Why should I be penalized for my medical condition?

Kristin O’Brien and her family booked nonrefundable tickets from New York to Lisbon on TAP Air Portugal. Now, she can’t make the trip for medical reasons.

TAP refused to issue a refund, and O’Brien feels that she is being penalized because of her medical condition. Is she?

“I recently had emergency surgery for a detached retina and have been told I am unable to board an airplane for the foreseeable future,” she says. “I am heartbroken that I will not be able to join my family on this trip of a lifetime.”

I am also heartbroken to learn that I am not eligible to receive a refund due to this medical emergency. I emailed a letter from my doctor to TAP stating that I am unable to fly. I called TAP customer service and dealt with the rudest agent. Numerous times, I asked to speak with a supervisor and was told it wasn’t possible.

I was told I would be given a travel voucher for use through the end of the year, and that change fees and a fare difference would apply. I can not guarantee that I will be cleared to fly within the year, and a voucher is not an acceptable option.

I understand there are refund policies in place, however it never occurred to me that there would not be an exception for medical emergencies. I am medically unable to fly. I am hoping that TAP Portugal will reconsider and refund the $736, that I believe is fair.

When you buy an airline ticket, there are fare rules that apply to the ticket. A nonrefundable ticket is usually the cheaper ticket, while the refundable one is more costly. It is very important to read and understand the rules that apply to a ticket before it is purchased. The TAP website doesn’t disclose a standard cancellation policy because it varies, depending on the ticket and the route. The TAP website clearly notes that:

Conditions for changes and cancellations change depending on the conditions of the fare you chose.The rules concerning changes and cancellations apply per route and may be different depending on the route you want to change.

Some fares may involve penalties for making changes or cancellations, they may be non-refundable or they may not permit changes. When you make your reservation online, you must read the conditions of the fare or fares you are purchasing on the ticket purchase page before finalizing the purchase of your ticket. If you do not know the conditions of your fare or fares, or you have any questions, please contact us.

Each time you contacted TAP, its representatives reaffirmed that the fare you purchased was nonrefundable. It refused to make an exception in your case because you accepted the restrictive rules when you chose that fare, and bought that ticket.

The only guaranteed way to avoid this type of problem is to pay more and buy a refundable ticket. Or, buy a travel insurance policy that covers emergency medical conditions. A travel insurance policy would have covered an unexpected medical emergency and reimburse you for the airfare. When you book a ticket through the TAP website, it gives you the option to buy travel insurance. Or, once you make a purchase, you can always look for other travel insurance providers that will insure your trip.

Although you feel differently, on the bright side, the fare you purchased is changeable, with the addition of a change fee and any applicable fare difference. Buying a ticket that is at least changeable, even with a change fee, is better than a ticket that is nonrefundable and nonchangeable. So, if you’re medically able, you do have an option to rebook travel before the end of the year, and pay the change fee and any fare difference. You may pay more to travel, but you won’t lose the money you’ve already spent.

You communicated via email with TAP. But, you could have tried to escalate your request by contacting corporate executives for help. We list executive contact information for TAP under the company contacts section of our website.

You could also have posted your predicament to our help forums. Our help forums are staffed by travel industry experts, and often read by company executives. Our forum advocates may have had some helpful suggestions for you.

The bottom line is that you bought a nonrefundable ticket and TAP isn’t going to change the fare rules for you. The lesson is to know the restrictions that apply to the ticket you’re buying, and purchase travel insurance if you don’t want to assume the risk of losing the tickets. We hope that you will get better soon and will be able to join the rest of your family on your trip.

Diane Perera

Diane and her family love to travel, and they do so as much as they can. Having experienced the downside of travel, and having learned so much from Elliott.org, led Diane to become an advocate and to help fight the good fight.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Did the letter writer check if the credit card they used has travel insurance? Quite a few do. Certainly worth checking.

  • DChamp56

    “O’Brien feels that she is being penalized because of her medical condition”.
    That statement is ridiculous! Does she believe people without medical conditions get refunded easily?
    On one hand, you got what you paid for. A non-refundable ticket.
    On another hand, IF… the ticket was still 3-4 months out, I’ll bet they resell that seat, and make double the money. That, I don’t like.

