‘Unless your mother is dead, there’s nothing we can do and this conversation is over’

Will Swiss International send a refund?

When Kim Davidson’s mother fell deathly ill just before a planned vacation to Greece, she asked Swiss International if she could postpone the family trip. But sometimes, what an airline says and what a customer hears are not the same thing. Now Davidson wants to know if she has any chance at a Swiss refund.

Despite our involvement in this case, Davidson is now holding several worthless tickets. We hate to see that, but we’d also hate it if you missed this cautionary tale.

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No travel insurance for this Swiss International flight

“We had not purchased travel insurance,” she admits. And if they had, this probably wouldn’t be a story. But let’s be honest — when you’re putting out a lot of money for a trip, and someone says, “Hey, it’s gonna cost you a little extra,” maybe you’d balk, too. (Unless you were a travel insider or a regular reader of this site.)

It was Davidson’s father’s 85th birthday celebration. “We were all tremendously excited about this opportunity and adventure,” she says.

The family was scheduled to leave April 30. But on April 22, Davidson’s mother became seriously ill and was admitted to the hospital.

An unexpected illness

“We were actually not sure she was going to make it,” she remembers. “After a family meeting, we made a very difficult decision to postpone our trip to Greece. There was no way Mom could go and no way Dad could go.”

Instead, the birthday turned into a somber occasion. Family members flew to New Jersey and rented a home. They were there to say their last goodbyes.

As her mother slowly improved, Davidson turned her attention to recovering the trip. One of the carriers, Air France, offered a full refund. But Swiss International didn’t.

“We were told initially by the airline that they would honor this situation, but that we would have to use these tickets within a year,” she says. “That was completely understandable. We got letters from the hospital and the doctor who was treating Mom put everything in a package and sent it to the airlines, only to be contacted and told that there would not be any refund.”

Swiss International took a hard line?

“They said to us unless your mother is dead, there’s nothing we can do, and this conversation is over,” she says.

This conversation is over? I don’t think so.

I checked with Swiss International. Here’s what it had to say:

Thank you for passing this along. Did look into this and found that the tickets purchased were non-refundable which, as you know, are very restricted.

However, as an exception, we did provide a refund for the sick passenger (mother). For the father and seven other passengers, we refunded all of the taxes. Such was discussed on 29APR with the party who agreed to receive the refunds.

Ah, OK. So Swiss wasn’t completely heartless. Good to know.

I checked back with Davidson. She says that’s not how she remembers it:

Unfortunately, this is not the conversation we feel we had with them.

They are correct on the tickets and as I had stated in my first email to you, my father did not purchase insurance. The conversation, however, was that a Swiss refund would be granted to all parties (not a full refund — we thought there would be a penalty and that penalty we felt would be a few hundred dollars).

The benefits of a good travel agent

Here’s where having a good travel agent might have helped the family. The refund rules would have been spelled out in the ticket. And you know the Swiss — they do everything by the book.

Davidson is clearly unhappy with this outcome. I am, too. Swiss was waiving its rules for Mom, and in a phone conversation, it may have suggested it would either offer a full refund or a credit to the rest of the family. I don’t know what was said because I wasn’t there.

For us, the takeaway is clear: When an airline offers you something, get it in writing. Davidson already knows she could have protected her trip with insurance or by using a skilled travel adviser, so there’s no need to wag a finger at her. But Swiss also kept the money for her tickets, and as a consumer advocate, that doesn’t seem right.

I know. Rules are rules. But I’m entitled to my opinion.

Should Swiss have refunded all the tickets?

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34 thoughts on “‘Unless your mother is dead, there’s nothing we can do and this conversation is over’

  1. If you’re looking for an airline to make exceptions to the rules because you didn’t take the precautions that just about everyone tells you to take you have to accept your fate. Did SWISS deal with this in the best way possible? It doesn’t sound like it. But that’s not entirely the point. if I ran a business that offered two-tiered pricing to allow customers to choose between refundable and non-refundable products then I wouldn’t be likely to refund someone who went for the cheaper option either. It’s not a tough thing to understand, you have 3 options:
    1) Splash out on refundable tickets
    2) Take out travel insurance
    3) Suck it up if you don’t do (1) or (2) and things go wrong.

    1. If only there were an international version of Southwest, on which you could pay a little more, rather than a full class upgrade, to get flexibility.

