Yes, the airlines do sell refundable tickets. Yes, you should have booked one.

By | May 24th, 2017

Yolanda Moroz didn’t know that airlines sell refundable tickets. Had she purchased one, she might not be asking our advocates to help her get a refund for her nonrefundable American Airlines ticket.

Unfortunately, air ticket pricing is a difficult, sometimes painful game for travelers to play. Because airline customers are willing to accept, however grudgingly, a wide variety of tradeoffs in exchange for cheap airfares, airlines feel free to sell nonrefundable tickets, limit refundability of other tickets, and require their customers to pay for any amenities for which they feel like charging.

Good customer service by airlines would suggest that all air tickets should be refundable. But given that this isn’t the case, air passengers need to realize that they may not actually be doing themselves a favor in the long run by purchasing tickets that are nonrefundable or have limited refundability or amenities. Should they need to cancel or reschedule their trips, or otherwise change their reservations, their prepaid fees may be sunk costs for which they can’t get refunds – even in emergencies like Moroz’s situation.

Moroz paid for three tickets from Chicago to San Jose, Calif. One was for herself for a work trip; the other two were for her mother and son, whom she planned to bring with her.

Then two weeks before they were scheduled to depart, Moroz’s son was hospitalized for four days.

Moroz canceled her son’s flight on American Airlines’ website and asked for a refund for his ticket. She faxed two forms to American indicating that her son could not travel. But she received an unsatisfying generic reply. She then posted about her case on Twitter. Her tweet resulted in a response from American asking for more information, promising to look into her case and expressing the hope that her son was feeling better.

Related story:   Hotel resort fees, hidden charges bemoaned by travelers, are climbing higher than ever

While waiting for American Airlines’ customer service agents to look into her case, Moroz emailed Sean Bentel, American’s vice president of customer relations, to ask for help in getting a refund for her son’s ticket:


While waiting for a reply I emailed Mr. Bentel who I think is VP of customer relations, and his assistant called me and emailed saying I could not get a refund but my son could get a credit. Not even me, but my son who might not fly anywhere at least in the next year.

That same day I emailed Mr. Bentel I think I received four emails and two calls. Funny how fast that happened.

All to say sorry, no refund. I asked for review because I do believe this circumstance should qualify as an exception. Also, I don’t fly often at all, maybe once every five to seven years so I had no idea you can buy refundable tickets? … I always figured if you canceled for emergencies with proof you could get refunded.

Sadly, Moroz figured wrong. Even when a nonrefundable ticket holder has proof of an emergency, nonrefundable tickets are nonrefundable. American might waive the change fee and allow the full value of the ticket to be reused, but it won’t issue a refund.

Our advocates often receive requests like Moroz’s from air travelers with nonrefundable tickets who want help in seeking refunds. They believe that the circumstances requiring them to cancel their flights are special. The airlines disagree.

Purchasers of nonrefundable air tickets might consider obtaining travel insurance coverage that will reimburse the costs of their tickets should they need to cancel their reservations.

Related story:   Their passports sailed to the Bahamas, but they didn't

They also can check out our company contacts section, which contains executive contact information for many airlines including American Airlines, so that they can try to self-advocate their cases by writing to each executive and allowing him or her a week to respond before escalating their cases to the next higher-ranking executive listed.

But we can’t advocate for them with the airlines, because despite often having compelling needs for refunds, they don’t have actual cases. We can advocate only for refunds for passengers with refundable tickets.

So Moroz’s son’s airfare has flown up, up and away. We hope he recovers soon. But we can’t help her get her money back.



  • Mel65

    I’m sorry; I’m not buying that anyone in this day and age doesn’t now that airlines sell both nonrefundable and refundable tickets. Unless she’s been living in a cave somewhere and has never read a newspaper, or seen the Internet, or watched television– she knows.

  • sirwired

    Travelers want everything; cheap fares, tasty meals, obsequious service, full refunds, expansive seats, no overbooking, and standby planes at the ready, should anything go wrong somewhere in the system. (Of the list, combining full refunds with no overbooking would be the most expensive.) Maybe travelers didn’t “ask” for all these service reductions, but whenever an airline tries to “push through” a broad fare increase of $2-3 and watches too many bookings leave as a result, that’s a wallet-based vote the airlines can’t ignore.