  • Rebecca

    “It never occurred to me that there would not be an exception for medical emergencies.” There is. It’s called insurance.

    It simply wouldn’t be fair if companies made exceptions to non-refundable tickets for situations that clearly would have been covered by insurance. It negates the purpose of insurance, and would make chumps out of the responsible people that purchase insurance for “this trip of a lifetime”.

  • MarkKelling

    Why do people continue to think that “nonrefundable” means “except for me”?

    While you might on occasion find a company that will make an exception, they are not required to because they offer ways to make that nonrefundable purchase refundable — usually through insurance. Just get over the fact that you are not special and you will not receive special treatment and your life will be a lot less stressful.

  • Lloyd Johnston

    You weren’t penalized for your medical condition. You were treated exactly the same as anyone else who is unable to fly. Non-redundable means exactly that; that’s why insurance exisits.

  • finance_tony

    “a voucher is not an acceptable option.”

    Neither is not buying trip insurance for this “trip of a lifetime.”

  • disqus_00YDCZxqDV

    “”It never occurred to me that there would not be an exception for medical emergencies.” … “because I haven’t read a single news article pertaining to the airlines since the Clinton Administration”

  • Altosk

    I thought we were done with the “I bought a cheap non-refundable ticket but now I have a supposedly good reason for it to be refundable” cases?

  • Alan Gore

    Now if she were able to sell her ticket or give it away, the airline wouldn’t be burdened with special exception requests. Once a ticket is sold, that would be the end of it except for handling the transfer for a fee.

  • SierraRose 49

    Amazing how many people don’t read, check and re-check names, dates, and terms and conditions when they are making a major purchase online. I consider this a lesson-learning-life experience … one that I had to learn myself. The price for my lesson was around $550, payable to United Airlines.

  • Annie M

    When on earth will people realize that this is exactly what travel insurance is for!

  • Rebecca

    The problem with that is it invites brokers. They’ll purchase all of the tickets and jack up the price even more. If they allowed that, it would cost $5000 for one person to fly to MCO over Christmas break.

  • Rebecca

    I believe that’s after you pass the intersection of I’m Special St and Personal Responsibility Blvd.

  • cscasi


  • Jeff W.

    And most states require certain minimums for auto coverage. So if you have an accident while you pass that intersection, you would be covered. :-)

  • Carchar

    Why should the airline be penalized for your medical condition?

  • John McDonald

    your statement …………..

    “the ticket was still 3-4 months out, I’ll bet they resell that seat, and make double the money” is dangerous as many 1,000’s of flights every year never even get close to 100% load factor + there’s a danger of the punter benchmarking. Eg. an airline decides to have a price reduction sale to try & fill some seats. The punter sees this sale fare & if often enough, thinks it’s the standard fare(whatever standard means these days).

    This has happened in Australia, esp for OZ/USA fares. Approx 10 years ago, there were only 2 airlines that flew Australia to USA mainland nonstop, Qantas & the airline of absolute last resort United. Fares at Xmas on Qantas were always around AUD$3500 return per adult(USD$2625) & about AUD$2500 for United(USD$1875).

    There are also 2 airlines that fly direct, Fiji Airways & Air NZ + now myriad of Asian carriers, via China, Taiwan, Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong + Air Tahiti Nui, which is 2 stops to LAX.

    Last year fares in low season got as low as AUD$699(USD$524) return. Every few days get an email saying fly SYD/LAX return for $800. The average punter thinks this is normal.

    With the global recession, these fares might become the norm for low season. We now have 5 airlines that fly nonstop SYD/LAX. These are in order of popularity for Australians

    Virgin, Qantas, American, Delta & United. NOTE: the openly gay CEO of Qantas, is pushing gay marriage here through the airline & many Australians don’t want to be associated with the gay airline, so it’s popularity has dropped significantly.

    With the world recession, many airlines will fail this year or next. How soon, probably depends on amount of terrorism.

    Just because in USA, you allowed many mergers, which reduced competition, airlines may have higher load factors.

    NOTE: many airlines allow name changes for a fee. Have been unable to use some tickets to USA & simply sold them online to someone else or gave them to a relative.

  • greg watson

    what did the OP think ‘non refundable’ means ? I know some people who thinks rules are for someone else…………………….may seem that way…………………..until they get caught.

