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How to refund a nonrefundable airline ticket

April 15, 2020
10 min read
Tourist at Barcelona international airport
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Booking flights for a big vacation months in advance can be tricky and leaves plenty of opportunity for something unexpected to pop up, forcing you to change your tickets. That can cost you big time.

Just take a look at the coronavirus pandemic. No one could've predicted that it would halt almost all air travel and ground even the world's most frequent fliers. As such, many people are trying to get refunds for their nonrefundable tickets. Good news: It's a lot easier than you — or the airline — makes you think.

Some airlines charge $200 per person to change a domestic flight, plus any fare differential. Even though many airlines are currently waiving those fees, you should definitely try getting a refund, instead of an airline credit. Thankfully, we've got some tips and tricks to avoid that fee and refund a nonrefundable ticket.

Book with airlines that don't charge change fees

This one's easy. If you haven't booked your tickets yet, consider booking with Southwest, which has no change or cancellation fees. You will pay for the difference in fare if you change flights, but there isn't an additional fee. Believe it or not, Frontier also charges no fee if you change your flight 60+ days before departure. If you change your Frontier flight 14 to 89 days before departure, the fee is $79.

But here's the thing, even if you don't have to pay a change fee, your ticket is still nonrefundable. That means you can't get your money back when you decide you no longer want to travel.

You are entitled to a refund when your flight is canceled

This one is pretty straightforward but incredibly important. If your flight is canceled, you are entitled 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.

Related: You are entitled to a refund for your canceled flight — even if the airline says you aren’t

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And the DOT recently sent out an enforcement notice to airlines saying that they cannot skirt around these requirements. That's why I never make voluntary changes to my flights until the last minute.

Wait until the last minute to see what happens

Though many flights do end up getting canceled well in advance (especially in light of the coronavirus), some don't. And if yours isn't canceled, there's no reason to make a change or accept a voucher, until the last possible minute. That's because when you call to make a voluntary change, the airline has no obligation to refund you.

Related: Why you should wait until the last minute to get a refund for your flight

However, once there's a cancelation or significant delay on your flight, then you've experienced an involuntary change on your itinerary (also referred to as an irregular operation). If that's the case, then you're entitled to a refund.

Featured image by Caiaimage/Chris Ryan / Getty Images
Everyone hopes their flight day starts out with a smile. (Photo by Caiaimage/Chris Ryan/Getty Images)

But, of course, you won't know about a significant delay until right before departure. That's exactly why I recommend waiting until the last minute to see if you'll be eligible for a free refund.

Schedule changes mean a full refund

If you book months in advance (or even weeks in advance in the age of the coronavirus), there is a good chance that your flight schedule will change. These changes may give you an opportunity to change your flight or request a refund, without incurring change fees.

A schedule change may include the following scenarios:

  • Change in departure or arrival time
  • An equipment swap
  • Change in the duration of a layover
  • A switch from a nonstop to a connecting flight (or vice versa)

Related: Guide to all airline schedule change policies

Airline policies on schedule changes vary. Each airline offers different options for changing your flight. Some airlines will allow you to change to a different flight either the day before or after your original flight, while other airlines only will allow same-day changes. If you want to cancel your flight, some airlines will issue a refund voucher; others will credit the full fare back to the original form of payment. If the schedule change is very small, the airline may not permit any changes -- though it never hurts to try.

We've got a full guide to airline schedule change policies here that you can reference when requesting your refund.

Note: If your flight schedule changes in any way, even if it does not meet the airline's stated restrictions, always call the airline to see if you can use the change in your favor. A 10-minute change might be a big deal in your life on a tightly scheduled day and there's always a chance you'll find an agent who will help you out.

Hang up and call again

If your goal is to sort out your flight change ahead of time and the first airline representative you speak to says no, there is no harm in hanging up and calling again. You might get an agent who is willing to help you. You can also ask to speak to a supervisor, who might have the authority to make magic happen if you are friendly.

Related: When is it time to call your airline?

On my honeymoon, my husband and I had plans to go to Thailand. About six weeks before we left, Thai political protests forced curfews and flight cancellations. Although there was no travel waiver issued at the time, a nice supervisor was willing to redeposit my miles with no fee at all. Had I left it to the first agent, I would have been on the hook for a redeposit fee. I could not wait any longer to see if a waiver would ultimately be issued because I needed those miles back in my account so I could book another flight to a different honeymoon spot.

If you don't get the resolution you want on the first phone call, hang up and try again. (Image by gradyreese/Getty Images)

Latch onto someone else's status

One benefit of having airline status, on select airlines, is that you can change or cancel your flight for no fee. If you do not have status yourself, but you are flying with someone who does, you can potentially get reduced or waived fees because you are traveling together.

For example, I do not have JetBlue Mosaic status, but my husband does. This means if we need to cancel our entire family vacation or just one passenger ticket on the itinerary, we can do so without a change fee — even if we are canceling my ticket or my child's ticket. Also, if we are flying with friends or extended family members, we always link our itineraries. Even though our flights are not booked under the same reservation number, benefits frequently crossover. This played out well for a friend's wedding last year when another couple we were flying with had to change their flight. No fees charged.

Be truthful

Sometimes the truth can go further than you think. Many airlines are understanding and want to try to help you out if they can.

JetBlue Airbus A321neo (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Last year, a friend planned a big family vacation to Cancun but a family medical emergency forced the family to put the trip on hold. JetBlue was extremely understanding of the situation and issued all 16 passengers travel vouchers for the full amount paid, no fees charged. Although the family was fully prepared to send in a doctor's note, JetBlue did not even ask for one. Normally, JetBlue would have charged $75 each to change the tickets, which means the family saved $1,200. (Unfortunately, JetBlue has increased its change and cancellation fees since then.)

Request a refund on your own

If you are on the hook for a costly change fee, try requesting a refund. Most airlines allow you to request a refund directly on their websites. Even if you don't think the airline will grant you a refund, it's worth a try.

Several years ago, Brian Kelly, TPG himself, requested a refund for a nonrefundable ticket on when his plans changed and he was able to get the entire flight price refunded. He never thought they'd honor his request but figured he would try. It took just a few minutes of his time and proved to be well worth it.

Rely on your credit card protections and travel insurance

Even if the airline will not refund your ticket, your credit card or travel insurance may cover the cost if you have to cancel your flight. For example, if you booked your ticket with a credit card that has built-in travel protections, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, and then someone in your family got sick and couldn't travel, you can submit a claim through that card's benefits provider to get your nonrefundable money back. There will be paperwork involved, but it is possible to get a credit for nonrefundable airfare in eligible situations.

If you are really worried about protecting nonrefundable airfare costs in the event of an unforeseen situation, here's a rundown of purchasing travel insurance vs. relying on your credit cards' built-in benefits.

Related: Everything you need to know about cancel for any reason trip insurance

Bottom line

With airlines continuously increasing fees, being able to get a change or cancellation fee waived or refunded is huge. Although airlines have policies in place, you never know when an agent or supervisor is willing to bend the rules to help out a passenger whose travel plans have changed. It's important to pay attention to flight schedule changes and flight delays because those events might actually work to your advantage. Do not automatically assume you will have to pay a change fee, even for nonrefundable airfare.

Additional reporting by Zach Griff

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.