    They can almost have it all, if they are willing to give up the cheap fares. But comparisons of current fares to pre-deregulation fares will show about how much it’s gonna cost. (It’s approximately equal to… wait for it… current fully-refundable fares.)

  • finance_tony

    “Good customer service by airlines would suggest that all air tickets should be refundable.”

    Under what possible rationale?

  • finance_tony

    More Room Throughout Coach :)

  • BubbaJoe123

    It would be excellent customer service. That doesn’t mean that it’s realistic or viable for the airlines to offer it.

  • Dutchess

    I’m not buying that she would have paid likely 3 times as much for a refundable ticket.

  • Alan Gore

    My approach would be to make all those non-refundable tickets transferable – if you can’t use a ticket, give it or a friend or sell it on eBay. The carrier could charge $25 or so for the overhead of verifying that the the transferer is the currently registered owner of the ticket. So long as the TSA can match the name on the ticket with the presenting pax at the airport, security is preserved.

    This model would end all the hassle over whether each passenger’s individual emergency justifies a refund. At the same time it ends all the hassle over name spelling errors, if for the same modest fee you could ‘transfer ‘ a ticket to your correctly spelled self.

  • disqus_00YDCZxqDV

    Maybe the word “nonrefundable” is somehow not clear enough?

  • finance_tony

    So you’d be fine with ticket brokers buying up tickets based on predictive software and you having to buy them on the secondary market?

  • finance_tony

    I think the cost of dealing with last minute cancellations (which of course would be passed on) would end in terrible customer service in the form of higher prices.

  • Jeff W.

    As someone who flies frequently, I have seen 3x and even higher. I don’t know the math behind it — but if I had to guess, refundable fares probably have only a one or two fare buckets, while there are more non-refundable fare buckets available for purchase (at least initially.)

  • sirwired

    Well, in the end, what would happen is that leisure tickets would become more expensive, and last-minute tickets cheaper, as the airlines adjusted pricing to avoid having the ticket brokers collect those profits.

    The net effect is that the airlines would make the same net amount per ticket, while many leisure travelers would be priced out of the market.

  • sirwired

    That is indeed the canonical example of travelers being unwilling to pay a marginal amount for an obvious benefit. While traveler’s “won” during the program, AA was clearly able to see that all the airline got out of it was revenue reductions due to reducing the number of seats on the aircraft. Passenger goodwill doesn’t pay the bills (or shareholders.)

  • BubbaJoe123

    Oh, I agree. It wouldn’t be financially viable, as I said.

    If an airline offered a “if you weren’t 100% satisfied with your flight, we’ll give you your money back,” it would constitute tremendous customer service…for the 6-8 weeks before the carrier went under.

  • sirwired

    On another note, while I agree that travelers should assume that “Non-refundable means what it says”, the suggestion that leisure travelers buy fully-refundable tickets as an alternative to losing out on their fare due to an unforeseen event is unreasonable.

    The (imperfect) solution, if you truly do not want to deal with the loss of your domestic airfare, is trip insurance. That said, it includes a lot of benefits that you simply do not need for a simple domestic trip, doesn’t cover every possible situation, and the premiums are going to be kind of expensive for the benefit. But it’ll certainly be a lot cheaper than full-fare coach.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Pretty much, yes.

  • Rinacres

    Refundable tickets are easily 3x as much as nonrefundable, in many cases. I have even seen them priced at the same cost as Business Class. There has never been a time yet where I have flown where I have been able to purchase the refundable ticket because the cost was so much more than the non-refundable cost and my pocketbook just cant justify it. That being said, whenever I buy a ticket it clearly shows the non-refundable tix vs the refundable vs the First class, etc. I find it hard to believe she didn’t know there were such a thing. Easier to believe she just assumed non-refundable wouldn’t apply to her ‘special’ circumstances.

  • MarkKelling

    The airlines would lose money on transferable tickets.