  2. I don’t think a refund is equitable, but I do think a re-use within a year with a few hundred dollar penalty is not out of the question.

    1. Agreed. The article is very confusing with the difference between refund and credit for a future trip.
      Three possibilities
      1) Refund
      2) Waived change fee, use credit on a Swiss flight within a year.
      3) Pay change fee, use credit on a Swiss flight within a year.
      It sounds like they were offered #2 which is a pretty good outcome. They should take it.

  3. Let’s just start with her father’s age, 85. I do not know what is health is, but 85 is not young and health issues happen. It should have been clear that if anything happened to either parent the trip was off for everyone. So, with that in mind, they did not buy insurance to protect their cheap fares.

    I am glad her mother is well, and she should be grateful for that. But, she was personally unwilling to spend anything to protect her investment. So, why should Swiss do anything more for her than her she was willing to do for herself:

  4. So first she didn’t remember the conversation that Swiss must have had with her, as they did fully refund one ticket and the taxes on the others.

    Then we hear the mealy-mouthed:

    “Unfortunately, this is not the conversation we feel we had with them.

    that penalty we felt would be a few hundred dollars”

    I’m not sure why her feelings come into play here. Swiss seemed to do more than it was required to – before she tried to drag its name through the mud, even – and wasn’t all that heartless as the headline implies.

    I feel Swiss is owed an apology.

    1. Or she wasn’t imagining anything and a Swiss Air agent really did offer something they could not deliver. Happens all the time.

      If these tickets were purchased from SwissAir, even in Economy Saver, she should have been able to get ticket credits for one year with a $300 change fee (i.e. “a few hundred dollars”). No exception to policy required.

  5. It simply isn’t fair to the people that did purchase insurance to makes exceptions to the very clearly spelled out policy (it isn’t like they’re hiding behind fine print here) that would have been covered by insurance.

    1. I so agree. I HATE to pay for insurance, but now that we are older it is a real risk not to take it for a pricey trip.

      1. I love to pay for insurance. I love every kind of insurance. How else can you foist your problems off one someone for a few dollars? Insurance is a gamble, but if you need it then it is like winning the lottery.

    2. I disagree. I believe Air France acted in a most fair and exemplary manner and deserves our praise.

      Even with travel insurance, you still must generally — per the insurance contract — request a refund or credit from the travel provider anyway and subrogate any such recoveries to the insurer.

      And how do you even know that all these tickets were coverable by insurance? If the tickets were not all on the same reservation, or if some of the travelers were not close-enough relations (i.e. children, siblings, or nephews [in-law]) to the sick passenger, then insurance may not cover their losses anyway. Do you expect airlines to study the minefield of insurance contract loopholes before they determine whether to make a goodwill exception?

  6. I think this is a case where she heard what she wanted to. (i.e. latched on to the word “refund”, and ignored the part where it was only her mother’s ticket, and a tax refund for everybody else.)

    Since she did not even mention a ticket credit (minus change fee) being offered it sounds as if these might have been non-changeable consolidator fares. (Which is all the more reason to purchase travel insurance.)


    “But Swiss also kept the money for her tickets, and as a consumer advocate, that doesn’t seem right.”

    It’s really great when companies choose to make an exception and provide refunds on non-refundable tickets. But NOT providing a refund (i.e. doing exactly what everybody understood were the rules around the ticket) isn’t mean, it isn’t heartless, it’s just providing exactly what everybody knew was being paid for. A consumer that wants a refund anyway is wanting “something for nothing”; they can ask, but they should be able to take “no” for an answer.

    1. it sounds as if these might have been non-changeable consolidator fares.

      Except in that case, the airline normally won’t deal with the passenger’s change/refund request and will instead refer them back to the consolidator.

      She does mention having “to use these tickets within a year”, and says “that was completely understandable.” She should have been able to do that for a $300 change fee without needing any policy exception. She may have understood that the change fee would be waived if she sent the hospital and doctor letters. It’s not at all clear why she ended up with a refund of the taxes instead of ticket credits…

  7. I can understand people not foreseeing the sudden horrific illness of a young person. However, with people in their 80s, it’s hard to realistically claim that it never occurred to them that trip insurance could be very important. It’s unfortunate, but international travel with two octogenarians needs to be insured, full stop.

