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

Mar 25, 2020

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

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.

For more travel tips and news, sign up for TPG’s daily email newsletter

In This Post

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.

Grounded planes due to the coronavirus (Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

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:

Interestingly, Canada just updated its passenger bill of rights to reflect that airlines can choose to give future travel vouchers instead of a refund. Fortunately, if your flight departs or arrives in the U.S., you’re still governed by the DOT’s much more generous policy.

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.

Likewise, Etihad is offering up to 5,000 bonus Guest Miles should you decide to take a credit with the airline.

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.

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

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.

For more personalized help, I’m answering change and cancellation questions weekly on Tuesdays at 3:30 p.m. ET in the TPG Lounge Facebook group, as well through my Instagram direct messages.

Bottom line

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.

Featured photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

WELCOME OFFER: 80,000 Points

TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $1,600

CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 2X points on all travel and dining, points transferrable to over a dozen travel partners

*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,000 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide, eligible delivery services, takeout and dining out & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,000 toward travel.
  • Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on orders over $12 for a minimum of one year on qualifying food purchases with DashPass, DoorDash's subscription service. Activate by 12/31/21.
  • Earn 5X points on Lyft rides through March 2022. That’s 3X points in addition to the 2X points you already earn on travel.
Intro APR on Purchases
N/A
Regular APR
15.99%-22.99% Variable
Annual Fee
$95
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
Recommended Credit
Excellent/Good

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

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.