No hope for an airline ticket refund – or is there?

american5Question: I’m trying to help my sister get a refund on her daughter’s non-refundable airline ticket. Her daughter went to Spain in January as an exchange student. Her return was scheduled for May 29th.

When my sister, her husband and son went to Spain to visit her, my brother-in-law was rushed to the hospital. He had been hospitalized for over a week until he was stable enough to fly back to Boston. They weren’t sure that he would survive, so my niece went home earlier than expected.

My sister could really use the refund to help pay medical bills.

I looked at American’s web page and it said there are exceptions to the non-refundable ticket. I thought this would apply to my sister’s flight. When I called American Airlines I was told that it would cost $250 to exchange the ticket, but the ticket was only worth $87. The ticket was virtually worthless.

An American representative asked if I wanted to cancel the ticket. I told her not to do it yet. Is there anything else I can do to help get the price of the ticket back? — Kathy Stickney, Las Vegas

Answer: I’m sorry to hear about your brother-in-law, and glad he made it. Like other airlines, American rarely makes exceptions to its nonrefundability rule. The only time it consistently does so, in my experience, is when a passenger dies.

Airlines say they offer “options” for travelers who want more flexibility, but they aren’t practical. Your niece would have had to pay at least double for her ticket if she wanted the option of a refund. She could have always paid extra for a “boarding and flexibility” package,” which would have allowed her to make a change for $75, but as a student, she probably didn’t have the budget to spring for that extra “perk.”

So, to recap: American, like other airlines, makes it too expensive to buy a refundable fare and no one really thinks they’ll have to make a change to their ticket, so its option was impractical. They’ll only refund your niece’s ticket if she dies. So what’s a girl to do?

I think this is one of those can’t win situations. You were left with only two choices: cancel the ticket and let American keep the money, or call me.

I’m glad you picked door number two. Your niece didn’t have a case, at least as far as American’s rules are concerned. Neither did I. All I could do is ask the airline to consider making an exception to its refund policy.

I did – and it did. The ticket has been refunded.

Are airline refund policies too inflexible?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • polexia_rogue

    i am reading 3 locations

    -Spain (where the niece was)

    -Boston (where the brother-in-law had to return to)

    and Las Vegas, where the OP is from (according to this article.)

    WHERE DOES A 87 DOLLARS TICKET COME FROM? that would MAYBE get you from Germany/(any close EU country) to Spain but not Spain to the USA

    i know that is irrelevant to the story but i cannot seem to ignore that piece of the puzzle.

    especially with the line “My sister could really use the refund to help pay medical bills.”– 87 dollars?!

    i do not feel she was entitled to a refund. this is clearly a discount ticket from some kind of 3rd party site.

    and yes i once had to cancel a trip once when my husband went in to a coma. — i took the credit, minus the change fee and did not complain.

  • EdB

    “Are airline refund policies too inflexible?”

    I wouldn’t say the refund policies are too inflexible, but cost prohibitive to the cause traveler. I’m sure if she had spent the money for a refundable ticket, she wouldn’t have had any problems getting the money back.

  • MeanMeosh

    Chris, a request for some clarification here, as I’m sure this is going to confuse a lot of people. I’m struggling badly with the fact pattern – whose ticket exactly wasn’t used which is generating the need for a segment to be refunded? The only thing I can get out of the OP’s story is that the niece came back from school early – but it would seem to me you’d be talking about waiving a change fee in that case, and not refunding a part of a ticket. The whole $87 deal also makes no sense if we’re talking about an unused segment from Spain to BOS. I’m guessing she means a residual value of $87 after the $250 change fee, which means we’re talking about a $337 refund in total (and boy, she got a heck of a deal on the ticket if that’s the case).

    Anyway, assuming someone’s return ticket did indeed get canceled, glad to hear AA did the right thing in the end.

  • Christine

    Years ago when airlines were more flexible with there refund and change policies I worked for a company who, when I would book tickets for travel they would have me purposely book (and pay for) extra flights just in case plans changed or to get a better flight. Then when the itinerary was complete it was my job to call the airlines and ask for a refund, which back in the day they would. I knew of a lot of businesses that had this same practice. So I can see why some airlines have such strict refund policy’s whether I think they are correct or not. I liked to look at a lot of refund or return situations like this, If I were to purchase a gallon of milk and not drink it, could I or should I be able to return it to the grocery store a month after it expired?

  • Grant

    “I’m trying to help my sister get a refund on her daughter’s non-refundable airline ticket.” Ahhhhh! I am SO tired of hearing… never mind; you know where I’m going. Oh, well, at least we got a nine of “I could really use the refund to pay medical bills” out of the deal. :-)

  • chickadee

    I am glad that the airline made an exception, but I have to say I don’t think they were obligated to do so. I wish there was less of a difference between the cost of a non-refundable ticket and a flexible ticket, but there isn’t, and as long as consumers take the chance with non-refundables they are at the mercy of the airlines’ goodwill when emergencies arise.

  • PsyGuy

    There are a lot of things in this story I don’t understand, from the international ticket segment that was under $300 to the why the mom isn’t arguing with the airline for her daughter or why the daughter just isn’t doing it.

    Do you ever wonder if the airlines, and other travel providers just have a “Make Elliot Happy” account that they just budget for each year?

  • Fly, Icarus, Fly

    Yes, I think that’s the case: $87 remaining on the value of the ticket after the change fee. My question is: Why didn’t they just pay the change fee and use that same ticket to come back earlier? If so, they’d only be asking for the $250 in change fee back instead of a full refund on the unused portion of the ticket…

  • Raven_Altosk

    Red flags for me on this one:
    1. OP is NOT the affected party. If you are going to require full names, how about require contact with the person affected, not a friend of a friend?

