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

Mar 27, 2020

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Now is not the time to travel. Many fliers around the world have heeded government warnings to stay home and are doing their part to flatten the curve.

That means you’re probably stuck figuring out how to postpone your upcoming trips. Fortunately, due to the coronavirus, the airlines have made it quite easy to do just that. Every major U.S. and international carrier has flexible waivers for existing bookings. If you want to postpone your trip, expect the change fee to be waived.

But what if you want to cancel your ticket? Well, I’ve got good news. You are entitled to a refund for your canceled flight — even if the airline says you aren’t.

But, here’s the thing: the airline is on the hook for a refund only when it cancels your flight. And that’s why it pays to hold on to your reservation until the airline does just that.

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In This Post

Types of flight changes

Before explaining why it pays to be patient when it comes to canceling your flight, let’s review the two types of modifications that can be made to your travel plans.

Voluntary changes

A voluntary change refers to — you guessed it — any modification that you decide to make, regardless of the reason. Say you want to leave a day earlier for Chicago or take a later flight to Atlanta; those would both be considered voluntary changes.

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

Likewise, if you decide to cancel your ticket because you’re no longer comfortable traveling (again, regardless of the reason), that’d also be considered a voluntary change.

Involuntary changes

So what’s the difference with an involuntary change? Well, those are changes made by the airline. That could mean that an airline canceled your flight or changed the timing of your flight (which is referred to as a schedule change).

Photo by Susan Stocker/Sun Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Likewise, if your flight is delayed significantly that’d also be considered an involuntary change.

Why it pays to wait until the last minute to cancel your flight

So, you’ve decided that you no longer want to fly due to the coronavirus. (We fully support that decision). The next thing to do is to wait and be patient. Don’t call your airline and cancel your flight.

Related: When is it time to call your airline?

Why? Because if you called your airline now, you’d be making a voluntary cancellation of your reservation. In that case, the airline has no obligation to refund your ticket, no matter the reason you’re nixing your plans to fly.

But, with airlines around the world grounding their fleets and significantly paring down their schedules, there’s a really high chance that your upcoming flight this spring and summer (and possibly later) is canceled by the airline. And when that happens, it’s considered an involuntary change.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

And that’s your key to unlocking a full refund for your flight. Once the airline cancels your flight, then the DOT protections I discussed in my guide to getting a refund for your canceled flight kick in.

Lots of airlines around the world are making it really hard to get a refund for your flight. One of the ways they’re going about it is by keeping flights intact on upcoming reservations, even though the airline has no plans on actually operating them. That way, if you called to cancel your flight, it’d be considered a voluntary change.

Related: Why you should think twice before accepting an airline voucher — even with a bonus

Many airlines are only canceling flights at the last minute (within 48 hours of departure). And if you’re looking for a refund, you’re only eligible when the airline makes the cancellation first.

Best strategy to making free changes and cancellations to your flight

This same strategy applies even when the coronavirus pandemic ends. If you’re considering making a change or cancel an upcoming flight, it always pays to wait until just before the flight.

Sometimes airlines release change fee waivers when there are summer thunderstorms or blizzards in the winter (or other operational difficulties). But again, those waivers only get posted a day or two before your flight.

If you’re looking for a refund instead, you’ll want to wait until just before your flight to see if it gets canceled or significantly delayed. In that case, you’d be eligible to get your money back because of the airline’s involuntary change.

Bottom line

Understandably, there are lots of people looking to postpone or cancel their upcoming travel plans. Many are taking advantage of the fact that most airlines are offering free changes in light of the coronavirus.

But what if you want a refund? Well, you should wait until the airline cancels your flight. That way, you’d be eligible to get your money back.

This strategy even applies outside of these unprecedented times. Lots of things can wreck havoc on an airline’s operation, including weather, mechanical issues or crew strikes. When those things happen, you’ll be able to make free changes and get a refund if your flight ends up getting canceled.

So, never forget: it always pays to be patient.

Featured image by Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

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