They canceled the flight anyway — can I get a refund?

Here’s a problem I run into every now and then, and which I normally refer back to the airline – which usually tells the passenger “tough luck.”

But this one is a little different. It comes to me by way of Laura Lee, who had made reservations to fly from Sacramento, Calif., to New York on United Airlines for Nov. 6.

“Due to a family crisis, I had to cancel our flight on October 30,” she says. “I spoke to someone in customer service and was informed that I would be charged $150 per ticket for the cancellation. I was too distraught at the time to question or argue regarding the cancellation fee.”

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines. The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Fast forward to last weekend, when Lee logged back on to Orbitz, the site through which she’d booked her tickets. It informed her that her flight was canceled because of superstorm Sandy.

“Even if I hadn’t canceled, the flight still would not have been possible,” she says.

She adds,

I am at a loss as to what I should do so that I will not be charged $300 for a cancellation fee. It is important for us to make the trip to New York to see our 97-year-old aunt sometime, as she is in fragile health.

I hope you can assist us. The cancellation fee is around 75 percent of the cost of our tickets.

I’ve tried to mediate cases like this in the past. From an airline’s perspective, this all comes down to a timing issue. When Lee made her cancellation, all flights were operating normally, so it applied its rules correctly.

Timing is everything when it comes to airlines. If you buy a ticket two weeks before your departure, it will offer a significant discount. If you walk up to the counter an hour before the flight leaves, and there’s room on the plane, then you’ll pay a premium.

So why did I pause before sending this passenger the “I-can’t-help-you” letter? You mean, besides the effective 75 percent cancellation penalty? Well, part of it is the difficult personal circumstances. If Lee were a business traveler on a generous expense account, this would be a little bit less difficult to turn down. But she just wants to visit her elderly aunt in New York.

United – and other airlines – are relaxing many of their own rules after the storm. Is it asking too much to bend a rule for Lee, too?

I could ask United to help this passenger out. But should I?

Should I mediate Laura Lee's case with United Airlines?

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77 thoughts on “They canceled the flight anyway — can I get a refund?

  1. I agree with the comment about timing is everything. At the time of the cancellation, no one knew of the storm-related cancellations and both parties agreed to the terms of the cancellation. There’s no opportunity for “remorse” in such a transaction – that’s modern life when it comes to airlines. I don’t think you’ll get very much interest/sympathy from the airline on this one. The cancellations due to Sandy cost them enough as it was.

    1. Re: At the time of the cancellation, no one knew of the storm-related cancellations.

      At the time of the cancellation, 30OCT, Hurricane Sandy was already well inside the East Coast!!! Please check your calendar. Everyone KNEW of the thousands of flights that got cancelled here in or near NYC.

      1. Good point, I was flying to BOS on Oct 28, and United issued a travel waiver on Oct 26 stating no change fees or fare increases for any flights to/from DC up to Maine if you keep the same destination, and no change fee, but you must pay a fare increase, if you cancel your ticket and use it later for another destination. I held out and on the 27th they canceled my flight entirely.

        If she canceled on Oct 30, she canceled during the travel waiver, and the fee should be waived. Oh wait, never mind, I just looked at the story again. The waiver for for travel from Oct 26 – Nov 2. It says her flight was Nov 6, so she would not have been covered by the waiver. I still think its worth asking again, I don’t care if she is a business traveler or not, I still voted yes. Its worth a try.

        1. As far as I know, airlines preemptively cancelled NY flights for 29 and 30 October. My brother was able to fly into JFK on an evening flight on the 28th (Sunday). The winds were already getting stronger by the next morning and by noon everyone was told to get out of Dodge. I evacuated my Son from Manhattan (since he lives somewhere between Zone A & B) before the trains and subways stopped moving. The second week of November (election week) was definitely a lot better than the first even if you count the 6-8 inches of (wet/heavy) snow we got last Thursday. The hurricane was certainly not an excuse to get out of flight on the 6th of November. But UA may exempt her from change fees if she had a family emergency. I wonder if she even asked.

          1. Perhaps that should be her approach, not the hurricane since the dates are against her. I wonder if her flight was really canceled or not, or if it was just a banner on Orbitz when she logged in that some flights were canceled. I know the OLD UA was always good about canceling due to emergencies, they would waive the fee, not sure about the new UA, but she has grounds.

          2. Thanks Jeanne. I wonder how your son is after Sandy? Doesn’t he live somewhere in Queens? My office mates who live in Queens did not lose power and live far enough from the Sound so all they got was minor wind damage. For us who are lucky enough to have trees in our lawn, they became liabilities with the strong winds. I got to tell you, no power for about 6 days is no joke especially if you need well water and heat. I learned a lot. You better plan ahead or you will find nothing in the grocery shelves or gasoline from the station. I have 2 generators but conserving fuel became the issue after the first day. Having a freezer is no good since you end up having to run a generator to save the food from rotting after 2 days. Might as well get everything cooked and use a fridge or cooler. A small generator will run one or two refrigerators but not a freezer (solo).

