COVID-19 has wrecked your travel plans and now you’re left trying to figure out how to get money back that’s entitled to you.
The good news is for once the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has your back.
Consumer protections are currently in place which force airlines to refund your money if they cancel or significantly delay your flight.
Of course, airlines aren’t forthcoming with this information and assume you have no clue, so they get away with not returning your money.
And they’re right – most people don’t know what they’re actually entitled to.
So if you’re planning on traveling soon and your flight was canceled or significantly altered, here’s a quick guide on how you can get your money back.
Canceled Flight? You’re Due A Refund
“Passengers are often entitled to a refund of the ticket price and associated fees when the airline is at fault.
Cancelled Flight – A passenger is entitled to a refund if the airline cancelled a flight, regardless of the reason, and the passenger chooses not to be rebooked on a new flight on that airline.
Schedule Change/Significant Delay – A passenger is entitled to a refund if the airline made a significant schedule change and/or significantly delays a flight and the passenger chooses not to travel.”
But again, airlines don’t volunteer this information.
Whenever a flight is canceled, they try and get you to take a travel voucher – one you may never even get to use.
And let’s face it, cash back in your pocket during this economic storm would help you a lot more than some future voucher.
But, even though airlines are required to give you back your money should they cancel or significantly alter your flight, many are not – which is leading to lawsuits and stronger warnings from DOT.
After receiving a massive amount of complaints, DOT issued an enforcement notice reminding airlines they must comply with the law.
A section of DOT’s enforcement notice strongly warns airlines, stating:
“Carriers have a longstanding obligation to provide a prompt refund to a ticketed passenger when the carrier cancels the passenger’s flight or makes a significant change in the flight schedule and the passenger chooses not to accept the alternative offered by the carrier. The longstanding obligation of carriers to provide refunds for flights that carriers cancel or significantly delay does not cease when the flight disruptions are outside of the carrier’s control (e.g., a result of government restrictions).
The focus is not on whether the flight disruptions are within or outside the carrier’s control, but rather on the fact that the cancellation is through no fault of the passenger.
Accordingly, the Department continues to view any contract of carriage provision or airline policy that purports to deny refunds to passengers when the carrier cancels a flight, makes a significant schedule change, or significantly delays a flight to be a violation of the carriers’ obligation that could subject the carrier to an enforcement action.”
Personally in my opinion, since “significant delay” isn’t defined, I expect airlines to abuse this phrase and differ on what “significant” actually means.
Don’t Cancel Your Flight
So now that you know the law, how do you actually get your money back?
I know, your first instinct is to cancel your own flight.
If you have tickets to fly in April or May, wait until the airlines cancel your flight (it’s probable they will), THEN ask for your money back.
While normally being proactive works to your advantage, current regulations do not require airlines to refund your money if you cancel your flight.
Make sure to track your flight and see if/when it is canceled or “significantly” altered.
And then, be prepared to fight.
Airlines do not want to give you back your money.
Yes, even though they receive taxpayer funds and got a 58-billion dollar bailout, it’s not likely they want to pass the savings back to you.
To make things even more complicated, every airline is rapidly changing their own policies when it comes to refunds, so there is no uniform approach.
Travelers report United has been the most difficult to work with – which is no surprise as they are one of the most hated airlines in the world.
Personally, I’ve never had a smooth experience flying United.
And if you thought they’d actually show compassion to their customers during this time – think again.
In fact, during the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve actually worked harder to change their rules so you can’t get a refund.
According to the Baltimore Sun, their previous refund policy allowed travelers to get a full refund if the flight changed by 2 hours.
But during the pandemic, they’ve upped it to 25 hours – meaning your flight has to have a 25-hour flight change just to get a refund.
Naturally, facing a massive backlash, United proceeded to change their policy another two times – making it a total of four changes to their refund policy within a week – as reported by the Baltimore Sun.
That’s what they’re counting on.
It seems United doesn’t think a 2-4-hour flight change is “significant” enough to mess up someone’s travel plans – especially if they have connecting flights.
Recently, United wrote an ambiguous statement on their website pushing the travel credit option, using vague language like “you might be eligible for a refund depending on the severity of the schedule disruption,” but still pushing customers to fill out a “request” form.
They are waiving change fees for tickets issued before March 2nd for travel dates through May 31st – but so what?
Of course they are trying to make it seem like they are “on your side” by extending electronic certificates for 24 months.
But here’s where things get even more tricky – while United by law has to refund passengers when they cancel their flight or alter it “significantly,” they are not required by law to provide a refund if the passenger chooses to cancel.
Naturally during COVID-19, many travelers are choosing to cancel because they are under stay-at-home orders per their state, or because it truly isn’t safe to put Grandma on an 8-hour flight to fly across the country for a family reunion.
But United doesn’t care.
However, Hawaii has a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival…
… which means we literally couldn’t do anything even if we wanted to risk it and travel.
Think United gave us our money back?
We got a voucher and were told we could “apply” for a refund in a year – but no guarantees.
I’m not holding my breath.
When my bridesmaid was stuck in Spain and unable to fly to the States for my wedding, I canceled her flight with Delta (before I fully realized what DOT regulations stated), who were quick to offer a voucher.
Great, but not helpful, as Delta stated the voucher had to be used by her within a year (they’ve recently updated their policy giving to two years) and it couldn’t even transfer to a different passenger.
But then upon further research, it was clear I was entitled to a full refund.
I called Delta and waited on hold for hours (of course). When I finally got through to a live person, I calmly stated the DOT regulation to Delta and firmly refused to accept anything less than a full refund.
As it turns out, since a leg of the trip was canceled through Atlanta, Delta finally agreed to refund the full ticket back to my original method of payment.
But had I never asked, Delta would have been just as quick to let me keep the voucher.
Airlines Are Not Your Friends
So, we land back to where we started – airlines are not your friends.
They are not concerned with helping you get your own money back in your pocket – they’re more concerned about hoarding as much of it as they can to keep themselves from going under.
Yeah, we get they didn’t cause COVID-19, but neither did we.
And a little goodwill would certainly go a long way.
And since Congress just gave them a billion-dollar bailout, some members of Congress are urging airlines to take that money and refund passengers money if their travel plans are disrupted because of COVID-19.
But it’s not like we can exactly count on politicians to have our backs.
In the meantime, know your rights, don’t cancel your flight (wait on the airlines to cancel or alter it), and then double down until you get your refund!
Now, be prepared to fight for it, escalate it to a supervisor, and sacrifice precious hours of your time stating the same thing over and over – but you can do it.
We’re rooting for you.
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