    Think about it. Currently, you have your nonrefundable ticket and you can’t fly. So you either pay the $200+ change fee to move it to when you can fly, or you just don’t fly forfeiting the entire amount you paid. Income bonus for the airline! Then they sell your now empty seat for a higher fare than you paid because it is within the close to departure window where they charge more. Another income bonus for the airline!
    Even Southwest, who still has the most customer friendly approach to changing your flights with no change fees (even allowing you to extend your flight credits for a whole additional year!), has removed the possibility of transferring tickets because it cost them too much.

    I don’t really see the benefit to refundable tickets, other than the passenger can get a refund without question. The airline doesn’t make anything off the ticket if you get a refund and you get screwed if you do fly because you could have bought a much lower priced nonrefundable ticket. The change fee is usually less than the price differential so even if you do change your flight you are still out some money. The 3X or more cost makes them unattractive to almost all flyers except maybe those flying on corporate travel accounts (but even my company, which is overly generous in many ways, makes me fly on the cheapest tickets).

  • MarkKelling

    Maybe there should be a third option: refundable with a fee.

    I know, another airline fee, great. But think about it. If you price this ticket closer to the non-refundable price than the fully-refundable price, I think there would be a market. Those who are not completely sure they are traveling would be able to get the majority of their ticket price back. While still not the best option for the customer (still paying more and still not getting a full refund) at least they would not be out the complete fare. Several European airlines offer this option already.

  • Annie M

    Enough of these people who buy non refundable tickets, click the “no” button to decline insurance and then come here when something that insurance would have covered happens crying for their money back.

    If you buy non refundable tickets buy the darn insurance. Otherwise if you fall and break a leg a week before you are supposed to leave, don’t come crying.

    Everyone thinks they are travel agents but they don’t know enough about what they are buying.

  • Alan Gore

    No private ticket broker could outguess the airlines’ own sophisticated software for predicting the best price for tickets. Speculator buyouts didn’t happen in the days of transferable paper tickets, and they are even less likely to occur with today’s big-corporate algorithms.

    To put it another way: if any speculator is ever able to outguess the airlines, he will immediately be hired by them.

  • Alan Gore

    This was exactly the admission I wanted, that the odd persistence of empty seats on today’s flights is engineered by corporate policy. Saddle the customer with rules and rules and rules, restricting tickets and changes to produc more paid-for seats that have to be abandoned by flight time, making then available for lucrative double-sell to last minute travelers. Englneer an ejection or two, and you can squeeze in some triple sales too.

  • MarkKelling

    And if you do have empty seats due to last minute cancellations of nonrefundable tickets the airline saves even more because they don’t have to haul the weight of the passenger around and feed them.
    That would be the perfect flight in an airline accountant’s dream: the entire plane is empty of passengers because they all had to cancel their nonrefundable tickets at last minute. The plane doesn’t even have to fly! ;-)

  • Michael__K

    “Yes, the airlines do sell refundable tickets.”

    Actually, I can think of several domestic airlines which DO NOT SELL REFUNDABLE TICKETS. The major legacy airlines including American still sell them, but several other airlines don’t.

  • Michael__K

    That’s funny, because in this day and age there do exist (domestic) airlines which do not sell refundable tickets. Does this mean you’ve been living in a cave? ;)

  • Michael__K

    whenever an airline tries to “push through” a broad fare increase of $2-3 and watches too many bookings leave as a result,

    You blame this on “travelers” but it’s actually an example of the “screen bias” phenomenon, and even travel agents behave the same way, even when the difference in price is $0.

    Years go, when AA used to manipulate Sabre to show their flights above competitors’ flights priced at the exact same fare, their competitors cried foul and testified before Congress and showed the research proving how travel agents were dramatically and unduly influenced by the order of the search results.

  • Michael__K

    To make a profit, the ticket brokers’ predictive software would have to be $25 per ticket smarter than the airline’s predictive software. In which case, the airline could consider using better predictive software.

    Regardless, surely there must be some transfer fee– whether it’s $25 or $225 or 20% of the ticket price or whatever — that would be high enough to keep the ticket brokers away, and still low enough to represent an improvement for passengers who need to cancel and currently face losing 100%.

