Don’t count on this refund result for your nonrefundable tickets

How does a nonrefundable airfare become refundable? It’s nothing short of a minor miracle, and we’re happy to share the story of how this miracle came to pass.

Question:I am a Swedish expat and U.S. citizen residing in San Rafael, Calif. I have traveled frequently between Sweden and the U.S., as well as occasionally within Europe.

I had a flight scheduled from San Francisco to Gothenburg, Sweden, on United Airlines (using their MileagePlus award miles) with my two young children to visit family. During our planned four-week stay in Gothenburg, we were going to take a short trip to Edinburgh, Scotland, and we booked it as a separate trip. This itinerary was booked with nonrefundable tickets on Ryanair and included a three-night stay at Edinburgh City Apartments (booked, via Ryanair’s website, on

Shortly before our departure date, I suddenly became violently ill and was eventually unable to travel. Over the course of the following four weeks, my health deteriorated in a rapid and unsettling way. I went to the emergency room four times in grave pain and was hospitalized twice. In spite of numerous tests, the doctors were unable to determine what caused my predicament, but evidence pointed toward Lyme Disease caused by a tick bite, followed by viral meningitis and bilateral Bell’s palsy (facial paralysis). It turned into a full-time job for my husband to manage me while caring for our two children, who were age seven and 11 at the time.

When I initially fell ill, we moved back our departure to Sweden to later in the summer, thinking that by then I might have recovered. United was very accommodating and refunded us the money and points that we paid/used for the first reservation and we were able to apply it toward a trip at a later date.

As my illness progressed, my husband canceled the trip completely. United again was very accommodating and refunded reward miles and money paid. He also called and canceled the trip to Edinburgh by calling Ryanair’s customer service and requested a refund at that time in accordance with the 10.4 provision under their Terms & Conditions.

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Despite it taking several attempts, we finally were able to get a representative to submit a refund claim. However, we never received confirmation that our case had been submitted. My husband called Ryanair customer service again a few days later and was told our case had been submitted to the refund department for a possible exception to the nonrefundable ticket rules. We twice provided the airline with a letter from my doctor in which she recommended that I not fly in my condition. However, Ryanair still turned down our refund request.

My husband also called Edinburgh Apartments nine days before scheduled check-in and requested an exception to the nonrefundable rule, giving them time to find other tenants. The apartment managers were very nice and, according to their emails, tried to rent out the flat but were unsuccessful and we did not receive a refund.

I feel like we did what was possible to inform the airlines and the apartments of our cancellations, and that they would consider the severity and suddenness of my illness when evaluating our grounds for a full refund. With the high medical bills we incur, every dollar counts. I would be grateful if you would be able to help us get a refund from Ryanair and — Kristina Fassberg, San Rafael, Calif.

Answer: I’m sorry to hear about your illness and that it ruined your travel plans. It sounds like you tried everything you could think of to cancel your arrangements in advance and hit a dead end.

It’s pleasing to hear that United was helpful and understanding about your maladies by allowing you to cancel with no penalties. It must have been extremely frustrating for you to have had trouble getting the same sympathy from the folks at Ryanair and at Edinburgh City Apartments.

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In your letter to us you cited Article 10.4 of the airline’s Terms & Conditions, which states:

In the event of the serious illness of a passenger making it impossible to travel (or death), the reservations of the affected passenger and of persons travelling on the same booking reference may, at our discretion, be refunded or, as appropriate, modified by our waiving any restriction or fee on changing flights upon suitable documentary evidence produced to us in advance of the date of travel.

The key words there are at our discretion, which indicate that the airline would consider refunds on a “case by case” basis. In most cases we’ve seen, they only have done this in the most serious of medical conditions or, of course, death.

Unfortunately, the doctor’s letter that you submitted failed to mention the most serious of your diagnoses and referenced only “severe back pain” as the reason you were unable to travel.

Ryanair’s response, not surprisingly, stated:

We regret to advise that our Terms and Conditions of Carriage (which you agreed at the time of booking) confirm that all Ryanair tickets are non-refundable.

