Reader Question: Can You Get A Refund If Your Flight Is Canceled?

Airlines are going great lengths to try and deny people cash refunds for canceled flights and they’re doing quite a good job at it as most consumers appear to believe they aren’t entitled to cash refunds.

Over the past few days, I received quite a few messages from readers asking to clarify when/how they can get their money back. I thought it would a great idea to address this topic for anyone that is having trouble with the airlines. So, let’s take a look at what you need to know, and what you can do if an airline is trying to deny you a cash refund.

WHY ARE AIRLINES DOING THIS?

I think we can all agree that airlines are in a really tough spot at the moment. In addition to country border closings, the reduction in demand has some airlines questioning whether they’ll be around if they do not receive some form of bailout.

Given this unique situation, when airlines cancel a flight, they are doing everything they can to convince people to accept a voucher with the airline rather than getting a cash refund. In some circumstances, some airlines aren’t even mentioning the possibility of getting a refund. They essentially want consumers to give them an interest free loan.

Don’t get me wrong, I get it but it’s scam-y (my grade school english teacher would enjoy reading my blog) and it’s downright violating government restrictions and lying to consumers.

US DOT Requires Refunds For Cancelations

While government restrictions will vary by country, let’s focus specifically on the US as I assume most readers are US-based.

The US Department of Transportation requires airlines to give passengers the option of a refund in the event a flight is cancelled. Here’s a quote directly from the DOT website:

What happens when my flight is cancelled?

  • If your flight is cancelled, most airlines will rebook you for free on their next flight to your destination as long as the flight has available seats.
  • 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. You are also entitled to a refund for any bag fee that you paid, and any extras you may have purchased, such as a seat assignment.
  • If the airline offers you a voucher for future travel instead of a refund, you should ask the airline about any restrictions that may apply, such as blackout and expiration dates, advanced booking requirements, and limits on number of seats.

That’s pretty clear cut, yeah? If your flight is cancelled, you are entitled to a refund for any unused portion of the trip. That’s a real refund (to your original form of payment), and not an airline voucher.

Just for clarity…the DOT makes no distinction here based on whether or not an airline is at fault for the cancelation — it doesn’t matter if it’s due to weather, a mechanical issue, a schedule change, or a government regulation, etc.

Airline Contracts Of Carriage

When you speak to an airline, they’re probably going to spin this and mention something about their ‘contract of carriage’ which is basically an agreement you make with an airline when you buy a ticket.

Most passengers have never heard of a contact of carriage so it sounds legit and they will yield to accepting a voucher, however, the DOT regulations reign supreme and are the final say (even over contract of carriage).

If you’re interested in reading the various contract of carriage, here they are:

Most of the contracts have the same verbiage as the DOT but some are more vague leaving room to wiggle out of it (I’m looking at you United) but again, the DOT is the boss.

And If The Airline Refuses?

If you want a cash refund but an airline refuses to offer you one, what recourse do you have? Other than citing the clear DOT regulations, you have two routes you can take.

  1. Dispute the charge on your credit card
  2. File a complaint with the DOT

If you’ve tried explaining the DOT trumps their contract of carriage but have not gotten anywhere, a credit card dispute might be in order. <–another great reason to have a credit card and not charge it to a debit card.

Although filing a complaint with the DOT is unlikely to get you an immediate resolution, I do recommend filing a complaint with them.

Complaints go on file and count against the airlines, and in the long-term airlines may face fines for violating DOT regulations.

What If My Flight Schedule Changed (but was not canceled)?

While the US government states that airlines have to refund you if your flight is cancelled, it worth noting that this rule does NOT apply in the event of a schedule change.

In other words, if the airline just moves the flight by several hours, you’re not legally entitled to a refund — this is where the airline contract of carriage would apply.

FINAL STAMP

A few things to note…don’t get mad at frontline airline employees. I trust that many of them are dealing with a lot of frustrated passengers and are probably scared about their own job security. It’s not their fault and they’re not the ones making these policies so be cool.

Next, if you’re going to accept a voucher, recognize that you are agreeing to not receive a refund…EVER.

When an airline cancels your flight you’re entitled to a cash refund on account of DOT regulations and at this point airlines appear to be doing everything in their power not to honor this. Make sure you know your rights.

Have you tried to get a refund from an airline in the past few days, what has been your experience?

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