How to refund a nonrefundable airline ticket

Sep 13, 2019

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Booking flights for a big vacation months in advance can be tricky, and leaves plenty of opportunity for something unexpected to pop up, forcing you to change your tickets. That can cost you big time.
Some airlines charge $200 per person to change a domestic flight, plus any fare differential. That represents some serious money to lose, especially if you booked for a whole family since the fees are typically charged per ticket. Fortunately, there are some tips and tricks to avoid that fee and change or refund a nonrefundable ticket.

Featured image by Caiaimage/Chris Ryan / Getty Images
Everyone hopes their flight day starts out with a smile. (Photo by Caiaimage/Chris Ryan/Getty Images)

Book with airlines that don’t charge change fees

First, if you haven’t booked your tickets yet, consider booking with Southwest, which has no change or cancellation fees. You will pay for the difference in fare if you change flights, but there isn’t an additional fee. Believe it or not, Frontier also charges no fee if you change your flight 60+ days before departure. If you change your Frontier flight 14 to 89 days before departure, the fee is $79.

Schedule changes may allow adjustments

Of course, you can’t always book with Southwest, so If you book on other airlines many months in advance, there is a chance that your flight schedule will change. These changes may give you an opportunity to change your flight or request a refund, without incurring change fees.
A schedule change may include the following scenarios:

  • Change in departure or arrival time
  • An equipment swap
  • Change in the duration of a layover
  • A switch from a nonstop to a connecting flight (or vice versa)

Airline policies on schedule changes vary. Each airline offers different options for changing your flight. Some airlines will allow you to change to a different flight either the day before or after your original flight, while other airlines only will allow same-day changes. If you want to cancel your flight, some airlines will issue a refund voucher; others will credit the full fare back to the original form of payment. If the schedule change is very small, the airline may not permit any changes — though it never hurts to try.
Earlier this summer, my family had a trip booked to Lisbon on Delta Air Lines. We booked seven months in advance and within that time frame our flight schedule changed four times. Our 9:45 p.m. flight from Boston was eventually rescheduled to depart at 8:02 p.m. On the return from Lisbon, our originally scheduled 10:45 a.m. flight was shifted almost three hours earlier and we ended up with a 7:40 a.m. departure. Although I never wanted to cancel my flight, if a situation had popped up that required us to cancel our vacation, I could have easily changed or cancelled our flights without a fee from Delta.

(Photo by Nicholas Ellis / The Points Guy)
Every airline’s cancellation policies are a bit different. (Photo by Nicholas Ellis / The Points Guy)

Delta’s policy allows for you to change your flight if it has a departure or arrival delay of 30+ minutes or an early departure of 15+ minutes. You must change your flight for the same day of travel. You may cancel the flight and receive a full refund from Delta if the flight departure or arrival changes by 90 minutes or if the routing changes and at least one stop is added to the itinerary.
Note: If your flight schedule changes in any way, even if it does not meet the airline’s stated restrictions, always call the airline to see if you can use the change in your favor. A 10-minute change might be a big deal in your life on a tightly scheduled day and there’s always a chance you’ll find an agent who will help you out.

Wait until the last minute

If you have a flight booked and need to cancel your flight, wait until the last minute. If your flight ends up being delayed or canceled because of weather, you can receive a full refund on your flight. Typically, you don’t need to show up at the airport. You can check online, and if there is an issue with your flight, you could be looking at a fee-free refund.
If your plane takes off on time, most airlines will still allow you to receive a credit for your flight (minus the cancellation fee) after your flight has departed. The credit will be the same as if you canceled your flight weeks ahead of time. This makes waiting to cancel until the very end a smart decision.
Note: There are exception to this. For example, with Southwest Airlines, you must cancel your flight 10 minutes prior to the scheduled departure time. Delta does not allow changes to award tickets within three days of a scheduled flight.

Hang up and call again

If your goal is to sort out your flight change ahead of time and the first airline representative you speak to says no, there is no harm in hanging up and calling again. You might get an agent who is willing to help you. You can also ask to speak to a supervisor, who might have the authority to make magic happen if you are friendly.
On my honeymoon, my husband and I had plans to go to Thailand. About six weeks before we left, Thai political protests forced curfews and flight cancellations. Although there was no travel waiver issued at the time, a nice supervisor was willing to redeposit my miles with no fee at all. Had I left it to the first agent, I would have been on the hook for a redeposit fee. I could not wait any longer to see if a waiver would ultimately be issued because I needed those miles back in my account so I could book another flight to a different honeymoon spot.

Call your bank to close your credit card. Hopefully, the customer service team won't give you too much pushback. Image courtesy of gradyreese via Getty Images.
If you don’t get the resolution you want on the first phone call, hang up and try again. (Image by gradyreese/Getty Images)

Latch onto someone else’s status

One benefit of having airline status, on select airlines, is that you can change or cancel your flight for no fee. If you do not have status yourself, but you are flying with someone who does, you can potentially get reduced or waived fees because you are traveling together.
For example, I do not have JetBlue Mosaic status, but my husband does. This means if we need to cancel our entire family vacation or just one passenger ticket on the itinerary, we can do so without a change fee — even if we are canceling my ticket or my child’s ticket. Also, if we are flying with friends or extended family members, we always link our itineraries. Even though our flights are not booked under the same reservation number, benefits frequently crossover. This played out well for a friend’s wedding last year when another couple we were flying with had to change their flight. No fees charged.

Be truthful

Sometimes the truth can go further than you think. Many airlines are understanding and want to try to help you out, if they can.
Last year, a friend planned a big family vacation to Cancun but a family medical emergency forced the family to put the trip on hold. JetBlue was extremely understanding of the situation and issued all 16 passengers travel vouchers for the full amount paid, no fees charged. Although the family was fully prepared to send in a doctor’s note, JetBlue did not even ask for one. Normally, JetBlue would have charged $75 each to change the tickets, which means the family saved $1,200. (Unfortunately, JetBlue has increased its change and cancellation fees since then.)

Request a refund on your own

If you are on the hook for a costly change fee, try requesting a refund. Most airlines allow you to request a refund directly on their websites. Even if you don’t think the airline will grant you a refund, it’s worth a try.
Several years ago, Brian Kelly, The Points Guy, requested a refund for a nonrefundable ticket on when his plans changed and he was able to get the entire flight price refunded. He never thought they’d honor his request, but figured he would try. It took just a few minutes of his time and proved to be well worth it.

Rely on your credit card protections and travel insurance

Even if the airline will not refund your ticket, your credit card or travel insurance may cover the cost if you have to cancel your flight. For example, if you booked your ticket with a credit card that has built-in travel protections, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve, and then someone in your family got sick and couldn’t travel, you can submit a claim through that card’s benefits provider to get your nonrefundable money back. There will be paperwork involved, but it is possible to get a credit for nonrefundable airfare in eligible situations.
If you are really worried about protecting nonrefundable airfare costs in the event of an unforeseen situation, here’s a rundown of purchasing travel insurance vs. relying on your credit cards’ built-in benefits.

Bottom line

With airlines continuously increasing fees, being able to get a change or cancellation fee waived or refunded is huge. Although airlines have policies in place, you never know when an agent or supervisor is willing to bend the rules to help out a passenger whose travel plans have changed. It’s important to pay attention to flight schedule changes and flight delays because those events might actually work to your advantage. Do not automatically assume you will have to pay a change fee, even for nonrefundable airfare.
Have you had to cancel a nonrefundable airline ticket? Were you able to get a refund from the airline?
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