My ticket wasn't really refundable — reader mistake story
Today, I want to share a story from TPG reader Angelica, who misunderstood the cancellation policy for an international flight:
I was booking a trip from New York to Mumbai, and while I was locked in to my departure date, I wasn't exactly sure when I wanted to fly back. I found Qatar Airways economy flights I liked on two different return dates, and because I did not want to miss out on the fares or the seats I found, I booked them both. I have never had problems with 24-hour cancellation policies before, so I figured this would give me the extra time I needed to decide.
After a few hours of debating with my boyfriend, I finally decided which one I preferred, so I went back to the Qatar Airways website to cancel the other. To my horror, I was already being charged a cancellation fee for the first ticket despite having purchased it only five hours prior. I immediately checked the second ticket and found the same result. I tried to call Qatar Airways customer service line to ask for assistance, but they do not have a 24/7 help desk, so I had to wait until the next morning. You can imagine I did not sleep well that night.
Once I got a hold of someone from customer service, they explained my mistake: I purchased the tickets instead of choosing the 24-hour hold. I did not know that option could take the place of a 24-hour cancellation policy. What threw me off is that Qatar Airways only offers free 24-hour holds for flights to or from the United States. I had seen it before when I was living in the Philippines, but it was a paid service, so I didn't consider it when I was booking my flight to New York. I thought placing a hold would cost more than just booking and canceling within 24 hours; I wasn't paying enough attention to the website to notice that it was free.
Unfortunately, I had to pay the hefty cancellation fee for one of the two flights I booked. It was a painful experience, but I now know I shouldn't book flights on a whim thinking I can cancel that easily, and to always read the fine print or details from the website and the confirmation email. This mistake also made me realize that I should take into consideration the level of customer service airlines have when booking. I would like to be able to call an airline's help desk and speak to a representative any time of day in case I have issues or problems with my itineraries.
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In 2011, the U.S. Department of Transportation introduced regulations requiring airlines operating to, from or within the United States to let passengers either hold reservations without payment or cancel bookings without penalty for 24 hours. What seems to have tripped Angelica up (and she's not alone) is that each airline gets to choose how to comply. Most offer refunds within 24 hours of purchase, while some (like JAL) offer both 24-hour holds and cancellations, leaving the choice to customers. However, a handful of carriers offer holds exclusively, including Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines (and American Airlines previously); once you pay, your fare is subject to the airline's standard cancellation fees.
There are a few other stipulations: First, these regulations only apply to reservations made more than seven days prior to scheduled departure, though some airlines (like Delta and American) offer refunds for reservations made beyond that time. Second, only tickets purchased directly from the airline are explicitly covered; third parties like Expedia or Priceline may also offer cancellation and refund policies, but they aren't backed up by the Department of Transportation. As Angelica mentions, some airlines also offer holds for a fee (like United's FareLock), but those services are distinct from the holds mandated by U.S. regulations.
Booking flights on a whim isn't always a bad idea. When you see an incredible deal like a mistake fare or an award sale, buying quickly may be prudent, but take an extra minute to confirm the cancellation policy before you do. If you have 24 hours to collect a full refund, then you can book with impunity and take that time to assess your options. If a refund isn't on the table, then buying impulsively carries more risk.
Related: How to avoid cancellation fees when you book an award flight
I appreciate this story, and I hope it can help other readers avoid making the same mistake. In appreciation for sharing this experience (and for allowing us to post it online), I’m sending Angelica a gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I'd like to do the same for you. Please email your own travel mistake stories to firstname.lastname@example.org, and put "Reader Mistake Story" in the subject line. Tell us how things went wrong, and (where applicable) how you made them right. Offer any wisdom you gained from the experience, and explain what the rest of us can do to avoid the same pitfalls.
Feel free to also submit your best travel success stories. If your story is published in either case, I’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure. Due to the volume of submissions, we can't respond to each story individually, but we'll be in touch if yours is selected. I look forward to hearing from you, and until then, I wish you a safe and mistake-free journey!