            My son’s friends who stayed in the NYU dorms in Manhattan were having fun the first night. But when the 14th St. substation exploded, they quickly realized they were not going anywhere for a meal soon. By the next day, all their smartphones lost power and they could not recharge them easily without going uptown. Also, many cell towers lost power so it was very difficult to get through. No regrets evacuating both my sons from their schools.

            After the 2nd day without power, internet, phones, TV, etc. you begin to freak out and wonder WHEN life will go back to normal. I shouldn’t whine because I know I was the lucky one. Many folks lost their homes. IMO, Sandy was NY NJ CT’s Katrina. I am still exhausted after the Sandy and the subsequent Nor’easter.

            PS. I want to thank the linemen from Topeka, Kansas who restrung the high voltage power lines in our community. Our local guys were near worthless and nowhere to be found.

          3. You’ve got a great memory. My son lives right smack in the middle of Queens and did not lose power. His apartment became a sort of hostel for all of his friends from Staten Island and the other boroughs. He was required to show up for work the next day at a business without power – paid more for taxi fare than he makes on a good day – and was promptly sent to another location with power, requiring yet more taxi fare. I asked him how much he needed $-wise to get through this; he told me to donate it to whichever organization is helping out Staten Island, since they have it so much worse than he does.
            In Omaha, we went for 10 days without power after a freak October snowstorm and cold snap in 1996 that prevented lines from being re-strung. We know *all* about what you’re going through, but we didn’t get the media coverage. We need to start naming our storms, floods and droughts, I guess. I see from our local paper that Omaha line repair guys have been working 14 – 20 hour days, working their way up from The Battery uptown to restore electrical power. I’m just amazed at how the country as a whole has pulled together to help out. Maybe your local guys were on Long Island clearing a driveway? 😉
            I left LGA on 26 October, watching as the flight before mine had 23 people on stand-by and 36 on my flight. Delta even waived baggage check fees, trying to get everything and everyone to fit on the plane! That’s when I knew things (airline-wise) were going to get bad and stay that way for a while.

          4. A friend of ours (from LAX) was visiting her daughter who lives in downtown Manhattan (flood zone). So she and her daughter moved immediately to a midtown hotel. Problem was the hotels also lost power and those that did not were overbooked and overwhelmed due to locals needing rooms and the Marathoners. They moved between 4 hotels in 4 days. They had relatives in NJ but there was no way to get there or maybe the relatives were worse off.

            BTW, those taxis you are talking about run out of gas after day 2. So many of them drove to Greenwich, Stamford, and other Fairfield county towns of Connecticut with 50 gallon barrels and pumped our gas stations dry 🙂

            It is one thing to live in a less populated area. But if you put millions of unprepared Americans within less than 70-100 miles of each other, things can go crazy quick. With no subways, trains or buses moving and some roads, bridges and highways officially closed you are stuck. Thank goodness, I have a battery operated AM radio so at least I heard what was going on.

        2. Emanon, here was the last update by United. If her original flight was on 30OCT, she might have a chance …

          UPDATE: Exception Policy for Hurricane Sandy – October 28-31
          October 29, 2012

          Severe weather, due to Hurricane Sandy, continues to impact the eastern U.S. As a result, United has canceled many flights, including most operations to and from the New York area airports (EWR, JFK, LGA) and the Washington, D.C. area airports (DCA, IAD) through Tuesday, October 30. Operations are anticipated to gradually resume on Wednesday, October 31.

          Additionally, due to high winds and inclement weather as a result of the stozrm, United is expecting delays and/or cancelations at its Chicago O’Hare (ORD) and Cleveland (CLE) hubs. Flights to and from Cleveland (CLE) are being proactively cancelled beginning in the afternoon of October 29 through October 30 at approximately 2:00pm CDT.

          The current exception policy has been extended to allow for rebooked travel through Wednesday, November 7.

          Additional flights will be loaded into the schedule, weather permitting, that will provide added capacity for impacted customers.

          United is experiencing extremely high call volume due to the impact of Hurricane Sandy. We are working hard to respond to all inquiries, but customers without immediate travel needs may wish to call at a later date. We appreciate your patience. To better support agencies, the United Executive Accounts Desk will operate extended hours through 10:00pm CDT on Monday, October 29 and Tuesday, October 30.

