Travel Refunds: How to Save Money After Your Trip

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Today TPG Contributor Jason Steele discusses the importance of getting what you paid for (and not paying for what you didn’t get), and offers some strategies for collecting refunds on travel and service that comes up short. 

Award travel enthusiasts pride themselves on planning vacations with points and miles and very small cash outlays. Unfortunately, the cost of award travel in actual dollars continues to rise as airlines impose ancillary fees and fuel surcharges. Furthermore, there are always going to be what I call “ground costs” in terms of hotels, rental cars, surface transportation, or other expenses that can’t easily be covered with points. While minimizing those expenses can help stretch your travel budget, it’s equally important to make sure that you actually get what you pay for when they do arise.

When an airline, hotel, or other travel company fails to meet expectations, you have legitimate grounds for seeking a partial (or in some cases full) refund. Both TPG and I have become more adept at recovering some of our dollar costs from vacations that have gone awry, or from service that didn’t deliver. For example, TPG was able to receive a check for $476.19 earlier this year when his flight home from Brazil was cancelled for mechanical reasons and he had to pay out of pocket for overnight lodging, transportation, and long distance telephone charges. While it took over two months until he received his check from American Airlines, he was eventually reimbursed.

So clearly it’s possible to get a refund from travel providers, although you might have to prepare yourself for this kind of reaction to your request. In this post I’ll provide some more examples of reimbursable charges and share my own experiences seeking refunds.

Your refund won’t look like this, but it’s still worth asking. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

Getting an airline refund for a rerouted flight

When delays or cancellations occur, the most important factor in getting a refund from an airline is the cause of the problem. When weather or air traffic control is the issue, airlines may offer some compensation in terms of miles or vouchers, but will not give you an actual check. On the other hand, mechanical issues or “crew scheduling” are both considered to be factors within the airline’s control, and are eligible for a refund, as TPG discovered.

Another situation where you should be able to get a refund is when you have paid taxes and fees specific to a particular route, but you never flew that route. For example, on my most recent trip to Italy, I booked two award seats using American Miles for flights on Iberia to Rome, connecting in Madrid. Yet on the day of travel, weather delayed my connecting flights, and we were re-routed on an American Airlines flight from Chicago to Rome.

I was happy to receive the shorter connection, but also felt that I was entitled to a refund of most of the $139.10 in taxes and fees I paid per ticket for the flights on Iberia to Madrid. Had I originally booked my flight entirely on AA flights (which were unavailable at the time), I would have only paid $2.50 in TSA fees.

I requested a refund for the $328 in taxes fees and fuel surcharges specific to Iberia, which I ended up not flying.
I requested a refund for the $328 in taxes, fees and fuel surcharges specific to Iberia, which I ended up not flying.

While my claim is still pending, American’s own rules appear to back me up. In their International General Rules, under 0080 Revised Routings, Failure to Carry and Missed Connections, it says that in the case of in involuntary revised routing, the airline will:

reroute the passenger to the destination named on the ticket or applicable portion thereof by its own or other transportation services; and, if the fare, excess baggage charges, and any applicable service charge for the revised routing or class of service is higher than the refund value of the ticket or applicable portion thereof as determined by Rule 90 (REFUNDS), carrier will require no additional payment from the passenger, but will refund the difference if it is lower.” (emphasis mine).

Therefore, I requested a refund of $136.60 per ticket, which is the amount of the taxes, fees, and fuel surcharges imposed by Iberia or the Spanish government, which were never incurred on our non-stop flight from Chicago to Rome on American. In addition, I can try to claim the $50 telephone booking fee, which was only necessary because award availability on Iberia doesn’t show up on American’s web site. I’ve made my claim to American using their customer relations email, and it is currently pending.

Other ways to get airline refunds

American
When a flight is cancelled and you choose not to reschedule it, you’re entitled to a refund. On American, you can simply apply for a refund online.

If your flight is oversold and you are denied boarding (either voluntarily or involuntarily), you can request a refund (including baggage fees, flight change fees, seat upgrades, and priority boarding) using the same link above. For more details, see their refunds page.

