Do I deserve a refund after my destination turned dangerous?

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By Christopher Elliott

Diane Austin’s problem isn’t that unusual, which is why I’ve decided to write something about it. In April, she booked a $730 roundtrip ticket in April through Orbitz on American Airlines to fly to Puerto Vallarta.

The purpose of her visit? To volunteer in a school in Tepic, Mexico, for two weeks. In order to cover her fare, Austin’s 80-year-old father used money from her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother’s bank account. After all, it was for a good cause.

But the trip wasn’t meant to be. When her partner arrived in Tepic a few days ahead of her, she says the area turned suddenly unsafe.

Cartel violence

“Cartel violence escalated dramatically,” she says. “A friend of hers was kidnapped and murdered, and a young woman had her tongue cut out for speaking out against the cartel. The cartel assassins have basically moved into Ruiz and Tepic, the two towns where we would be working. Needless to say, she canceled the rest of her trip, then called and told me not to come for my safety.”

At the same time the State Department issued the following advisory:

You should defer non-essential travel to all areas of the state of Nayarit north of the city of Tepic as well as to the cities of Tepic and Xalisco. The security situation north of Tepic and in these cities is unstable and travelers could encounter roadblocks or shootouts between rival criminals. There is no recommendation against travel either to Riviera Nayarit in the southern portion of the state or to principal highways in the southern portion of the state used to travel from Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta.

Stuck in a refund limbo

Austin phoned Orbitz to ask about a refund. An agent told her it was up to American.

So she called American, and a representative said her fare was completely nonrefundable. But the agent gave her hope and said the airline might work with her if another alert was issued closer to her travel date.

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Austin emailed American. It sent her an autoresponse.

She called again.

“The girl did not even know what the cartel was,” she said. “She was totally inflexible.”

Right about now, half of you are saying: She shoulda planned this trip more carefully. It’s not as if that part of Mexico suddenly turned violent — it’s been that way for a long time. Austin knew the risks, and she should have built them into her trip. At the very least, she should have considered travel insurance, in case she needed to call the whole thing off.

Still others are saying: Why doesn’t American show some compassion here? After all, she’s not visiting Puerto Vallarta to hang out at the beach and go clubbing. She just wanted to volunteer in the nearby schools.

Navigating a complex case

You probably know which side I’m on. But that doesn’t mean I’m right — or that this case is fixable.

“This is not just a person trying to cancel for frivolous reasons,” says Austin. “My life would be in danger. I am at my wits’ end. I can’t seem to get a straight answer from anyone.” (Related: It’s not safe to travel, unless you do this now.)

Austin wouldn’t mind taking ticket credit if she can’t get a refund, but she wants to transfer it back to her father so he can use it, which is something American won’t allow. It appears her only option is to take a ticket credit for her that would let her travel back to Puerto Vallarta. She doesn’t think it will be safe to return for a while. (Here’s everything that you need to know about travel, health and safety.)

I’d like to help with this case, but I’m not sure if American will see this the same way Austin does. Heck, I’m not even sure if you will see this the same way.

Should I mediate Diane Austin's case?

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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 Panamá City.

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