          Customers with travel to, from, or through the cities listed below are permitted to change travel plans or refund travel without penalty through October 31, 2012, as follows:

          Impacted Cities

          Allentown, PA (ABE)
          Albany, NY (ALB)
          Altoona, PA (AOO)
          Boston, MA (BOS)
          Bradford, PA (BFD)
          Burlington, VT (BTV)
          Buffalo, NY (BUF)
          Baltimore, MD (BWI)
          Charleston, SC (CHS)
          Charleston, WV (CRW)
          Du Bois, PA (DUJ)
          Erie, PA (ERI)
          Franklin, PA (FKL)
          Greensboro, NC (GSO)
          Hartford, CT (BDL)
          Harrisburg, PA (MDT)
          Jamestown, NY (JHW)
          Johnstown, PA (JST)
          Manchester, NH (MHT)
          Newark, NJ (EWR)
          New York, NY (JFK)
          New York, NY (LGA)
          Norfolk, VA (ORF)
          Parkersburg, WV (PKB)
          Philadelphia, PA (PHL)
          Pittsburgh, PA (PIT)
          Providence, RI (PVD)
          Portland, ME (PWM)
          Raleigh/Durham, NC (RDU)
          Richmond, VA (RIC)
          Roanoke, VA (ROA)
          Rochester, NY (ROC)
          Syracuse, NY (SYR)
          Washington, DC (DCA)
          Washington, DC (IAD)
          White Plains, NY (HPN)
          Wilkes-Barre/ Scranton, PA (AVP)

          Original Travel Dates: October 28-31, 2012

          Reschedule Travel:
          Rebooked travel must commence on or before November 7, 2012 in any booking class within the same cabin, and the applicable change fee(s) and add collect(s) will be waived.

          Travel agents may make changes to tickets they have issued within the guidelines set forth by United by putting waiver code 7JCDI in the ticket designator box or OSI field. Refunds are permitted only if an impacted flight is cancelled or delayed at least two hours and should be requested through or through the issuing travel agency using the provided waiver code.

          Origin and destination cities must remain the same; however, customers may change connecting flights through other United hubs. Connecting flights may not be changed to non- stops.

  2. The lesson is to not cancel a restricted ticket like this until the last minute, just in case there’s a cancellation or schedule change that would give you the right to a full refund. Nothing unethical about that — you never know when the worst family crisis will be resolved, allowing you to make the planned trip.

    1. Excellent observation (@TexanPatriot2:disqus too).

      I would think airlines would want to give passengers at least some token incentive to give cancellation notice earlier — since that gives them more opportunity to re-sell the inventory — but they don’t.

    2. Very true – it doesn’t cost any more to wait until the last minute, and it might help. Also, the OP’s feeling of helplessness isn’t warranted. They could book with Southwest. There are choices, you know.

      Finally, whilst 75% seems pretty high, that’s because the tickets were so cheap in the first place. If my high school math serves me right, the original tickets were $150/.75 or $200.00. Look OP, you bought tickets to fly all the way across the country, from California to New York, for $200.00. Take a step back and think about it for a minute.

      Round trip California to New York for $200.00, and you want them refundable? Ummm…. NO. Some perspective here would be nice.

  3. Again, don’t be too quick to cancel your tickets… can cancel right up to flight time, particularly if your rights/refund does not change. It sure will AFTER the flight if you don’t show up.

    1. I agree. I never cancel my tickets until the day before the flight. I might cancel the tickets earlier if there was any incentive for me to do so. But since the airline is going to hit me with the same $150 fee regardless of whether I cancel 3 months or 3 hours before the flight, why cancel any earlier than I have to.

      If there was a lower change fee for cancelling a flight farther out, I would do that, but since the airline is unwilling to do that, why should I show them any consideration? In fact, when it’s one of those deals where a one way fare is less than the change fee, I don’t bother cancelling it at all.

      1. This strategy only works if you do not need to CHANGE your flight soon because the longer you wait, the less the probability you will get a cheap seat for the NEW flight. The change fee is the same($150) but the fare difference might become larger and larger the longer you wait.

        I think it is better to simply fly Southwest since they do not have a change fee. For international, the Asian carriers have a low $100-$150 change fee compared to the $250+ US carriers charge.

  4. United doesn’t charge the change fee until a new booking take place. In that case all they need to do is say the original flight was cancelled due to weather. There is a good chance united will not charge the fee. If they would waited until last minute they could have received a refund. Also, if they book through a travel agency there is a $50 travel agency change fee on top of $150. Both charged by the airline. To avoid paying extra $50 fee the change must be made through airline website or directly with the travel agency. However online change is not possible if the original reservation already cancelled. And I think since they call United to cancel reservation, airline took control of the ticket.

  5. I’d spend 10 minutes to draft an email and if the airline doesn’t respond, move on. If they do, you’ve taken 10 minutes to save someone $300 and probably gained a reader for life. (Have you ever thought of doing what lawyers do and taking a 25% commission for taking on hard-luck but not fully deserving cases?… I’m joking… sort of…)

  6. Despite buzz words like “I was too distraught” or “family crisis” or “97 year old aunt” designed to evoke sympathy, this case warrants mediation.

