So where’s my credit from Southwest — and is it enough?

In May, M. Geraldine Williams had to cancel an upcoming trip from Tucson to Chicago because of illness. When she canceled her Southwest Airlines flights, she was told if she rebooked them before Aug. 1, she wouldn’t lose any of her travel funds.

So Williams recently tried to rebook her trip, departing July 20 and returning Aug. 17. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to apply the credit for the canceled flights.

This one’s a can of worms. If nothing else, it shows how tricky even straight shooters like Southwest can be with their terms and conditions, and how you really have to pay attention to the fine print in their contracts, as opposed to what they might tell you.

A quick call by Williams to Southwest revealed that she actually needed to complete her travel before Aug. 1, not book before Aug. 1. That’s a big difference in policy — and a huge mistake for a customer service person to make.

The reservations agent who assisted Williams indicated the credit could be used for her outbound flight to Chicago, but not for the return flight on Aug. 17. This agent apparently created a new, one-way booking. The agent applied a credit to cover the cost of this flight. Unfortunately, this left Williams with two flights to Chicago on July 20, one flight returning to Tucson on Aug. 17, and another call to make — to Southwest’s customer service.

Williams learned that Southwest’s customer service wasn’t as helpful as she would have hoped, either. They offered to allow her to use the credit toward her return flight, but only after paying a $100 fee. Southwest also told her it wouldn’t refund the original flight she booked until after she took her flight on July 20, which means she will also be subject to interest on her credit card balance for money she shouldn’t have needed to spend.

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If this had been an unrestricted, refundable ticket, Southwest would have been required to refund Williams’ ticket to her original form of payment. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case, and Williams is stuck with the terms that apply to a nonrefundable ticket, which aren’t quite as clear as I would hope.

In its Contract of Carriage, Southwest includes the following information about travel credits:

Unless otherwise stated by Carrier, the fare paid for unused nonrefundable Tickets, including taxes, security fees, and Passenger Facility Charges, may be applied toward the purchase of future travel on Carrier for the originally ticketed Passenger only. The new Ticket may be more or less expensive or subject to different terms, conditions, or restrictions from the original Ticket. If the fare is lower, travel credit will be issued for the difference. No cash refund or credit card adjustments will be made for nonrefundable Tickets.

I’m particularly interested in this phrase: “The new Ticket may be … subject to different terms, conditions, or restrictions from the original Ticket,” because it seems to indicate that Southwest has the power to issue a ticket with different terms than the original ticket.

In the next paragraph, however, Southwest indicates, “The expiration date of any travel credit will apply to any Tickets purchased with these funds.”

Returning to Williams’ story, she was seemingly stuck with two tickets to Chicago, one ticket back to Tucson, a credit card balance, interest charges, and an unhelpful airline. She could have escalated her case to the Southwest Airlines contacts we list on our website. She should have collected her medical reports supporting her claim that her original cancellation was for medical reasons and sent it to our contacts with a polite letter asking for a simple rebooking.

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Instead, she contacted us and asked that we advocate on her behalf, which we were happy to do. We don’t receive many complaints about Southwest, so we hoped they would do the right thing. I would have expected that they would have taken the phrase I referenced above about the new ticket possibly being subject to different terms, and simply issued a new ticket. The least they should have done was issue the refund for the outbound ticket they double-booked.

Unfortunately, that’s not what they did. They held firm to the customer service offer of booking the tickets with a $100 penalty — and a waiting period to receive the credit she is due.

I expected better of Southwest. What say you, readers?

Michelle Bell

Michelle worked in the travel and hospitality industry for almost two decades. Born in Germany, she has lived in 15 states and two foreign countries, and traveled to more than 35 countries. After living and working in Southeast Asia for several years, she now resides in New Orleans. Read more of Michelle Bell's articles here.

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