Whilst we sympathise with your circumstances, we regret that we cannot accede to your request for a refund in this case.

We recommend you contact your travel insurer with regard to this claim.

As the letter states, it would have helped greatly for you to have purchased trip interruption insurance. Your illness surely would have been covered under one of the many policies that are offered. We offer tips on how to buy and use trip insurance on our website.

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Without insurance backup, you could have pleaded your case by writing a polite email to one of the Ryanair customer service executives listed on our website.

Instead you reached out to our advocate, who tried valiantly to get your refunds.

Nevertheless, the airline and the apartments both stuck to their guns and continued to refuse to give you back your money.

When a case seems closed, we still try to exhaust every possibility before giving up.

We asked you to review any benefits that the credit card used to purchase the tickets may have, as many do offer some type of travel protections. You took our advice and contacted Chase, which issues the United Airlines Visa card you used to pay for both the airfare and accommodations. However, you may have been too late.

“Unfortunately, Chase’s trip insurance policy states that they need to be notified within 20 days of the trip cancellation or ‘as soon as reasonably possible,'” you told us. “Since my trip cancellation had been made about seven months prior, I decided to plead the ‘as soon as reasonable’ statement and included the email I received from Ryanair. Lo and behold, they honored my claim and sent a check two weeks later covering both the airline and apartment cancellations.”

Wow. That was a totally unexpected solution and not one we normally would have seen from this kind of case. For all of the things that went wrong, one went right — you had the right kind of credit card. A great lesson learned by all. We’re so glad it turned out well for you.

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.

  • Hanope

    I find it interesting that the LW cited her ailments of Lyme Disease caused by a tick bite, followed by viral meningitis and bilateral Bell’s palsy, yet the doctor’s note used to try and get a refund from Ryan Air simply listed “severe back pain”. That seems to be quite a difference.

  • Alan Gore

    Credit where it’s due goes to United for their part in this case. Don’t expect anything from Ryanair, though.

  • John Baker

    Not much credit for UA… Redeposit fee for award tickets isn’t that high and if they have status, its waived.

  • AJPeabody

    When requesting a doctor’s letter, which may be written by the secretary who is told “Write a letter for Mrs. X” without details, always ask to review it for accuracy before it is sent out.

  • Mel65

    Glad it worked out, but seriously they thought 9 days notice was “enough time to” get another renter??

  • cscasi

    The credit to UA is that it did that without having to be pushed to do so or requiring additional paperwork and answering lots more questions.I had to cancel a trip to Europe for my wife and this month because of a knee injury I sustained. United canceled our flights which would have been on Lufthansa and restored the miles to our accounts. I was charged $125 per ticket redeposit fee. I got letter from the doctor noting the injury and recommending I not fly until my treatment was completed. United has an online refund request section that includes allowing you to get the fees charged refunded; completed that, scanned the doctor’s letter, attached it where indicated on the online form, submitted it and in three business days I was informed by email that the request was approved and the fees charged to my credit card would be refunded to the card within five business days. They appeared two days later. So, UA has a system that does work, is not too complicated and, for me anyway, it worked.

  • cscasi

    We do not know what “shortly before my departure date means. How many days before was it? If it was nine days, that may or more probably may not have been enough time for the apartments to get a new guest. Also, we weren’t told what the apartment’s policy is on canceling reservations, so we do not know if it allowed that or not.

  • Mel65

    In their lettet the OP stated, “My husband also called Edinburgh Apartments nine days before scheduled check-in and requested an exception to the nonrefundable rule, giving them time to find other tenants.”

  • Noah Kimmel

    credit to Chase and their insurance underwriter who was flexible on the “as soon as reasonably possible” and actually paid out real money when they could also have been strict on the days.

    Credit to the OP who also worked in good faith with the travel providers (and assuming didn’t try to threaten or blame others for their trouble, mistake, and misfortune)

    For regular travellers, the Chase Sapphire Reserve card really is awesome with trip delay and trip insurance included automatically if paid on the card, not to mention points (which I know Elliott and co. hate, but can be leveraged quite well)

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