  • AAGK

    So What that she didn’t know about refundable tickets. She wouldn’t have bought one. I’ve never bought one either. I’ve spent significantly less on nonrefundable tix with a couple of trips I didn’t take than I would have had I booked all refundable tickets and received a couple reimbursements.

  • AAGK

    Also, refundable

  • Bill___A

    I don’t understand why the advice wouldn’t have been to have the proper insurance. It looks like her son had a medical issue. Refundable tickets are way more expense. Maybe the government should write some laws that make sense and we won’t have to deal with all of this. Money back with a fee. No resort fees. no ‘fuel surcharges” if fuel goes up, that’s what hedging fuel costs is for. The whole travel industry has been ruined by accountants messing things up and by regulators letting them. And if she flies once every five to seven years, use a travel agent. If her tolerance for financial loss is low, buy insurance…

  • AAGK

    Of course not.

  • Lindabator

    what a ridiculous assertion that ALL tickets should be refundable – most people, then, would not be able to travel due to the cost – like back in the JetSet days!

  • Jeff W.

    Do not discount the sophistication of the ticket brokers. See what happened to concert and sporting events.

    All they need to do is buy out all of the tickets for the seats that compromise the cheapest of the fare classes the second the tickets become available for sale. You and I would then be booking our fares at the high- or mid-tier rates because the brokers have snatched up the cheap fares.

    And this would likely occur on popular routes.

  • Lindabator

    you are correct – 1-2 fully refundable, with 10-12 nonrefundable rates – so usually FAR more than 3x the cost

  • Lindabator

    she was flying a legacy carrier – not a low cost carrier. and American/United/Delta/Alaska/Virgin all have refundable rates

  • AAGK

    Didn’t it say this was a business trip, though?

  • Lindabator

    and FAR more whiners than there are already!

  • Lindabator

    precisely – and why they do NOT allow

  • Lindabator

    an agent can see EVERY price point on a fare ladder – so if the first 20 seats are priced under $400 over the next 20 seats, all priced over $600, and I purchase all 20 cheaper seats – YOU are then left with no other option than the $600 ones, while I resell my cheaper ones – and WHY the airlines do not allow

  • AAGK

    JetBlue kind of does a version of this by offering 3 nonrefundable fare options. Blue flex has no change fee and much cheaper than refundable, but slightly more than blue.

  • Lindabator

    really not true, for far many reasons than I have time to get thru

  • Michael__K

    And it would be more helpful if the article and comments reflected those caveats as opposed to promoting sweeping and false generalizations.

  • Altosk

    Another case of “I bought a cheap non-refundable ticket and now I have to cancel so I want to have a refund.” Yawn. C’mon guys, how about some interesting cases?

  • tio2girl

    Agreed. Refundable tickets are significantly more than non-refundable. It’s silly to suggest that they should have gone that route. Proper insurance for the situation would be better advice.

  • MarkKelling

    I was joking. Hence the ;-) characters.

  • joycexyz

    Agreed. She probably looked and got scared off by the price. Better to buy insurance.

  • sirwired

    “You blame this on “travelers” but it’s actually an example of the “screen bias” phenomenon, and even travel agents behave the same way, even when the difference in price is $0.”

    What support do you have that this choice is due to “screen bias” and not the actual difference in price? If you could cite something about how people choose the first flight, even if it’s MORE expensive, that would be interesting. But the choices people make when presented with same-priced flights isn’t super-relevant to what they will choose when presented with flights of different prices.

    Also, it sounds like you are saying people need not take responsibility for their own choices. Passengers are perfectly capable of rejecting a proposed flight if it’s on an airline they don’t want, and instruct their intermediary to pick a higher-priced flight instead.

    Anyway, trips have to be sorted somehow, and I’m sure if the default sort was for an agency’s “preferred” (supposedly higher-service) airlines (instead the usual default choices of price or schedule), there would be complaints about how the evil agency was trying to steer consumers onto more expensive flights, and dark aspersions to a conspiracy with said airlines.

  • Travelnut

    Exactly. To pay 3x the price and more, every single trip, for the ability to get a refund if you maybe can’t go but chances are quite excellent you will go as planned… is just dumb. So far, I have never had to skip a trip (came close a couple of times). Even if it does happen, I will be well ahead of the game.

