Can you get a refund after you accepted a voucher?

May 6, 2020

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Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, airlines have slashed their schedules — but only a few weeks at a time. Sometimes, they don’t end up canceling flights until the very last minute.

In response to the uncertainty, we’ve seen unprecedented change-fee waivers across all the major airlines. These waivers allow you to make fee-free changes to new and existing bookings.

Since most people are under stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders, there isn’t much demand for air travel, and many are canceling existing travel plans. Perhaps you were supposed to attend a now-canceled event or sail on a new cruise ship that’s now delayed. Your first instinct might be to call the airline and voluntarily cancel your flight under the relaxed change fee policies. 

If you do that, you’ll likely get some form of a future travel voucher. But then, what happens if the airline cancels your flight later on — can you then get a refund? Read on for the answer.

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You’re eligible for a refund when the airline cancels your flight

Most airline tickets are nonrefundable. Even in light of the relaxed waivers, when you make a voluntary change to your flight, the carrier keeps your money either stored in your existing ticket or in a voucher.

Since the ticket is nonrefundable, you can’t get your money back to your credit card; after all, you accepted these terms and conditions when buying the flight.

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

But what happens when there’s an involuntary change to your reservation (defined as a significant schedule change or cancellation)? Then you can get a refund — even on a nonrefundable ticket.

That’s because of the Department of Transportation’s rule stating that airlines must offer you a refund when they cancel (or significantly delay) a flight.

Say you already canceled your flight and took a voucher, but then the airline cancels it later on. You might think that you’re now eligible to exchange the voucher for a refund. Sadly, that’s actually not the case, and here’s why.

Your choice: voucher now or wait for a refund

When you make a change to your ticket, you’re no longer confirmed on your initial flight. The same holds true if you’ve requested to exchange your ticket for a voucher.

So even though the airline may end up canceling your flight closer to the departure date, they don’t need to refund you. When they make the cancellation, the carrier is only obligated to refund passengers booked on the flight. And since you’ve already taken a voucher, your name’s no longer on the manifest.

Related: Why you should think twice before accepting an airline voucher

While it’s tempting to take the travel credit once you realize that you no longer need to travel, it actually makes sense to hold off until just before departure.

Why it makes sense to wait until the last minute?

Even if you have no intention of flying, there’s hardly a reason to make a voluntarily change to your reservation now. Since so many airlines cancel flights just before departure, why not wait to see if you can get your money back?

Plus, you’ll likely still be able to take a future travel credit even if your flight ends up operating.

Related: Why airlines cancel flights at the last minute — and why it’s good news for you

By waiting until just before departure, your chances of getting a refund are much higher. When an airline cancels your flight, they may end up proactively giving you a voucher for the value of your ticket. But armed with your rights, you know that you can get a refund, regardless of what the airline says.

Bottom line

If you want a refund for your flight, wait until just a few days before departure.

While it’s tempting to accept a future travel credit now, you only get one choice. If you decide to voluntarily accept the voucher, you won’t be able to convert it to a refund if the airline ends up canceling your flight.

As they say, it pays to be patient.

All photos by the author.

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