Bethany Tully might have been forgiven for her confusion. After canceling an upcoming flight from San Francisco to Boston under unhappy circumstances, she discovered that her ticket credit on United Airlines was worth about half what she expected — an increasingly common complaint among air travelers.
Earlier this year, Tully, a chef based in San Francisco, had booked three tickets on Hotwire.com to visit a close friend. “Tragedy struck just before the trip,” she says. “He committed suicide.”
A Hotwire representative assured the grief-stricken customer that she didn’t need to worry. “I was told that I could cancel the tickets and Hotwire would issue a full credit to be used within 12 months,” says Tully. “But I have tried numerous times to use the credits — one being for his funeral service — with no luck.”
Tully found herself in a common situation, at least among infrequent air travelers. Ticket refund rules can be complicated and confusing. Mostly, though, passengers want to know what they can do to avoid a situation like Tully’s: stuck with a ticket credit that’s worth far less than they expected.
The preferred solution, as far as United is concerned, would be for a customer like Tully to purchase a fully refundable ticket. A nonrefundable round-trip flight booked seven days in advance on United cost $467. But a fully refundable ticket would have set her back $1,961, or a little more than four times as much as the restricted fare, which isn’t unusual. That makes buying a more flexible ticket an option for only the most affluent air travelers.
United allows passengers to use part of their ticket credit for a future flight, minus a $200 change fee and any fare differential. So how about a refund on compassionate grounds?
“Nonrefundable tickets are nonrefundable,” says United spokesman Charles Hobart.
Another way to protect your ticket purchase is with travel insurance. The typical policy, referred to as a “named peril” policy, covers a variety of events, including a cancellation, delay, emergency medical transportation, loss of baggage and identity theft. But only a few policies cover suicide, according to Linda Kundell, a spokeswoman for the US Travel Insurance Association, a trade group for travel insurance companies. Also, those policies may cover only a non-traveling family member who takes his own life, not a friend.
“It’s important to read the policy carefully,” Kundell warns.
Yet another insurance option is a so-called “cancel for any reason” policy, which can cost 10 percent or more of your trip’s prepaid, nonrefundable cost, or about twice the cost of a named-peril policy. But that refunds only somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of the cost of your trip.
Tully could also have taken her business elsewhere initially, to an airline with a less restrictive refund policy. Southwest Airlines, for example, offered a one-stop from San Francisco to Boston for $377. Had Tully canceled her flight, she could have received a full credit and avoided paying any change fees. JetBlue, which offers direct flights from San Francisco to Boston, had a nonrefundable fare of $472 and a change fee of $150. Tully says that she checked Southwest and JetBlue before she settled on United but that tickets were unavailable for her desired travel dates.