    Since Lee is planning to visit New York anyways, I do not feel that a refund of the $300 fee is justified. Rather, mediate to allow Lee to receive a travel voucher for the $300. By her own words, “it is important for us to make the trip to New York …” and it seems likely that future trips will be in order.

    I realize that timing is everything and rules are rules, but I do have sympathy to Lee in this case. Do I feel that Lee is entitled to a full refund of the $300? Heck no. Do I feel that Lee should receive a travel voucher as a gesture of good will? Yes, and hopefully someone in Customer Service at United will also see how this is a win-win situation.

    1. Chris, it would be very interesting to know exactly what that family emergency was. Why was she too disraught? The natural tendency of relatives is to rush to the aid of an ailing or very old aunt during one of the worst catastrophes that ever hit the area. In that case why cancel?

  7. I voted no.
    If the OP had such a family crisis that she was “too distraught” to question the cancellation fee, then tough tamales. Her pathetic attempts to elicit sympathy with “family crisis” and “97 yr old aunt in fragile health” do nothing for this letter but paint her as more of a whiner.
    Yes, I am a cold hearted bastard. I admit this.

    1. Seems to me she was also trying to use the hurricane as a excuse to get out of a flight on 6NOV; more than a week after the hurricane!

      My son flew out to Dallas (DFW) from HPN [instead of LGA his usual airport] on Thursday morning, 01NOV, after the storm with no problems at all.

      This complaint is bogus.

      1. Who is trying to use the hurricane as an excuse?!

        Quoting from the article:

        Fast forward to last weekend, when Lee logged back on to Orbitz, the site through which she’d booked her tickets. It informed her that her flight was canceled because of superstorm Sandy.

        1. Tell me which UA flight was cancelled for 6NOV due to Hurricane Sandy. It does not make sense, that’s more than a week after Sandy.

          1. Really good point! They were back to normal by then and as I posted above, it was after the waiver period ended. And why would orbitz say “Canceled due to super storm Sandy” I think there may have been some general message that some flights were begin canceled due to the storm. But her flight either sad canceled or scheduled. Orbitz doesn’t give reasons.

          2. Maybe Elliott got the dates wrong. Maybe she cancelled a 30OCT flight BEFORE the hurricane waivers were released and rescheduled for 6NOV. This is the scenario that makes sense.

          3. That sounds far more plausible. I bet that’s what happened.

            Haw are things in your area, you are further up near where I used to live, so hopefully not too bad? The rest of my family is in Long Island. My grandma and my cousins on the south shore all had severe damage to their houses, my Grandmas and one cousins house are begin re-built, but they condemned my other cousins condo building. They were hit very hard. Still no power and water for my grandmother, but she is staying at a friends. My Aunt on the north shore still has no power, but she has water, a generator, a lot of reserve fuel, and her cell phone started working again this weekend. It reallyw as a super storm.

          4. Pretty bad all over NJ NY CT areas that are near the sound, shore, and some rivers. Queens below JFK (and some of Brooklyn) plus Staten Isl. the worst in NYC. Parts of LI still has no power. The Jersey Shore we need to pray for. NJ terribly hit. Many nice homes on the CT beach front of LI Sound damaged beyond repair.

            To summarize, this was a massive STORM SURGE and VERY HIGH WIND event. We barely got rain, but the damage is everywhere. If the water didn’t ruin your house, the wind probably did.

            I live in a wooded area in North Stamford, just a few miles to the NY border (near Bedford). I’ve never seen these many huge and tall trees down. They were simply uprooted (no cracks) by the strong winds. So many have damaged roofs and almost everyone here lost power for MANY days.

            The Saturday before the storm, Costco and other warehouses already run out of water. Luckily I got gas for my generator and all the cars. I never thought we would run out of gas here (since the NY and NJ people came here to get gas). The gas lines reminded me of the 70’s.

            My house was spared, but 3 huge trees fell on my neighbor’s roof. The main electrical line fell right in front of my driveway and we were not able to leave our house for many days. Canned goods never tasted so good. Things are getting back to normal here but I am very exhausted since we got more than 8 inches of snow right after…

          5. You could still help her get her change admin fee ($150 pp) waived due to a family emergency. Forget the date confusion on the hurricane.

          6. The more I reread the story the more I think her original flight was for 30OCT and she cancelled well before the hurricane hit. That makes sense because no one knew yet that flights were going to be cancelled. I suppose she simply cancelled the flight without changing the flight dates yet because she was dealing with a crisis.
            Later, when the crisis subsided, she then went back and reschedule her flight to the 6th of November. That was the only time she found out her original flight was cancelled due to the hurricane. That is why she felt that she should not have to pay the change penalty fee for her original flight that got cancelled anyway due to the hurricane.

          7. I just looked up United’s waiver for the Nor’easter last 7NOV.

            They actually issued it for 6NOV-8NOV flights. So if her original flight was on 6NOV (as the story says), then she might be able to have the refund/change claimed on the Nor’easter waiver code instead of Hurricane Sandy. [I say “might” because I have never come across this kind of issue before.]

