2 US airlines are defying refund rules for canceled flights — here’s how to get yours anyway
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.
After a few weeks, a pattern was emerging — I kept receiving similar inquiries about the same few airlines. Readers heeded my advice to wait until the last minute to cancel their flights. Once they finally received notice that the carrier made an involuntary change or cancellation, only then did the reader reach out to the airline to ask for their money back.
This did the trick with most carriers, but two airlines have been incredibly stringy about refunds. Hawaiian and United are seemingly skirting the rules set forth by the Department of Transportation by denying refunds for canceled flights.
Let’s take a deeper look at what’s going on, and discuss the strategy to get the refund you deserve.
For more travel tips and news, sign up for our daily newsletter
Refund rules for canceled flights
By now, readers should know that they are entitled to refunds when an airline cancels your flight. This is based on a Department of Transportation rule which applies to all domestic and international flights that depart or arrive in the U.S.
It says that if your flight is cancelled and you choose to cancel your trip as a result, you are entitled to a refund for the unused transportation – even for non-refundable tickets.
For a while, there was some uncertainty about whether the DOT would uphold this rule in light of the unprecedented number of flight cancellations we’ve seen due to the coronavirus pandemic. Ultimately, it did, sending a stern warning letter to the airlines.
This warning was enough to get JetBlue to rescind what had been the strictest refund policy we’d seen from all U.S. airlines. But it wasn’t enough to get Hawaiian and United to back down.
The latter two carriers have totally reimagined the meaning of a canceled flight, making it much harder for readers to get the refunds that they are legally entitled to.
Hawaiian Airlines refund policy
Though the DOT is clear on its refund regulations in the event an airline cancels a flight, Hawaiian has decided to add some terms to what constitutes a flight cancellation.
Specifically, the Honolulu-based carrier now says that a canceled flight means one that is no longer on the schedule, and the carrier can’t reaccommodate you on another flight within six hours of departure or arrival of your originally scheduled flight.
Per an update to its domestic contract of carriage, Hawaiian now claims the following:
A cancellation caused by Hawaiian means (i) that a particular flight number for which you have a ticketed reservation is removed from our schedule or will not operate on one or more dates and (ii) we are unable to confirm you on an alternate flight(s) scheduled to depart within 6 hours before or after your originally scheduled departure time and arrive within 6 hours before or after your originally scheduled arrival time. In this event, the receipt of a refund in lieu of travel credit is in your sole discretion if you refuse to be rebooked on another flight.
This means that Hawaiian will not refund you for a flight it cancels, so long as it can find you an alternate flight within six hours of your originally booked flight.
Perhaps more egregiously, the carrier is giving restrictive travel credit for flights it cancels and can’t be reaccommodated within six hours. The travel credit can only be used by the originally ticketed passenger, and must be used in one transaction.
That means if you rebook a flight later on that’s cheaper than your original flight, you forfeit the difference — even though it was Hawaiian that originally canceled the flight!
United Airlines refund policy
It isn’t just Hawaiian that’s redefining the meaning of canceled. United is doing the same thing too. In fact, it has the exact same policy.
In its detailed schedule-change policy, United states that the following flights are eligible for refunds:
Change to originally scheduled arrival or departure time of greater than 6 hours or canceled flight with no protection.
That means that if United finds a replacement flight to a flight it cancels (even with a new flight number), the carrier won’t give you a refund unless the change is six hours or greater.
This is especially frustrating to customers who might’ve booked some of United’s high-frequency routes between two hubs like Newark to Chicago. Even though the carrier has slashed most of its New York area schedule, there’s still a good chance that there’s a flight within six hours of your original flight.
What can you do to get a refund?
Just because Hawaiian and United have added these new terms to getting a refund for a flight they cancel doesn’t mean you can’t get your money back. It’s just going to be a bit harder.
After the airline denies a refund request for a flight it canceled, you should reach out to your credit card company to dispute the charge.
Additionally, you should also file a consumer complaint with the DOT. This will help alert the agency to the violations, which can lead to enforcement actions against the carrier should the DOT determine that the airline is acting unlawfully. Plus, the airline needs to formally respond to passengers filing a DOT complaint, so you’ll be guaranteed to get a response this way.
Most carriers are complying with the DOT policy that states that airlines must give your money back when they cancel a flight. But Hawaiian and United are being particularly intractable, since they typically won’t process a refund for a canceled flight if you’re reaccommodated within six hours of your originally scheduled flight.
If you feel that an airline is violating the DOT rule, you should consider disputing the charge with your credit card company and filing a formal complaint with the DOT. After all, you are entitled to a refund when an airline cancels your flight.
Featured photo by Wallace Cotton/The Points Guy.
This post has been updated to reflect that filing a complaint with the DOT is referred to as a consumer complaint.
WELCOME OFFER: 60,000 Points
TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $1,200
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.
- Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
- 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 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, 60,000 points are worth $750 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.