  • Michael__K

    1980s congressional hearings and Dept of Justice investigations.

    If whichever flight appears first gets picked overwhelmingly more often by travel agents even when the difference in price is $0, then of course you would expect at least the same effect when travelers are presented with flights where the price difference is greater than $0.

    Funny how nobody talks about “personal responsibility” when the aviation lobby complains about it.

  • sirwired

    Two flights priced identically is a very different situation vs. the top flight being priced higher than the 2nd flight.

  • Michael__K

    Which fare search engine shows the top flight being priced higher?

  • Lee

    Sorry – but, how does someone in this day and age who doesn’t fly much, not take a few minutes pre-booking to ensure they understand any changes to flying, etc may exist. Even 5 years ago, non-refundable tickets meant non-refundable. Especially with airlines travel, things are constantly changing – fees, etc but this issue has been what it is for years.

    And, one can’t “figure” anything – you have to know something, in fact – and not presume that just because you are ignorant about something that you are owed anything for that ignorance.

    Gosh – that all sounds harsh but, it is the real world as we know it. There were even days when you could call up and make an airline reservation over the phone with no deposit, nothing. A million years ago….

  • sirwired

    You are the one claiming that it’s not the low price that attracts consumers to pick the top flight in the list, it’s merely the fact the low-priced flight is listed first.

    I’m saying that research showing that a consumer will pick the top-listed flight when presented with two identical prices is not particularly relevant to the situation where the flights are different prices. You’d need to do additional research to see if the effect held (by putting an otherwise-identical, but higher-priced, flight in the top slot), not just claiming that “of course” it would hold. (I think the “screen bias” would range from MUCH weaker to zero when confronted with different prices.)

    Correct, no mass-market search engine displays anything but cheapest-first by default. But if we must somehow protect travelers from the alleged irresistible siren-call of that first list entry, something other than sorting by price is what we would need.

  • Michael__K

    If there’s an enormous screen bias effect on travel agents, when the price is identical, then why would you expect any less of an effect when the price is not identical?

  • sirwired

    You are claiming that failed airline price increases aren’t actually the result of travelers being cheap, and instead are the result of them reflexively choosing the top-listed flight.

    I’m saying is that “price bias” is likely to be a bit more powerful and that even if (hypothetically) the cheapest flight weren’t listed first, travelers would still pick that cheaper flight in order to save a few bucks.

  • Michael__K

    You offer speculation and hypotheticals about the isolated effect of a $2 or $3 price increase (and use this speculation to disparage consumers) when we have evidence — touted by the airlines themselves — that screen bias alone has an outsized effect which explains the general problem you describe.

    What’s your explanation for why travel agents overwhelmingly chose the first flight even when there’s no price difference?

  • sirwired

    I don’t know how else to phrase this: Making a choice between two items of the same price is very different than choosing between two items of different prices.

  • Michael__K

    Non-responsive to the question.

    What’s your explanation for why travel agents overwhelmingly chose the first flight even when there’s no price difference?

  • sirwired

    I ignored it because it’s an irrelevant question. It does not describe the situation I’m discussing, which is about when the prices ARE different. I honestly don’t care about what happens when the prices are identical; I’m not disagreeing that customers might choose the first-listed choice in that case.

    And I’m giving travelers credit for wanting to save money; it seems pretty disparaging to say that they aren’t in control of their own actions, and if presented with the situation, would end up failing to save money because they mindlessly clicked the first entry in the list.

  • Michael__K

    So screen bias has a large effect on travel agents when the price difference is $0 but you don’t accept that screen bias matters to at least the same degree when it’s not a travel agent?

  • sirwired

    To put it another way: (Because I love car analogies.)

    Lets say there’s a well-done study that people really prefer newer cars to older ones, when the cars are otherwise identical and cost the same. This would be an unremarkable conclusion that few would disagree with.

    A dealership has two cars to choose from for the same price; one is a 2009 Camry that is filthy, and has minor body damage, vs. 2010 Camry that is pristine. You are saying, without any support, that “of course” everybody is going to choose the 2010 for no other reason than because it’s newer. And I’m saying that if it was the 2009 that was clean, and the 2010 dirty and damaged, people would be likely to choose the older car, even if they usually pick newer ones.

