What you need to know about the “24-hour rule”

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Kahtan Daker bought a ticket on Turkish Airlines and said he canceled it 20 minutes later (“within the 24-hour grace period,” he told us). The airline is refusing to refund his money.

What’s in a day? Twenty-four hours, certainly time enough to determine whether or not you’ve made a mistake by purchasing seats on a major airline. The rule states that you’re allowed to cancel your flight reservation within 24 hours of booking and receive a full refund. Or, does it state that you are allowed to “hold” that reservation for up to 24 hours and then submit your credit card information and complete the purchase?

Unfortunately, for us travelers, the answer is not so simple. Actually, the policy is much more complicated, and it varies by airline.

First, the “24-hour rule,” which is regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation, isn’t specific enough, leading to mass confusion and dollars wasted on airfares that end up being uncancellable.

Even the document itself contains language that indicates the airlines are making it hard for us to determine how we can use the rule to our advantage. The document states:

The Enforcement Office recently reviewed several U.S. carrier websites and found that while all contain a customer service plan, there is a significant disparity in the methods of disclosing the 24-hour reservation requirement.

On one end of the spectrum, some carriers disclose the 24-hour reservation requirement on their “Frequently Asked Questions” webpage, on the payment page before the finalization of an online reservation, and also through the “live chat” format upon inquiry. These notifications ensure that consumers are informed of their right to a full refund or free fare hold.

On the other end of the spectrum, some carriers’ websites disclose the 24-hour reservation requirement only on the customer service plan page and omit any mention of it on other webpages that describe cancellation policies and cancellation fees applicable to “non-refundable” or otherwise restricted tickets, and this is problematic.

It’s more than problematic. It’s disastrous for travelers who lose money to carriers because they haven’t followed the rule, well, “to the rule,” based on the airline’s policy.

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And our forums are littered with stories that indicate the problem is not going away:

If you read through them (I’m waiting), you’ll see that the rule varies by airline and by how far in advance the flights are. Specifically, ensure the carrier is flying to/from the United States and that the flight is at least seven days in advance of your reservation, or the rule will not apply. One forum poster smartly advises:

An important note on international airlines — these rules only apply to flights involving travel to and from the U.S. Some airlines’ websites will not have these policies built into their sites for customers in other countries. So if a carrier has country-specific reservation portals, be sure to use the one for U.S. customers.

Another forum reminds that if you book through an online travel agency such as Expedia, Travelocity, etc., make sure you contact them to cancel, not the airline.

Getting back to Kahtan Daker’s dilemma at the beginning of this story — his flight on Turkish Airlines (not a U.S. carrier) neither departed from nor arrived at a U.S. location, so the 24-hour rule did not apply to him.

The bottom line is that if you’re booking airfare through any air carrier, don’t make any assumptions of how the 24-hour rule will apply to you. Read through all of the fine print before you hit “Hold” or “Purchase.”

Mark Pokedoff

Four-time Emmy-award-winning television sports production specialist and frequent traveler. Longtime freelance writer and travel blog enthusiast. Proud papa of four amazing kids who have been upgraded to first class more than all their friends combined. Read more of Mark's articles here.

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