            Exception Policy for Northeast Winter Storm – November 6-8
            November 6, 2012

            Severe winter weather is expected to impact the northeastern United States on Wednesday, November 7 and Thursday, November 8. Customers with travel to, from, or through the cities below between November 6 and November 8, 2012 are permitted to voluntarily change travel plans or refund their ticket within the parameters provided below.

            In anticipation of the storm, United plans to suspend most service to and from the New York area between 12:00pm ET on Wednesday, November 7 and 12:00pm ET on Thursday, November 8. Weather conditions will likely cause additional delays and cancellations at other northeast airports.
            Weather permitting, United’s schedule will operate as follows:

            – New York/Newark (EWR): Between 12:00pm ET Wednesday, November 7 and 12:00pm ET on Thursday, November 8, United intends to operate long-haul international flights and flights to and from United hubs, but will suspend most remaining services.
            – New York/Kennedy (JFK) and New York/LaGuardia (LGA): United intends to operate most flights through 12:00pm ET on Wednesday, November 7, with all services then suspended through 12:00pm ET on Thursday, November 8.

            At this time United plans on operating a full schedule out of
            Washington/Dulles (IAD).

            Please note that these operational plans are subject to change as the weather event develops, so customers should visit to check the status of their flight prior to departing for the airport. MileagePlus® members are encouraged to enroll in flight status notification updates through the communication preferences on their MileagePlus profile.

            Impacted Cities:

            Allentown, PA (ABE)
            Hartford, CT (BDL)
            Manchester, NH (MHT)
            New York/Newark (EWR)
            New York/Kennedy (JFK)
            New York/LaGuardia (LGA)
            Philadelphia, PA (PHL)
            White Plains, NY (HPN)

            Travel Dates: November 6 – November 8

            Rescheduled Travel:
            Travel agents may make changes or voluntarily refund tickets they have issued within the guidelines set forth by United by putting waiver code 7JCQX in the ticket designator box or OSI field.

            For original scheduled travel occurring to, from, or through impacted cities between November 6, 2012 – November 8, 2012, applicable change fee(s) and add/collects(s) will be waived under the following conditions:

            When rescheduled travel originates between November 6 – November 15, 2012:
            Travel must be to the same cities previously ticketed
            Travel may be rescheduled in any booking class within the same cabin
            Min/max stay requirements must be met for wholly rescheduled travel

            When rescheduled travel originates after November 15, 2012 (through the validity dates of the ticket):
            Change fee will be waived but a change in fare my apply.
            New itinerary can be any origin or destination
            Any class of service
            New fare rules apply

            Travel agencies may process refunds on tickets they have issued to the original form of payment by including waiver code 7JCQX in an OSI field or the ticket designator box to authorize self-refund of the ticket. Policies also apply to consolidator, internet tickets, and Mileage Plus® award tickets.

          8. I wonder if her flight was canceled, I wish we had a way to know. But they probably woulds still not giver her the waiver if she canceled before the waiver was issued. My experience when calling to change a flight due to a waiver, when I don’t know the next flight, is that that have to note some sort of waiver code in the PNR so that when I call back to re-schedule, they will waive the change fee. I still think she would have been better off telling them its for an emergency, so they could note the PNR and then also not charge her the change fee later, but it depends on the emergency.

          9. If the carrier cancels, the reservation will show HX segments until the TA removes them.

            If the passenger cancels, the segments will be removed from the PNR immediately by the TA.

            The waivers only make “sense” when they are used or when a ticket is refunded or exchanged. Conceivably, a passenger may do nothing right after the airline cancelled his flights due to Sandy. That does not mean his ticket has become worthless… He might claim his refund much later.

            Suppose Orbitz tries to issue a refund or exchange using the waiver code given out by UA for Sandy or the Nor’easter. I wonder if the airline auditor will go back to see if the segments were cancelled (on the reservation) earlier than the date the waiver was released. The ticket coupon will still have the original flight numbers and dates on them so maybe they will only go with that.
            Note: I am not an expert in IAR reporting or accounting. Hope Bodega reads this and makes a comment.

          10. Too many possibilities without more information. If she was flying overnight, her leg into New York could have been affected by the 7NOV Nor’easter (and either she or Orbitz got the name of the storm wrong).

          11. Well the Nor’easter was NOT Hurricane Sandy, was it?
            Even if she was planning to take the latest flight out of SMF to NYC on UA, she would be in NYC before 7AM. The snow flakes started falling after noon on the 7th. I live here so I remember having to get ready for snow removal.

          12. The article said the National Weather Service (NWS) does NOT have a name. The Weather Channel just simply named them [unofficially]. In that case, how can Orbitz or the OP get confused between Hurricane Sandy and Nor’easter noname?

