Our host died and Dad’s not well — how about a refund?

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By Christopher Elliott

Life happens, they say. But it really happened to Dee Nemeth and her husband, Don.

They had nonrefundable tickets from Chicago to Huntsville, Ala., on United Airlines, to visit a family friend, last year. But they never made it.

“The day before our departure, our friend’s daughter called to tell us her father had unexpectedly been taken to the hospital,” she says. “Obviously, we needed to postpone our trip which we did, initially. But sadly, our host died at 1 a.m. on the day we were to leave.”

High stakes

The Nemeths accepted United Airlines’ terms, which are the industry standard: A $150 change fee plus any fare differential, to be used within a year of the initial booking date. United even agreed to waive the change fee because of the medical emergency.

But then, life happened again.

Within the year, my dad became more frail (having broken his hip and suffering from black-out episodes) and his doctor suggested that he shouldn’t travel.

When my husband and I re-booked our flights in January of this year, we asked that my father’s ticket cost be applied to ours, but the agent told us that was not possible.

Nemeth was left with the impression that because of her father’s medical condition, he might get a full refund. And that’s where she and United Airlines couldn’t come to an agreement.

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We were told that $300 would be credited back to our card, and that it would take two billing cycles. We waited for three billing cycles, but nothing.

We called again and were told we should re-submit the request with all supporting documentation, which we did. We waited again, but nothing. So we called again, and were told we had to re-submit everything again. Which we did.

Grief vs. the Fine Print

Then came United’s final answer, a tone-deaf form letter denying everything:

We regret the circumstances described in your letter. Our thoughts are with you and your family at this difficult time.

We understand that a loss of a loved one one is a time of stress, in which hastily planned travel is often a necessity.

United Airlines offers a compassion fare in the event of the death of an immediate family member. Since your request is not for an eligible family member, we are unable to honor your request.

I am sorry that we cannot do more for you during this difficult time.

My advocacy team and I suggested Nemeth appeal to someone higher up at United, but United didn’t bother to respond. (Here’s our guide on how to contact the CEO directly.)

I’m moving this into the “case dismissed” file, but I’m not happy about it. United Airlines has several inquiries from me that are have as much merit as Nemeth’s, and it hasn’t bothered responding to them. I’m left with the impression that it simply doesn’t care. (Related: My United Airlines tickets expired — can you make them unexpired?)

There’s a valuable lesson for all of us in this case. First, to be clear, United didn’t have to refund anything. Her tickets were nonrefundable.

But if it was going to make an exception, Nemeth should have gotten the promise in writing — not by phone. Talk is cheap, as they say.

I can understand the airline industry’s reasons for having these strict nonrefundability rules, but if it’s going to bend them, then it should at least stick to its promises. But absent any documentation that an airline would make an exception to its rules, there’s very little anyone can do.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in São Paulo.

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