How to get a refund on a nonrefundable airline ticket

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By Christopher Elliott

Yes, you can get a refund on a nonrefundable airline ticket.

Your airline may claim you can’t and your travel agent may tell you it’s impossible. Your ticket fare rules may instruct you to abandon all hope.

Don’t listen to them.

There are numerous special circumstances and exceptions that can override even the airline industry’s strict “no-refund” rule. They even apply to the most restrictive “basic” economy class tickets.

Spring break cancellations loom

The cancel-fest we saw last summer and during the 2022 winter holidays could continue through spring break, say experts.

It’s the same story as before. Record demand (lots of people taking their first spring break in years) and limited capacity. To many travelers, it seems unfair that an airline can cancel a flight with zero obligation to the customer (except a full refund) while passengers are bound to the fare rules.

So while the following circumstances may merit a refund, there are others. Madnick recently booked and paid for four tickets for his family to fly from Washington to London, but American failed to complete the reservation. If you think you deserve a refund for your nonrefundable ticket, and your airline won’t give you one, please contact my advocacy team. We’ll do our best to help you.

Remember, there’s no such thing as a nonrefundable airline ticket.

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Here’s when you can get a refund for your nonrefundable ticket:

If you cancel within 24 hours of booking

If you’ve booked a ticket in the United States, the Department of Transportation (DOT) requires U.S. and foreign air carriers to hold a reservation at the quoted fare for 24 hours without payment or allow the traveler to cancel the reservation within 24 hours without penalty. This policy is known as the 24-hour reservation requirement. There are some restrictions, most notably that the rule does not apply to reservations made within seven days of travel. Here’s how airlines are supposed to implement the 24-hour reservation requirement.

If an airline cancels your flight

If an airline cancels your flight, it will try to rebook you on the next available flight. You don’t have to accept that flight. If you’d prefer not to travel on the new itinerary, you are entitled to a refund for the unused transportation. This is true even for a nonrefundable ticket. You are also entitled to a refund for any bag fee that you paid, and any extras you may have purchased, such as a seat assignment, according to the DOT.

If there’s a significant schedule change

If your airline changes its schedule, you may be entitled to a full refund even if you’re holding a nonrefundable ticket. How much of a schedule change depends on the airline. American Airlines has a 61-minute rule. United Airlines will offer a refund under certain conditions when there’s a schedule change (see its contract of carriage).  Check out the fine print, but know that schedule changes can offer a refund opportunity even if you’re outside the 24-hour window.

If the contract of carriage allows it

The contract of carriage — sometimes also called the conditions of carriage — is the legal agreement between you and the airline. Often these terms detail other provisions for refunding a nonrefundable ticket. For example, if you have a ticket on Delta Air Lines, you’ll need to read Rule 240 of its Delta’s conditions of carriage, which provides:

B. Delta’s Liability in the Event of Schedule Changes, Delays and Flight Cancellations

In the event of flight cancellation, diversion, delays of greater than 90 minutes, or delays that will cause a passenger to miss connections, Delta will (at passenger’s request) cancel the remaining ticket and refund the unused portion of the ticket and unused ancillary fees in the original form of payment in accordance with Rule 260 of these conditions of carriage.

Contracts vary, so be sure to read yours carefully. It may contain a clause that lets you off the hook — and gives you a full refund.

If your bank or credit card says so

If you feel the airline hasn’t offered you the product it promised, you might be able to dispute the charge on your credit card (commonly called a credit card chargeback). Here’s more information how to file a credit card chargeback the right way.

Your rights to dispute a credit card charge are spelled out in the Fair Credit Billing Act. The law covers the quality of goods and services made with a credit card.

Credit card chargebacks are a strategy of last resort, but they can be quite effective. That’s because merchants typically don’t contest smaller purchases (less than $100) because fighting the chargeback would not be cost-effective for them.

Contact your bank or credit card company for details on filing a chargeback.

If you die

Airlines offer refunds to your next of kin if you die. This is a long-standing industry courtesy. There’s no rule or regulation that says an airline must refund a dead passenger’s fare. If, however, the promise is contained in the contract of carriage, then the airline must honor it.

Obviously, this method of getting a refund on a nonrefundable airline ticket is something you can take advantage of only once.

If your travel companion dies

Some airlines will refund tickets — even nonrefundable ones — as a goodwill gesture when your travel companion dies or if the person you were traveling to visit dies. Most airlines have internal (nonpublished) policies governing these refunds. If you need to request this type of refund, you will also need to provide written evidence of your companion’s death.

There is no guarantee an airline will refund a nonrefundable ticket even if you can prove someone died.  

If your military orders change or you have jury duty

Airlines are known to refund nonrefundable tickets if your military orders change. They have also refunded tickets for passengers with jury duty or other civic obligations. If you think you qualify for one of these exceptions, ask.

If you have extenuating personal circumstances

Sometimes, life happens. Passengers fall ill before their flight or declare personal bankruptcy. Airlines review these refund requests on a case-by-case basis. They weigh your loyalty to the airline, take into consideration your manners and always ask: “What would happen if this ended up in the news?” (Yes, they’re that image-conscious.) If you have a compelling story to tell, contact your airline. Then share your dilemma with them succinctly and with a minimum of drama. You never know.

Even if the answer is “no” you may be entitled to a refund of some of the taxes included in the price of your ticket. For example, American Airlines will refund taxes not imposed by the airline that are specific to destinations “upon request.”

What is the Department of Transportation Customer Service Dashboard and how can it help?

In late 2022, the Department of Transportation created a customer service dashboard to display airline policies during a delay or cancellation.

(The Department of Transportation’s Customer Service Dashboard in November 2022.)

The dashboard is supposed to ensure you have access to information about services that U.S. airlines provide to mitigate passenger inconveniences when there’s a delay or cancellation within the airline’s control.

A green check mark on the dashboard means an airline has committed to providing that service or amenity to its customers. A red “x” means the airline has not made that commitment. (But airlines with a red “x” may offer these services and amenities in some instances in their discretion.)

The dashboard is far from perfect, and it offers a frustrating window into the various airline policies regarding compensation during a delay or cancellation. But as the DOT notes, these commitments do not affect your entitlement to a refund.

Remember, if an airline cancels a passenger’s flight or makes a significant change in the flight — regardless of the reason — airlines must provide a prompt refund to a ticketed passenger. That includes passengers with non-refundable tickets.

In short: There’s no such thing as a nonrefundable ticket. You can get a refund on a nonrefundable airline ticket under the right circumstances. If your airline or agent tells you otherwise, don’t accept that as the final answer. Just remember the exceptions and send a brief, polite email to one of our exclusive customer service contacts.

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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 Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Los Angeles.

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