  8. Laura Lee made reservations to fly from Sacramento, Calif., to New York on United Airlines for Nov. 6. “Due to a family crisis, I had to cancel our flight on October 30. “Even if I hadn’t canceled, the flight still would not have been possible,” she says.

    Why Elliott should leave this alone.

    (1) Her dates do not merit free cancellation or changes. Hurricane Sandy hit us on the evening of Monday 29OCT. Many flights were already cancelled beginning the morning of the 29th. She cancelled AFTER the hurricane hit for a flight more than a week after the hurricane. While most of us did not get power back till the weekend, the area airports were only closed for about 2 days. Nov 6 was election day, and as far as I know, flights were already on a regular schedule before then.

    (2) If she really had a family crisis, she could have used UA’s Fare Rules. No need for more help.


  9. Certainly the airline would be in the right to deny a refund. However, I voted “yes” for mediate, with the emphasis on “mediate.”

    However, “No” would still be a correct answer, and I wouldn’t hold it against United for not providing the refund.

    Maybe the most appropriate resolution would be vouchers for the fee (or a good portion of it?)

  10. I voted no. United has its rules, and her sad story doesn’t change them. In the future to avoid getting raped by change fees she should fly Southwest. They do serve SMF and LGA. For anybody who doesn’t know (surely no readers of this blog) Southwest charges no change fees. You can cancel and retain the credit for a year, or change and pay only the current cost of the new flight. You can even “change” to the same flight if it has gone down in price and get credit for the difference.

    1. Agree, the lowest UA and WN fares between SMF – LGA are almost the same. Neither have direct flights so WN has the advantage with no change fees and 2 bags fly free.

  11. I’d say yes based on her hard luck story, not the fact that there was coincidentally a storm that would have cancelled her trip anyway. Sandy is irrelevant in this case. There’s always the chance that the company will be sympathetic to her plight, but I wouldn’t count on it. Like some of the other respondents, I wouldn’t hold it against United if they continued to deny her claim, but a polite request for reconsideration and some luck might at least get her a travel credit. I think if she asks for credit instead of cash she might have a better chance at getting something back. It’s worth a shot.

  12. I voted no on this, she always had a choice in the matter of how much she paid for the original tickets. Buy the lowest non-refundable fare, or buy a fare that allows you to make any needed changes. Arguing over the amount of the cancellation fee after the fact is pointless. With the internet, and the ease of comparing costs across airlines in and out of multiple airports there is no excuse anymore for not understanding what you are purchasing. If you cannot do that, then it is time for you to use a professional service that can explain all your options and why you might choose one over the other.

  13. Just out of curiosity, why is there a fee to cancel? I understand the fee to change the flight time, but to cancel? It’s her seat that she paid for, and the airline has been compensated whether she shows up or not. Actually, by not using her ticket, there is one less suitcase taking up overhead bin space, one less person using the beverage service, and one happy passenger who gets a bit more room thanks to an empty seat. If anything, it’s beneficial to the airline to have ticketed passengers not show up.

    Forthe record, I recently thought about canceling a Delta flight, and there was no associated charge. it was,however, $150 to reschedule.

    1. To discourage passengers from abusing the system. If there’s no fee to cancel, people would much more often book bargains when they see them, even if they are not 100% sure they will take the trip. They could cancel without a penalty until the day of the trip, right?
      There would always be legitimate reasons to cancel, but where would you draw the line and how much resources would you dedicate to investigating cancellations on a case-by-case basis?

      1. It would only be abusing the system if the airlines offered a refund. If she cancels with no refund, thus forfeiting the amount she paid for the ticket, it shouldn’t matter if she shows up or not. IDK, I guess I’ve just never heard of getting charged an additional amount, on top of the original fare, for missing the flight. The airline loses nothing in this deal…they get to keep her money and have one less passenger to care for.

        1. Good observation. People often get confused between the Reservation and the Ticket. They are 2 different things. Technically speaking, it is the Reservation that you cancel when you no longer want to fly on those flights. If you have paid earlier for those flights then you will have also have a Ticket for those flights. The tickets remain unused and retain value for a year after they are issued.

          Missing a flight really means not showing up in the airport for the flight you have a reservation (and ticket) for. Airlines call this NOSHOW. If you cancel your reservation prior to the flight, then you did not miss the flight. The airlines had more time to resell the space that you previously held. The penalty for a noshow is usually the full cost of the ticket. So if you noshow, your existing ticket has no more stored value. Hence, you will not be able to reuse it.

          So you are correct when you say there is no charge to cancel a reservation or a booking as others say.

          The Change penalty or admin fee only comes to play when you want to reuse the ticket. Also, any cancellation penalty fee comes to play when you want to refund the ticket.

    2. It’s really a change fee, not a cancellation fee. When she cancels the ticket she has up to 1 year from the original ticketing date to re-use the value, and pays the $150 fee at that time + any fare difference. Just like Delta.