  8. If a family meeting was held to discuss the trip – why wasn’t the decision acted upon immediately? That’s when the potential for change fees and rescheduling existed – before the the plane takes off. I’m so sorry, but waiting til afterward is too late and asking way too much.

  9. There are hundreds of similar stories every day from people who don’t bother to buy insurance and want exceptions made. I think if the writer looked at it from the airlines point – that they get hundreds of requests for exceptions a day, she might understand why an airline has to put their feet in the sand and say no.

    However I don’t understand why they don’t have a credit for the other tickets that were not fully refunded to use within a year of the date the flight was booked. (Less the cancellation fees). Was this followed up on by whoever co tatted Swissair from Elliott?

    1. Agreed. As I’m fond of saying here, “Airlines like their money as much as consumers like theirs.” You can certainly ask a travel provider to make an exception and cut you a check, but don’t expect it’s any more likely they’ll do so than you would if the airline pretty-please asked you to, say, give you a credit vs. cutting you a check for a cancelled flight.

    2. I’d be curious just how many “exceptions” are requested of an airline every day. I think we’d be amazed, both by how many requests are made and by how many fares are just abandoned.

  10. So there is no “reschedule within a year if youy pay a huge change fee” option on Swiss?

    Too many people confuse this airline with Swissair, which until its demise after 9/11 was one of the better flag carriers, representing the nation of Switzerland. The current Swiss is an unrelated private operation formed by stitching together the corpses of several charter carriers and then breathing life, of a sort, into it using bolts of lightning.

    1. I think they no-showed for their first flight and then tried to call about using the credit after the fact. They needed to call before the flight to notify Swiss that they would not be flying that day. I made this mistake once and it cost me $350.

  11. At 85, travel insurance is a necessity, not just if you can’t go, but also if you need medical care or evacuation home during the trip. It’s practical, not paranoid.

    When I was young and immortal, I didn’t buy travel insurance. Now that I am older, wiser, and more practical, I buy it. I have never had to use travel insurance, because I am still immortal, but it never hurts to have a Plan B.

  12. Certainly she should have bought travel insurance, and Swiss is justified in not making an exception to the rules.
    But if it’s true that they said “This conversation is over,” I want to know what exactly she said. That’s not an appropriate way for a business to respond, unless Ms. Davidson was being rude to the customer service representative or giving them a hard time.

  13. Chris: This is a perfect example of why you should leave the comment period open for at least 48 hours, and definitely not cancel the comments completely. In many cases I have learned more about the issues you write about by reading the comments than from the articles themselves. Many of your commenters are experts, and I can’t tell you how often I have discussed their advice with my wife and friends, in the context of something we should know or do. And cutting off comments after a single day really leaves too little time for many of your followers to read and reply with helpful advice. Many work full time, and have only a small window of opportunity to read and comment. Sure, there are always the wiseguys, haters, cynics, etc., but most of us can identify them and ignore what they say. We really need the comments and the time to comment ourselves.

    1. Hi Lonnie,
      From your lips to God’s ear. Starting now, we’re going to try leaving the comments open for 48 hours.

  14. It is unfortunate, but if the airlines give all the money back, then people don’t buy travel insurance. I get some travel insurance with my credit card and it is automatic. Certainly when there are more travellers involved, that statistically increases the chance of something happening, and it makes the trip insurance even more important. I’m sad to hear of the incident, but one needs to buy travel insurance. Period.

  15. The family did have travel insurance, it’s called self insurance. Now they don’t like having to pay the claim. Just like most insurers.

  16. Can’t hurt to ask in a situation like this, right? But, she did ask, and Swiss at least threw her a bone by refunding taxes and her mother’s ticket. It would be nice to get everything refunded – I would applaud Swiss for doing that – but I think this one should be chalked up to learning experience. She should be mad at herself for not buying travel insurance instead of mad at Swiss.

  17. Where would an airline (or any business) draw the line? This is why there are terms and conditions, rules and travel insurance. I am only 52 but purchase travel insurance on my trips, because you just don’t know what may come up and I do not want to lose the money I spent on my trip.

  18. I have a question for those her who generally believe the airlines should be more lenient in their refund policy on non-refundable tickets. I think we’d generally agree that a death is a valid cause for a refund, and that an appointment opening up at the best hair parlour in town is not. But, where or how is the line drawn between those two extremes? (I am not trying to be confrontational here. I would just like to understand where people draw the line.)

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