There’s a hurricane coming, but Spirit Airlines has a hand out

With Hurricane Matthew bearing down on South Carolina, Brenda Williams has to cancel her vacation. Why won’t Spirit Airlines offer her a full refund?

Question: I need your help getting a full refund from Spirit Airlines. I was recently scheduled to fly from Chicago to Myrtle Beach, S.C., I had made the reservation through Hotwire Vacations.

On the day I was supposed to fly to South Carolina, Hurricane Matthew struck the area. The governor declared a state of emergency. The hotel I was supposed to stay at was closed, and a manager advised me to request a refund from Hotwire Vacations.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance. The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

I received a refund for the hotel. But when I asked about getting my airfare back, a Hotwire Vacations representative told me to contact Spirit directly. Spirit told me that if I canceled over the phone, it would cost me $200, so I should go online to cancel, where I would pay $180.

I called Hotwire Vacations and told them I would do neither, since I was not voluntarily canceling. They said I could reschedule my flights and use my flight credit, but that isn’t possible. I’m a nurse and I can’t rearrange my life to travel next week.

I emailed Spirit, asking for a full refund, and I waited for reply. I received an email that said, “Sorry, but the inbox you sent your concerns to is not monitored.” I want all of my $800 back. I’m so frustrated. — Brenda Williams, Riverdale, Ill.

Answer: When I saw the words “Spirit Airlines” and “full refund” in the same sentence, I almost choked on my fifth cup of espresso.

But there’s something about this case that your letter doesn’t reveal: Half of our advocacy team on the East Coast was in the dark, ourselves victims of the hurricane, and we knew this wasn’t a laughing matter — or a frivolous request.

Airlines must offer a full and immediate refund if they cancel a flight. But Spirit hadn’t canceled your flight — yet.

For uncanceled flights, Spirit offered to waive its modification charge or fare differences through Oct. 14. What it didn’t make clear through its site — but should have — was that refunds must be issued when flights are canceled. Not credits. Full refunds.

Spirit’s policy was clear, but you had booked the package through Hotwire Vacations. Hotwire could have advocated for a refund. A large tour operator can exert pressure on an airline (yes, even Spirit) to offer a one-time refund, particularly at a time like this.

Our advocates recommended that you put your grievance in writing. You did, but it didn’t really help. We shared executive contacts at Spirit. Ditto.

I think Spirit’s fees are ridiculous. But that’s a topic for another story.

In the end, our advocates used the last of their cell phone battery to call Spirit on your behalf. The airline agreed to issue a full refund. The email you received makes it look as if it was a goodwill gesture. Spirit Airlines’ site shows your flight was canceled.

Why did Spirit refund Brenda Williams' flight?

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14 thoughts on “There’s a hurricane coming, but Spirit Airlines has a hand out

  1. I have had two times I wanted a refund from Spirit and both times a nice email was sent with the facts and both times a refund was approved.

    1. Good for you.

      However, we’ve seen several other cases where customers were seemingly eligible for refunds from Spirit and needed the intervention of the advocacy team.

      We’ve seen a couple of cases in the forums where Spirit customers complained that their one-way refunds were much smaller than expected. And they make it very difficult or impossible to verify the correct amount eligible for refund. If one books a Spirit itinerary on a third party site, one does not necessarily ever see the fare breakdown by segment. And if one books directly with Spirit, they apparently do not show the fare breakdown in their confirmations or anywhere else after booking is completed (though they do display it at the time flights are searched and selected).

  2. this is why you WAIT – when you preempt an event it is a voluntary change – ALWAYS wait till they cancel, and then you get a refund (I play the waiting game for clients myself)

    1. It’s not voluntary when you book a PACKAGE and the destination — including the airport by the coast — is already under evacuation order and the prepaid non-refundable hotel is already completely closed.

      Hotwire Vacations needs to refund the whole package in such a circumstance.

      And the airline ought to allow refunds or free changes to all their passengers in such a circumstance, even if they could technically hide behind their contract and entertain fantasies of continuing to operate flights into an evacuation area during a storm.

  3. Why oh why do people use third party booking sites? If Hotwire hadn’t been involved, this would have been so much simpler.

    A real travel agent would have told you to wait until the flight was canceled. But since it was canceled anyway, there is no reason that the writer had to go through this rigamarole to receive a refund. Hope this consumer uses a better airline next time they travel.

    1. Because a package (air + hotel or air + hotel + car) can in many cases be booked on third party sites at a (generally modest) savings compared to booking the components individually.

      The savings may or may not be worth involving a third party in general. But in this case, the difficulty was dealing with Spirit, not Hotwire, so I don’t think that made any difference.

      And the existence of the package gives the customer a stronger case — if the components were purchased as a package, then the third party has some responsibility to ensure the package sold is usable. If the components were purchased individually, then each vendor has no responsibility if the itinerary becomes untenable because of another vendor’s inability to perform.

        1. True, but travel agents will typically charge a booking fee which more than offsets any package savings for an ordinary domestic air+hotel itinerary.

  4. Spirit should be fined for not refunding immediately upon cancellation during the hurricane. I suggest the OP and anyone else they screwed contact the FAA and their Congressman.

    (Not that the later may be much help since our representatives in Washington get all kinds of favors from the airlines…)

  5. It amazes me what that airline will try and get away with, but what amazes me more is the people who get burned by Spirit and then fly them again.

    I’m shocked they refunded her money considering the circumstances, especially the third party booking.

  6. Spirit readily admits that ‘good will gesture’ is not in their vocabulary. And unfortunately thats part of what comes with the savings on Spirit. If they didnt cancel the flight theres no way the OP would have received a refund, but i’m glad they did the right thing.

    Sounds like the OP rushed for a refund and i’m guessing/hoping a simple call after the cancellation would have cleared everything up. Hopefully she can enjoy a vacation to MYR soon enough, i’m sure they could use the economic boost after all the damage.

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