      If she no-shows, she can’t re-use the ticket at all.

    3. Stephanie, when you buy a [restricted] airline ticket, you have 4 options:

      (1) use it as is

      (2) do not show up (NO SHOW). You lose the whole value of the ticket.

      (3) cancel before departure and reschedule for a later date or flight.

      (4) cancel before departure and refund the segments not flown.

      (Note: you may also cancel and reschedule or refund your return segment after you have already departed.)

      The unused portion of your ticket is usually good (holds value) for up to one year from the date of issue. But for RESTRICTED tickets, reissuing new tickets for a different date will entail an administrative [change] fee plus the difference in fare [if any].

      SK gave a great explanation why airlines have a change penalty.

      United’s cheapest one-way fare between SMF and NYC is $109. Their lowest priced UNRESTRICTED one-way fare is $457. A change penalty fee is one way an airline can differentiate a cheap RESTRICTED fare from a more expensive but less restricted fare.

      Please note that there is a distinction between trying to re-use the UNused portion of your ticket (CHANGE) versus trying to get your money back (REFUND) for unused portions of your ticket. Trying to REFUND a non-refundable ticket is very difficult.

      1. Thanks. I guess it sounded to me like she was canceling her reservation, thus forfeiting the amount she paid (#2). I’m just not clear on why the airline was keeping her ticket fare *plus* an additional $150 cancelation penalty. Of course, there is a distinct possibility that I read the article wrong given my current baby-induced sleep deprivation 🙂

          1. IMO, she was trying to reuse the ticket for a different date. She was charged the $150 administrative change fee plus the fare difference for the new flight. She is asking Christopher’s help to recoup or REFUND THE CHANGE FEE totaling $300 for 2 passengers because she believes she did not have to pay it since that original flight got cancelled by the airline due to Hurricane Sandy and they were willing to waive penalties for other passengers who were (still) on that flight.

        1. Although the article’s headline mentioned she wants a refund, the details makes me believe she really wanted to reschedule her important visit to her 97 year old aunt. She could not make her original departure date because of a family emergency.

          The first step to exchanging or refunding a ticket is ALWAYS to cancel the existing (underlying) RESERVATION. There is no charge to cancel a reservation (whether it is ticketed or not). When you cancel your ticketed reservation, you are simply removing yourself from the list of passengers on those flights.

          Your ticket coupons remain unused. The coupons still have the original flights and dates on them but you are no longer in the reservation system since you cancelled your flights. Any money you have left with the airline is stored in the ticket coupons. If they are unused and not expired, then they may still have value.

          You can do 2 important things with the ticket coupon’s residual value:
          1) exchange them for a new ticket
          2) get a refund to the original form of payment

          If you opt to get a new ticket reissued, you will likely pay a CHANGE PENALTY plus the difference in fares before you get the new ticket.

          If you opt for a refund, and if it is allowed, you might be charged a CANCELLATION penalty fee. Most non-refundable tickets have stipulations that refunds are given in a form of a travel certificate.

          If the airline cancels your flight or there is a substantial delay, the airline normally waives the change and cancellation penalties.

          It seems that when the OP cancelled her flights, it was before the airlines cancelled the same flights due to Hurricane Sandy. The OP is saying that since her flights got cancelled by the airline anyway, after she had already cancelled, then the change or refund cancellstion penalties should not apply to her.

  14. So she bought the deepest discounted tickets at USD$200 per person to fly transcontinental. Now she does not want to pay for the cancellation, even though the flight never flew that day? (Or even if the airline subsequently allowed changes with no fees because of the storm.)

    Absurd. Makes as much sense as finding out the person next to you paid 50% of your fare, so you deserve a refund of 50%. Huh? Read the rules of your ticket and follow them. The rules force the carrier to fly you from one point to another.

    Say the airline downsized the equipment on that flight and reduced seats by 1/3. Can it then just say, so sorry, and tell the passenger to wait a few days? Nope, compensation is due, just as fees were due when she cancelled.. Works both ways.

  15. I voted “No” also. I was on a cruise ship that had to stay out at sea for an extra day due to Hurricane Sandy. When I changed my flight from Saturday to Sunday to accommodate the delay, it cost me $117 per person extra fare (no change fee on Southwest). When that Sunday, Monday , and Tuesday flights back home were all canceled, it cost me hotel, rental car and food expenses. Have I asked my cruise line or airline to waive any fees or refund any of my extra costs? No.

    Why not? Because of two things. 1) It was not any of their fault that the Hurricane cause the change in cruise itinerary and forced my flight change. 2) I was smart enough to buy travel insurance, and have already filed a claim under the “Trip Delay” provisions, which should get most of my extra expenses repaid.

    The original poster could have had travel insurance, but apparently opted not to buy it. They canceled their flights according to the airline’s terms and therefore lose that fee. Whatever happened subsequent to that event is of no concern whatsoever.

