Did my refundable ticket become nonrefundable because of the pandemic?

Expedia refundable ticket

Adam Chang purchased a “refundable” ticket through Expedia. He has a confirmation and an email from Expedia to prove it. Yet now that he’s canceled his reservation, all he can expect to receive for the ticket is a credit for future travel. He requested a cash refund, but his request didn’t get off the ground. He’s baffled and angry.

Unfortunately for Chang, his experience is becoming more common as the pandemic continues. Airlines and other travel companies are changing their ticket refundability policies. Chang’s story is a painful acknowledgment that because of the coronavirus, there are no guarantees of cash refunds for “refundable” air tickets. That’s particularly true when you’ve purchased tickets through a third-party website for flights operating outside the U.S.

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The purchase and cancellation of an Expedia refundable ticket

In March 2020, Chang purchased a business class ticket on TAAG Angola Airlines for a December 2020 flight. He planned to fly from Johannesburg, South Africa, to Montevideo, Uruguay. His confirmation from Expedia clearly indicates that the ticket was refundable. TAAG Angola Airlines charged Chang’s credit card $475 for the ticket.

Then in August, as the coronavirus pandemic spread around the world, Chang contacted Expedia, requesting a cancellation of his reservation. Using Twitter, he chatted with an Expedia agent, who acknowledged that his ticket was fully refundable.

Expedia: This ticket is refundable
Expedia confirms “The ticket is refundable and changeable without any fee.”

The agent confirmed that Expedia would process Chang’s refund request with TAAG Angola Airlines.

Bad news: That “fully refundable” air ticket wasn’t

Chang expected to see a reversal of his $475 charge on his credit card statement. But it was not to be.

Expedia emailed Chang that TAAG Angola Airlines would not issue him a refund. It would offer him only a credit for future travel that would expire in March 2021.

Expedia refundable ticket
Expedia notifies Adam Chang that TAAG Angola Airlines will not issue a cash refund. (Expedia to Adam Chang)

This made no sense to Chang. His confirmation said that the ticket was refundable. So did the Expedia agent. And a credit expiring in March 2021 is useless to Chang.

The airline wouldn’t issue a cash refund for an Expedia “refundable ticket.” Neither would Expedia

Chang emailed Expedia’s customer support:

This morning I received an email from Expedia stating that I could only obtain an airline credit with TAAG, not a refund. This contradicts what Twitter support very clearly said, but more importantly, it doesn’t uphold the original fare conditions at booking.

He also contacted Expedia again through Twitter. The agent on Twitter responded:

Our ticketing tried to refund your booking. However, it didn’t go through as the airlines restricted our access in refunding their booking. The value of the booking was converted as an airline credit.

Chang replied to the agent: “Please issue a refund from Expedia’s end.”

But the agent reiterated: “We understand where you are coming from. However, we are only a travel agency and we are bound to adhere to the airline policy and decision.”

This wasn’t what Chang wanted to hear. He turned to Elliott Advocacy for help. Could we help Chang airlift his cash refund request for his Expedia refundable ticket?

The language on TAAG’s website cancels itself out

As of this writing, an “Information Note” dated March 18 on TAAG’s homepage claims:

In the event of cancellations, TAAG will reimburse passengers for the full fare, including tickets purchased with miles.

Expedia refundable ticket
TAAG Angola Airlines’ refund policy

But the airline’s conditions of carriage also note that “Refund of the ticket is subject to specify [sic] regulations, available at [the] issuing agent office.”

So even though the Information Note promises refunds, the conditions of carriage suggest that this is subject to change. No wonder Chang was confused.

Elliott Advocacy couldn’t help Chang

Our advocate Dwayne Coward reached out to Expedia on Chang’s behalf. But our Expedia contact didn’t have good news either. She responded to Dwayne’s inquiry:

Unfortunately the airline’s current policy is to offer only a credit voucher, even in this instance. We know this isn’t ideal for the customer, so our air team went directly to the airline’s head office and were told due to extreme volumes created by COVID-19 this is the only resolution they can provide.

Sadly, many travelers are experiencing similar problems with refundable tickets. Airlines and other travel companies are limiting compensation for cancellations to credits for future travel. Travelers seeking cash refunds from these companies are out of luck. As Dwayne told Chang: “Unfortunately, we have been seeing these same results with many foreign travel companies.”

So Chang’s Expedia “refundable ticket,” despite all the assurances he’d received, ultimately wasn’t refundable in cash. Dwayne suggested that Chang dispute his credit card charge or sue the airline in small claims court.

Don’t cancel your trip too soon! You’ll miss out

As our executive director, Michelle Couch-Friedman, notes, if you’re having trouble receiving a cash refund for a canceled flight, you have a lot of company. Our advocates are working hard to secure refunds for what should have been refundable tickets for many air passengers in Chang’s situation.

Unfortunately, for passengers like Chang who cancel their own flights, airlines are getting away with refusing cash refunds. This is because they’re inundated with refund requests that threaten their financial viability. The airlines are changing their refund policies or conditions of carriage — or just ignoring them. Passengers and their agents endure long waits before getting through to human customer service representatives by telephone and email.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) doesn’t require airlines to refund airfares to U.S. passengers who self-cancel. If the airline cancels the flight, on the other hand, the DOT requires the airline to issue you a refund. But flights outside the U.S. on foreign airlines are not subject to DOT requirements.

In addition, canceling a trip prematurely means that you won’t be eligible for any cancellation waivers or other goodwill gestures. Our advocates highly recommend not canceling your flight before your airline does.

We also recommend checking your travel companies’ websites regularly for updates to refund policies and other changes. And we update our own coronavirus travel guidance regularly to provide consumers with current answers to questions about traveling during the pandemic.

When you can’t get a cash refund for a canceled trip

If your promised refund is in a holding pattern, you can try the following steps to bring it down for a landing:

  • Depending on who sold you the ticket, email your airline or your agent. If you used an agent, including online third-party sites like Expedia, you must go through your agent. (For this reason, we recommend booking travel reservations directly through airlines and not third-party sites. Hopefully, you followed our publisher Christopher Elliott’s advice on booking your air ticket.) Our Contacts section has executive contact information for many travel companies, including Expedia.
  • Start by emailing the lowest-ranking executive, and allow that person 10 to 14 days to respond. Then escalate to the next higher-ranking executive. Stay off the telephone.
  • Enclose a paper trail containing emails, confirmations, receipts, tickets and all other documentation. Your agent, airline and anyone else involved in your case (including our advocates) will need it to establish your airline’s obligations to you.
  • Observe the three Ps of consumer advocacy — patience, persistence and politeness — in all your communications.

If these steps don’t bring your cash refund in for a smooth landing, you can also try the following:

  • File a formal complaint about the airline to the U.S. Department of Transportation. (Note: This course of action won’t help with flights booked through a third party on airlines that operate outside the U.S. However, there may be legal protections available in the countries where the airlines operate.)
  • Initiate a chargeback with your credit card company. The Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA) allows U.S. residents who have not received purchased goods or services to request reversals of the charges on their credit cards. (The FCBA does not provide protection for non-U.S. residents using foreign credit cards. It also does not cover debit card transactions or electronic bank withdrawals.) However, a chargeback should always be a last resort.

But before you turn to the last resort, come to Elliott Advocacy. We are ready to help you!