How to Get a Refund for a Canceled Flight

Getting a refund is not always possible and when it is, it’s not always easy. Most of the time, it depends on who is doing the canceling and why.

Listen as FareCompare’s Rick Seaney explains the ‘refund facts of life’ to editor Anne McDermott:

Guaranteed Ways to Get Refunds

There are, however, two sure-fire ways to get a refund every time:

  • Buy refundable tickets
  • Get involuntarily bumped (see more below)

What the Airlines Owe You

What to Know about Refundable vs. Non-Refundable Airfare

Most don’t buy refundable tickets because those who vacation on their own dime tend to sensible shoppers with an eye toward the cheapest flights available. If you fit that description, here are two things to know:

  • Cheapest tickets: almost always non-refundable
  • Non-refundable: almost always means no refunds

But all is not lost – take a look at the following three situations that sometimes allow refunds for non-refundable tickets. That’s sometimes, not always.

5 Ways to Find Cheap Flights Every Time

  • Situation 1 – When Airlines Cancel the Flights

Bad weather: If bad weather is forecast, airlines typically allow passengers to reschedule without paying the expensive change fee. Sometimes they will even refund tickets. If you wish to make a to take advantage of either airline offer, do so as soon as possible since such offers typically have a shelf-life of just a few days.

Other force majeure events: Airlines refer to a variety of odd and not-so-odd occurrences that they have no control over – such as employee strikes, volcanic eruptions, even terrorism – as force majeure events. When these prompt flight cancellations  airlines almost always waive change fees and provide refunds.

Earlier this fall, American Airlines went through a rough patch of what it deemed labor strife which wound up causing wave after wave of delayed flights – it responded by offering refunds to passengers. Presumably this was a gesture of goodwill and improved public relations but bad PR doesn’t deter all airlines. Spirit endured days of horrific PR after denying a dying vet’s request for a refund but finally caved after social media joined the press in condemning the carrier.

  • Situation 2 – When You Cancel a Flight

You might think it would be easy to get a refund on a non-refundable ticket due to a serious illness or death but you’d be wrong. Some airlines have a blanket no-refunds policy on non-refundable tickets – although as we’ve seen, there is the occasional exception. Do not expect to be the exception, but it never hurts to ask. Steps to follow when seeking refunds:

  • Contact the airline as soon as you learn you must cancel
  • Be prepared to provide official documentation, up to and including a death certificate
  • Follow procedures as outlined by the airline – may require correspondence by snail mail
  • Situation 3 – When You are Bumped from a Flight

If you are involuntarily bumped from a flight that is oversold, you get your money back no questions asked. Note that this is different from voluntarily agreeing to be bumped in exchange from an incentive from the airline.

Note: On every airline website is a link to its contract of carriage – this provides information on a carrier’s specific rules and regulations including refund and cancellation policies. It’s can be a slog but it’s filled with useful and sometimes surprising information so read it carefully.

More from Rick Seaney:

Get Your Money Back From a Canceled Flight


Published: November 15, 2012