  16. I’m on the fence with this one. Seems to me it’s pretty similar to asking the store to give you a refund because the item you just purchased went on sale a week later. That said, many stores now offer to refund the difference if the item you purchased does go on sale within a month. Does United need to offer her a refund? No. Given the circumstances would it be good customer service to do so? Yes.

    1. I think its more like she bought the item from the store, exchanged it later for another item and had to pay more, then the first item went on sale after she exchanged it and she wants the difference back.

      1. I think the fair deal here is No Refund, but give her a free change (no fee/penalty). She also needs to pay any fare difference.

  17. I imagine the OP’s flight was canceled due to the nasty nor’easter that followed Sandy by about a week. It caused some repeat power outages and many flight cancellations.

    Because of the gas situation in NJ, I changed my 11/4 return from Florida to head to Baltimore to stay with my daughter instead of going to Newark. I did this online the day before my scheduled flight. When I priced flying to BWI from EWR without changing my original flights, it cost me almost $500. When I priced changing my destination from Florida, it cost me $270, even though I was flying to EWR on my original flight and connecting to BWI. I was not charged a change fee, but only for the last minute price of the destination. It really does pay to wait until the last minute to change one’s plans.

    My retired husband, who will only fly in a time crunch, was driving home in our RV from our daughter’s in central OR. He had reached IA when I asked him to meet me in Baltimore. He changed course and now we are back home, the gas lines having eased considerably.

  18. The fee does plainly apply at the time of cancellation. Finding out later that the flight would have been cancelled anyway has no bearing on her calling and canceling before the hurricane occurred.

  19. I voted yes, just because it’s worth a shot. I wouldn’t press it overly hard, but.. While technically, the airline is in accordance with their contract.. There’s enough squirrelly here that throwing a shot at asking them to reconsider might be successful. I wouldn’t push very hard on it, but.. One of those things “Hey, take a look at this” and if they say nope.. Well, they say no.

  20. Christopher:

    I am VERY offended by your remarks. A dollar has the same value, whether to a person from Sacramento or someone on a “generous expense account.” Even if I were on an expense account, I wouldn’t hesitate to try asking the airline for a refund for a flight that was canceled which I had canceled. (I’d accept the “NO” answer, but it never hurts to ask.)

    Are you some sort of class-warfare “Occupy” person? If it weren’t for those folks with expense accounts, there would be no productivity in America, and nobody to pay your salary.

    1. I don’t think Chris has anything against expense accounts per se, but just the fact that when it isn’t your money, you’re less likely to pursue a refund, especially when you aren’t due one according to the terms of purchase. And also, spending x amount of time to help a single individual who could really use $300 has different value than spending the same amount of time to help a large corporation where $300 likely wouldn’t be missed.

  21. ceases to amaze me why airlines offer any refund at all. They should just offer a change of date/time fee with an expiry date, cheaper if done online.
    Don’t think there’s an airline anywhere that’s a good investment. They need to increase their profits drastically.

  22. Save your time and effort for a case where you might be able to make a difference. Maybe like my case and many others where travelocity sold a fare and now wants to back out because they say it was not the right fare 30 days after the fact.

  23. This is one of those rare cases where you’d hope the airline would bend their own rules just a little and not charge a cancellation fee. But then again, you’ve got to understand these airlines are large corporations and bending their rules for very specific cases like this is hard to do. Airlines aren’t exactly raking it in right now, so I can understand their position.

  24. I was affected too. I was supposed to fly West Palm-Newark-Dulles-Heathrow on the 1st. Everything was fine until I went online on October 31 to get my boarding pass to find that the system couldn’t complete the process. When I called United, the reservationist advised that my Newark-Dulles flight had been cancelled and that the airline could not get me to Heathrow for FOUR days. They were very helpful though, refunding the entire cost of the ticket. A day too late for me to find this out, though. Rebooking on Lufthansa, Miami-Frankfurt-Heathrow cost me twice as much the day before travel as it would have had I booked on October 31.

  25. Maybe I haven’t had enough coffee yet today, but I’m confused, and admittedly, not going to read though all 76 comments to try and sift through to get the facts.
    Chris, I wish you’d jump in with the facts.
    Yes, I understand the “gotcha” mentality of the first cancellation fee for the Oct 30th flight, which is, the OP, Lee, cancelled her flight before UA did, and hence ended up paying a cancellation fee.
    BTW, here’s a tip:
    The few times I’ve had to cancel a flight, I wait until the very last minute that the airline allows a cancellation (I think a couple of hours B4 the flight) in the hopes that if something goes wrong (weather, mechanics, etc) and the airline cancels it, I’ll get a full refund w/ no cancellation fee. This had worked in my favor twice in years of flying.

    However, where I’m confused is that Chris’ post says that UA cancelled the Nov 6th flight. So if UA cancelled her flight, doesn’t she get a 100% refund on the ticket?

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