    And then your response is to then ask me to explain why people like new cars so much.

  • sirwired

    Again.

    I. Am. Not. Referring. To. When. Prices. Are. Identical, so I don’t know why you keep asking me about that situation. I don’t disagree that when presented with two flights of the same price, one might choose the one listed first.

  • Michael__K

    So then why wouldn’t you expect at least the exact same (very large) effect when the one listed first is $2 less?

  • Michael__K

    Irrelevant analogy. How would they even know the 2009 was cleaner if they never even considered it because they gravitated to the first option presented?

  • sirwired

    Errr… because people shopping for cars have eyeballs, and can see that one car is cleaner than another and free from damage? (Just like they can see that one flight is more expensive than another.)

    I can only think you are trolling me at this point.

  • sirwired

    You are seriously asking me why somebody might make a different choice when presented with a different situation?

  • Michael__K

    So you don’t deny that screen bias exists when the price difference s $0 but now you hypothesize that the customer could be LESS likely to pick the first flight because of screen bias when the first flight is CHEAPER? (of course that contradicts your hypothesis in your first comment above)

  • Michael__K

    Pot. kettle. black. Your analogy fails because you make terrible assumptions. Assumptions which demonstrate why the question you refused to answer is relevant– how do you suppose screen bias works?

    Why would the travel agent overwhelmingly pick the first flight (regardless of which one it is) if they have eyeballs and the price difference is $0?

  • sirwired

    Oh. I mis-read your question.

    My answer remains: I like to think people are smart, and that their ability to compare two prices and pick the smaller one is greater than their reflex to pick the first item in a list.

  • Michael__K

    You’re still answering a different question you prefer to answer rather than the question I posed.

  • sirwired

    I’m curious, which terrible assumption are you referring to?
    – Assuming people shopping for a car are equipped with a functioning set of eyeballs and could tell the difference between a damaged and dirty car and a clean pristine one, and might end up preferring the one the clean one.
    or
    – Assuming that most travelers are not illiterate and/or mindless automatons, and could pick the smaller of two numbers, even if the smaller number were to hypothetically be listed second.

    “how do you suppose screen bias works? Why would the travel agent overwhelmingly pick the first flight (regardless of which one it is) if they have eyeballs and the price difference is $0?”

    Are you asking me to explain the exact neurological mechanism behind screen bias? Why is this relevant? Why would you expect me to know? I honestly don’t know why you have, over and over, asked me to explain a phenomenon I agree likely exists. (You might as well insist I explain the intricacies of stellar thermonuclear fusion, when I agree that the sun is indeed pretty darn hot.)

    All I have repeatedly said is that I think people are rational/smart, and that their ability to compare prices (and their preference for them) is likely to be much greater than their preference to blindly pick the first item in a list. (Just like people are likely to prefer clean, undamaged cars to filthy, damaged, ones just one year newer.)

    I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree, and this will be my last response. You insist that travelers, when preferring the cheaper of two flights, are not, in fact, doing so because they will save money, but instead because the cheaper one merely happens to appear at the top of the screen. I’m insisting a more likely explanation is that they are picking the cheaper flight because they like saving money.

  • Michael__K

    Assuming that the person has as much information on the second option as the first one.

  • Michael__K

    Refundable fares aren’t even on the screen. Most of the popular flight search engines don’t even give you the option to search for refundable fares at all.

We want your feedback. Your opinion is important to us. Here's how you can share your thoughts:
  • Send us a letter to the editor. We'll publish your most thoughtful missives in our daily newsletter or in an upcoming post.
  • Leave a message on one of our social networks. We have an active Facebook page, a LinkedIn presence and a Twitter account. Every story on this site is posted on those channels. The conversation ranges from completely unmoderated (Twitter) to moderated (Facebook and LinkedIn).
  • Post a question to our help forums or ask our advocates for a hand through our assistance intake form. Please note that our help forum is not a place for debate. It's there primarily to assist readers with a consumer problem.
  • If you have a news tip or want to report an error or omission, you can email the site publisher directly. You may also contact the post's author directly. Contact information is in the author tagline.