How to get a refund on a nonrefundable airline ticket

Yes, you can get a refund on a nonrefundable airline ticket.

Your airline may claim you can’t. Your travel agent may tell you it’s impossible. Your ticket fare rules may instruct you to abandon all hope.

Don’t listen to them.

There are numerous special circumstances and exceptions that can override even the airline industry’s strict “no-refund” rule. They even apply to the most restrictive “basic” economy class tickets.

If you cancel within 24 hours of booking

If you’ve booked a ticket in the United States, the Department of Transportation (DOT) requires U.S. and foreign air carriers to hold a reservation at the quoted fare for 24 hours without payment or allow the traveler to cancel the reservation within 24 hours without penalty. This policy is known as the 24-hour reservation requirement. There are some restrictions, most notably that the rule does not apply to reservations made within seven days of travel. Here’s how airlines are supposed to implement the 24-hour reservation requirement.

If an airline cancels your flight

If an airline cancels your flight, it will try to rebook you on the next available flight. You don’t have to accept that flight. If you’d prefer not to travel on the new itinerary, you are entitled to a refund for the unused transportation. This is true even for a nonrefundable ticket. You are also entitled to a refund for any bag fee that you paid, and any extras you may have purchased, such as a seat assignment, according to the DOT.

If there’s a significant schedule change

If your airline changes its schedule, you may be entitled to a full refund even if you’re holding a nonrefundable ticket. How much of a schedule change depends on the airline. American Airlines has a 61-minute rule. United Airlines will offer a refund under certain conditions when there’s a schedule change (see its contract of carriage).  Check out the fine print, but know that schedule changes can offer a refund opportunity even if you’re outside the 24-hour window.

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If the contract of carriage allows it

The contract of carriage sometimes called the conditions of carriage — is the legal agreement between you and the airline. Often these terms detail other provisions for refunding a nonrefundable ticket. For example, if you have a ticket on Delta Air Lines, you’ll need to read Rule 240 of its Delta’s conditions of carriage, which provides:

B. Delta’s Liability in the Event of Schedule Changes, Delays and Flight Cancellations

In the event of flight cancellation, diversion, delays of greater than 90 minutes, or delays that will cause a passenger to miss connections, Delta will (at passenger’s request) cancel the remaining ticket and refund the unused portion of the ticket and unused ancillary fees in the original form of payment in accordance with Rule 260 of these conditions of carriage.

Contracts vary, so be sure to read yours carefully. It may contain a clause that lets you off the hook — and gives you a full refund.

If your bank or credit card says so

If you feel the airline hasn’t offered you the product it promised, you might be able to dispute the charge on your credit card (commonly called a credit card chargeback). Here’s more information how to file a credit card chargeback from the Federal Trade Commission.

Your rights to dispute a credit card charge are spelled out in the Fair Credit Billing Act. The law covers the quality of goods and services made with a credit card.

Credit card chargebacks are a strategy of last resort, but they can be quite effective. That’s because merchants typically don’t contest smaller purchases (less than $100) because fighting the chargeback would not be cost effective for them.

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Contact your bank or credit card company for details on filing a chargeback.

If you die

Airlines offer refunds to your next of kin if you die. This is a long-standing industry courtesy. There’s no rule or regulation that says an airline must refund a dead passenger’s fare. If, however, the promise is contained in the contract of carriage, then the airline must honor it.

Obviously, this method of getting a refund on a nonrefundable airline ticket is something you can take advantage of only once.

If your travel companion dies

Some airlines will refund tickets — even nonrefundable ones — as a goodwill gesture when your travel companion dies. Most airlines have internal (nonpublished) policies governing these refunds. If you need to request this type of refund, you will also need to provide written evidence of your companion’s death.

There is no guarantee an airline will refund a nonrefundable ticket even if you can prove someone died.

If your military orders change or you have jury duty

Airlines are known to refund nonrefundable tickets if your military orders change. They have also refunded tickets for passengers with jury duty or other civic obligations. If you think you qualify for one of these exceptions, ask.

If you have extenuating personal circumstances

Sometimes, life happens. Passengers fall ill before their flight or declare personal bankruptcy. Airlines review these refund requests on a case-by-case basis. They weigh your loyalty to the airline, take into consideration your manners and always ask: “What would happen if this ended up in the news?” (Yes, they’re that image-conscious.) If you have a compelling story to tell, contact your airline. Then share your dilemma with them succinctly and with a minimum of drama. You never know.

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Even if the answer is “no” you may be entitled to a refund of some of the taxes included in the price of your ticket. For example, American Airlines will refund taxes not imposed by the airline that are specific to destinations “upon request.”

In short: There’s no such thing as a nonrefundable ticket. You can get a refund on a nonrefundable airline ticket under the right circumstances. If your airline or agent tells you otherwise, don’t accept that as the final answer. Just remember the exceptions and send a brief, polite email to one of our exclusive customer service contacts.

And if that doesn’t help, contact us.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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