to rebook to a later date or take a credit, especially when no cash is coming in from new bookings during a pandemic.
Even if you do find American's online refund form, a popup window says: "Don't worry the value of your ticket is safe. When you're ready to rebook you'll be able to use the value of your unused ticket and seat purchase to a future trip. There is no need to request a refund or or call reservations right now.''
To make sure I wasn't automatically issued a voucher if I canceled online, I decided to call American's general reservations line. (I have no status in the airline's frequent flyer program that provides access to dedicated customer service lines.)
The hours-long wait times common a few weeks ago have come down and I was quoted a 27-minute to 37-minute time frame for a callback.
I received a call back in 30 minutes and talked with a friendly agent named Liz. i told her my flight was changed and that I should be eligible for a refund.
Liz looked at the change and agreed, though she didn't formally approve or process the refund. She canceled the flight and directed me to prefunds.aa.com to fill out a request for a refund. She told me I could have actually canceled it online and then submitted the request, as all refund requests go through the same online channel.
All I needed to submit the request on American's website, she said, was my ticket number and my name.
"Do you have your ticket number?'' she asked.
She looked it up and I jotted it down.
"It takes about seven to 14 days to process that refund,'' she said.
The phone call took less than five minutes.
The form was a cinch to fill out and I received confirmation it was received and under review. My $50 ($48.40 to be exact) should show up before the end of the month on my credit card statement, in time to cover the inflated price of hand weights I'm about to buy.
Airline cancel your flight due to coronavirus crisis? You're still due a refund, DOT says
How to get your own refund if you're eligible
1. Don't voluntarily cancel the flight on your own. Wait for the airline to cancel it or make significant changes that might make you eligible to get your money back instead of a travel credit or voucher.
2. Keep an eye on your email for notices of flight changes or cancellations. Note that airline policies vary on what constitutes a significant schedule change so what worked for me might not apply to your itinerary. If your flight has not been canceled by the airline or changed significantly, you are not eligible for a refund unless you had a refundable ticket.
3. Don't see an email? Check your reservation on the airline's website to see if there are any changes. If the flight is in the immediate future, check the flight status feature on the airline's website.
4. Be persistent and cite the DOT's guidelines on refunds for canceled or significantly changed flights. If you're told the policy doesn't apply during a pandemic, mention the DOT's enforcement notice issued April 3.
5. Don't berate airline reservation agents. Be firm, not rude.
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