  • Alan Gore

    If this were possible, the airline itself would already have sold the same tickets at those prices. They are good at selling for exactly what the market will bear. Brokers make money on commissions, not speculation.

  • John McDonald

    hardly. Tour operators buy tickets from airlines & then assume the risk & so they get them at a good price.

  • John McDonald

    know of quite a few who actually buy tix from airlines & airlines love it, as all the risk then goes to the broker/tour operator.

  • John McDonald

    exactly. Last time I looked, no airline is set up as a charity. Some will go broke this year, due to the massive world recession & terrorism.

  • michael anthony

    Qantas, the gay airline? That’s stretching it quite a bit.

    Likewise your comment about so many carriers going under. Maybe so pre 2008, but they learned their lessons are are well positioned to weather a downtown. Of course some have been in dire straights for years, like Alitalia, but trade publications do not agree that there will be a wave of carriers shutting down. Sure, if they budgeted for 100% load factor, but they don’t.

  • DChamp56

    I fly quite often, and can’t remember the last time I saw a non-full flight. Most often, the flights are overbooked, and standby customers are there trying to get a seat on the plane. My remark stands as what you note is the exception, not the rule (as far as I see in person).

  • Kairho

    True … but irrelevant as the two insurances are completely different animals.

  • Lindabator

    but a lot of those are nonrev and standby, where they may have paid much less for the flight they booked than what would have cost on this one. simply put, you buy an item in the store, you do not get a discount later if they sell it for someone else, so WHY do we expect the airline should do so?

  • Lindabator

    haha – LOVE that!

  • joycexyz

    I always scratch my head when I read about “healthy” people who don’t purchase insurance, then have a medical emergency and expect special treatment. Insurance is for unforeseen circumstances, folks. If you don’t have homeowners’ insurance and your house burns down, do you expect to rebuild on someone else’s dime?

  • John McDonald

    there are tens of thousands of flights every day. So your experience is very limited. Maybe you fly at busy times of day/week.

  • John McDonald

    no the gay CEO is promoting gay marriage through the airline. Crazy. He’ll end up losing lots of passengers. He’s already alienated many, including sporting legends who have said publically, due to CEO stand on gay marriage, they won’t fly Qantas anymore. Trade publications ? What would you expect them to say ? Worldwide airline demand is dropping drastically & everytime there’s another terrorist attack(not at airports) demand drops. You seem to have forgotten the worldwide recession, which is going to be massive.

  • Noah Kimmel

    if she shouldn’t be penalized for the medical condition, why should the airline be? Sadly, that is why there are refundable tickets and why there is travel insurance. It sucks to lose the money, no question, but she gambled and lost and is now unhappy. Lesson learned and far warning to others.

  • Noah Kimmel

    But I didn’t plan on the fire!!!! You are treating me unfairly by not rebuilding it perfectly, not anytime in the next year, now!!!! And I demand money for the time I spent on the phone with you at my salary of $1 Million per minute plus lost property worth a bazillion dollars with no documentation of what was lost.

  • DChamp56

    My point is, if they resell the seat, they shouldn’t be able to make double the money on a seat.

  • Noah Kimmel

    its a tough one. I understand your perspective, and hate what it does to consumers who face real emergencies. Companies getting outsized profit (2x) due to illness just feels wrong. But at the same time, the implication is that customers are binary – they buy that seat or not. When I fly, if the 3 pm flight is sold out, then I book the 5 pm. It is rare that all seats and all flights are sold, so it’s not so plain and simple. Similarly, for vacation rentals – if I dont rent it this weekend, maybe I’ll rent it next weekend. So sure, they may sell that same seat, but it could be displacing someone who was willing to take another seat. The company is still “hurt”, the question is who owns that burden during things like medical emergencies

  • DChamp56

    Sorry, if they resell the seat, I find no reason the company is still “hurt”. If they want to play musical seats, it’s on them, not me. JMHO

  • Noah Kimmel

    let me ask what may be a tongue in cheek question –
    can you define the same seat?

    For instance, is it fare class? last seat? last ticket sold (if they oversell that flight? basically, how do you know it is the same.

    the sentiment is spot on, but the administration can be more nuanced

  • DChamp56

    If I cancel 4 months in advance, and the plane flies full, they resold my seat.

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