My sister is in the ICU – can United Airlines keep my money?

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By Christopher Elliott

When Patricia McConkey’s sister ends up in the intensive care unit, she has to cancel her cruise. Royal Caribbean offers a full refund, but her airline pockets all of her money. Can it do that?

Question

My husband and I booked a Royal Caribbean cruise for last March. But before we left, my sister was taken to the intensive care unit and put on a ventilator. I have power of attorney, and the family was called in, and there was some decisions that I had to make.

On March 7th, I called both the cruise line and United Airlines and asked for a refund. The cruise line refunded our fare (thank you, Royal Caribbean) but I just received an email from United saying it would not do anything for me.

They told me my ticket was non-transferable and non-refundable. I thought they might do something for me, considering that this was a medical emergency. Is there anything else I can do? — Patricia McConkey, Northfield, Ohio

Answer

I’m so sorry to hear about your sister. You could have certainly done without the additional stress of canceling your vacation and then worrying about a refund. It’s a good opportunity for your cruise line and airline to show some compassion.

It was exceptionally generous — and, I should add, highly unusual — for Royal Caribbean to offer a full refund under these circumstances. Normally, if you’re outside the cancellation window and you don’t have any travel insurance, you’re outta luck. Nice work, Royal Caribbean.

I’m puzzled by United’s response. Normally, an airline would offer a ticket credit if you cancel a flight before leaving, which you did.

In reviewing your paperwork, it seems United was confused by the fact that you were asking for a full refund, and after it rejected the claim, it also tagged you as a “no show” for the flight. In effect, you lost your entire airfare because of it.

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United should have said, “No, but you can get a ticket credit” when you asked for a refund. It appears the airline sent you the wrong form response.

In a situation like this, you can appeal to the airline, but you have to know what to ask for. A ticket credit might have allowed you to use the money (minus a change fee and fare differential) on a re-do of your cruise if you have the time for it. Having dealt with United a few times, I know how it works now, and knowing the right questions to ask can make a significant difference. You can find the names of United’s customer-service managers on my site. Its email addresses are formatted as firstname.lastname@united.com. (Here’s our ultimate guide to resolving your consumer problem.)

My advocacy team and I contacted United on your behalf. It offered you a full refund.

Should United have refunded Patricia McConkey's fare?

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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.

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