United
United has a refund page on its website that allows you to attach supporting documentation. This page even covers a surprising amount of refund scenarios, including:

  • Cabin upgrades. When you pay an upgrade fee but don’t end up with the seat you paid for.
  • Baggage subscriptions. Although this fee is non-refundable, they appear to be willing to consider “extenuating circumstances.”
  • Checked bag refund.  United offers these in cases where you “don’t fly due to flight cancellations or schedule changes.” Nevertheless, I would attempt to get a refund if the bag you paid extra for did not arrive with your flight.
  • DirecTV refunds. Presumably if the service becomes unavailable after you pay for it.
  • e-ticket refunds in the event of death or illness of the ticket holder or an immediate family member.
  • Economy Plus refunds when you are unable to sit in that section.
  • Food purchase refunds when the food is unsatisfactory.
  • Economy Plus Subscription refunds in extenuating circumstances.
  • Premier Access refunds in the event of flight cancellation or involuntary schedule change.
  • WiFi refunds when it doesn’t work, except where GoGo was the provider.
  • United Club Membership refunds only in extenuating circumstances.
Here are all of the things that you can request a refund for from United.
Here are all of the refundable expenses when flying United.

Delta
Delta has a standard refund page that allows passengers to request a refund for unused tickets or other trip purchases, although it doesn’t specify what “other trip purchases” may include. I would expect Delta to offer refunds for all of the same situations as those offered by United.

US Airways

Their page for refunds, ticket changes and receipts explains that:

If we change or cancel your flight, change equipment or cause you to miss a connection, or if you’re denied boarding on an oversold flight and we’re unable to provide your ChoiceSeats, checked bags, upgrade or move to an earlier flight, we’ll refund your fees proactively. If you have already checked in (either online or at the airport), you should check with an agent at the airport or call 800-428-4322 to request a refund.

EU Passenger Rights Compensation

If your flight to or from a country within the EU is delayed or cancelled, you may be entitled to generous compensation under the EU Passenger Rights legislation. For more information, read TPG’s guide on How to Get EU Passenger Rights Compensation From US Carriers for Delayed Flights.

Refunds for other travel expenses

On my recent trip to Italy, my family spent about $100 for tickets on a high speed train from Rome to Florence operated by Trenitalia. Unfortunately, the train broke down just outside of Florence, and it took an extra 90 minutes to transfer us to another train to complete the trip. Thankfully, Trenitalia’s site has an easy way to request compensation, which we immediately received in the form of about $25. It’s not much, but it only took a few seconds to make the claim, and it quickly appeared on the credit card that I used.

Receiving a $25 refund from the Italian railway was easy.
Receiving a $25 refund from the Italian railway was easy.

We then rented a car in Florence from Hertz, which clearly showed my reservation for the car as 352.67 and that we would be paying Euros. Yet on the receipt that was emailed to me afterwards, Hertz converted that to $494.87 USD and charged my card.

Hertz charged me an additional 4.5% by using "dynamic currency conversion" without my authorization, but their executive customer service refunded it upon my request.
Hertz charged me an additional 4.5% by using dynamic currency conversion without my authorization, but their executive customer service issued a refund upon my request.

You don’t have to speak Italian to understand that “Commissione incl” means they were adding a commission to their exchange rate and charging me in dollars. The remaining text says something along the lines of: “I was offered a choice of different currencies and I chose to pay the rental charges with the currency of my card,” which is false in this case.

Since I was never offered a choice, this amounts to an unauthorized charge on my credit card, a “service” known as dynamic currency conversion, which is supposed to require the consent of customers. The unauthorized charge was equal to 4.5% of the bill, which is 50% more than the 3% foreign transaction fee that some cards charge, although I used one of the many cards that don’t have this fee.

Upon my return, I contacted Hertz and received a reply from their executive customer service agreeing to refund this charge (approximately $21).

I know how you feel, but there are better alternatives to freaking out.
When your refund request is denied, don’t lose your cool. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

What to do when the travel provider refuses your request

If you feel you have a legitimate claim to be compensated by a travel provider, and your request is denied, don’t give up. Escalate your request to a manager, or at least to the company’s executive customer service. If the problem involves a common carrier traveling to, from, or within the United States, copy the Department of Transportation (DOT) using their consumer complaint form.

Another option is to file a chargeback with your credit card issuer claiming that you did not receive the goods or services you paid for. In the case of dynamic currency conversion, there’s even a specific code (called “reason code 76”) that covers this situation. For example, see page 67 of this Visa Merchant Guide. Finally, you always have the option of taking a travel provider to small claims court in your jurisdiction, although that’s an extreme measure.

Thankfully, none of those options have been necessary for me so far. Assuming American Airlines takes their due time complying with their own written refund policy, I stand to have recovered nearly $400 in cash outlays from American, Trenitalia, and Hertz. So if you’re ever mistakenly charged or not given the travel services that you paid for, take a few minutes when you return to request a refund. Its just one more way to stretch your travel dollars, even as an award traveler.

What refunds have you been able (or unable) to get? Please share your experiences and tips in the comments below!

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