    2. Need money for excuse here. God, I hate these.

    3. Non-refundable is not non-refundable when American doesn’t want to look bad on the interwebbs.

    This one left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Yes, neither did I understand this because it’s third-hand writing. Get the story from from the flier, not from the flier’s sister’s cousin’s dog or whatever.

  • Christopher Elliott

    Sorry this isn’t clear from the OP’s original description. She’s saying the ticket cost 337, but once you apply the $250 change fee, it’s only worth $87.

  • Christopher Elliott

    If they do have such a fund, they definitely used it on this case. For which, by the way, I’m grateful.

  • Harry Baxter

    …or buy travel insurance. If you can’t afford to lose the money that you’ve invested in a trip, you should always do this. Of course the airline policies are too inflexible, but if the airline gives her a refund, would this be fair to the people who purchased $1000 airline tickets and also purchased travel insurance? As to the loss of $87, you can’t walk into the door of a hospital’s ER for less than $87. Does it matter if her bill is $87 or $10,087?

  • $16635417

    There are options for flexibility in this case. OP may have qualified for a student ticket rather than going to AA direct.

  • Kairho

    It’s not that policies are too inflexible … it’s that there are too many different kinds of tickets with different policies AND this is not adequately explained before selection/purchase on many airline and OTA sites.

    Although some sites (often non-US airlines) show prices in nice columns labelled with the type of ticket and restrictions, many don’t and these latter simply show the lowest price. Trying to find the, say, lowest refundable ticket is often a pain. Cannot blame all this on airline greed, however, as they are caught between too many flight options, too many pricing options, and the balance between showing low competitive prices and higher revenue prices.

  • kmwcary

    I, too, am tired of these “I want a refund on my non-refundable ticket” cases. If the niece had an expensive theater ticket she couldn’t use because she left early, would she expect a refund for that? And this sounds like it was an extremely cheap ticket in the first place. I don’t buy travel insurance, and if I have to change my plans I expect to “eat” anything non-refundable. When I broke my wrist in Switzerland and had to come home early, my medevac insurance got me home, and I just wrote off a couple of airline tickets. (I did get the tax back.)

  • KarlaKatz

    As you often remind us: Insurance, insurance, insurance… especially for international travel.

  • KarlaKatz

    To Mikegun: I just posted a comment, and YOUR ID popped up where “karlakatz” should have… I logged out for you, and re-logged in with mine own ID.. How weird is that?

  • Thomas Ralph

    This annoys me because people are getting more than they’re entitled to by making a fuss on the Internet. Flexible tickets were available. Travel insurance could have been purchased. Sigh.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Yup. Just waiting to hear that the niece was “special needs” and we’d have the trifecta of pity party

  • SoBeSparky

    Say what you mean and mean what you say. What part of nonrefundable does a ticket purchaser not understand? Paying the cheapest fare carries risk. Eliminate the risk, and the airline will derive revenue elsewhere, such as raising all fares overall.

  • MarkKelling

    I wonder why the one with the nonrefundable ticket didn’t just change flights using that original ticket? Was the fare difference + the change fee too much? If so, what airline would provide a last minute ticket at a low price? Seems any last minute ticket would cost more than a change of the original ticket, but then we are talking AA. A last minute discount ticket purchased on the web might have been cheeper than what AA would have charged to change the original return flight.

    Still, the original ticket is NON refundable. You play the game, you take your chances. Probably should have bought travel insurance. Guess I’m glad AA bent the rules. Hope they will do it for me if I ever need them to.

  • Cam

    You buy a non-refundable ticket, but then you want a refund?

    Seems clear cut no to me.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    I had alot of time to think about this kind of situation when it took 13 hours to fly 2 hours from Bologna to London last Monday, we all did alot of chatting about flying today and how helpless a passenger feels when there’s a problem … it almost always costs you money to fix it. The cost difference between open and non-refundable tix is ridiculous; the change fees are flat-out gouging, If you can change your tix online up until 2 weeks before the flight, there’s no cost to the airline and it should be free. An airline could be more flexible on “nonref” tix but it would require adding staff and increasing the prices of all tix. Lately I’ve been buying trip insurance on non-ref tix, it’s a cheap price to pay for some flexibility.

  • Londoner1936

    We assume that the sister and her husband had travel and medical insurance and so were able to get treatment and to travel back to the US using that insurance protection. Is that the case? The daughter, even though she may want to be back in the US if her father is seriously ill, is not the injured party here … and no airline would normally refund that ticket or waive the fee to change. For the spouses of seriously ill persons, yes, but for other family members most unlikely.

    Therefore, good for her, that Chris Elliott was able to get American to give a refund but frankly this was unanticipated incident and the non-refundable rules should apply, and the daughter should have paid the change fee and flown back to be close to her father at the time her parents returned. Where are the limits, otherwise, to getting refunds for the non-refundable tickets?

  • TonyA_says

    Hold on something is not right here (at least I think so).

    …so my niece went home earlier than expected.

    What ticket was that on?

    Sound’s like the exchange student BOUGHT a new one way ticket to get home (early) with the rest of the family.

    So her original return ticket (for 29MAY) was unused. And, that is what they are trying to refund.

    The normal SOP is to exchange the existing ticket and reissue a new one; and not to buy a new one-way ticket back home. Does not look like that was done. Why not?

    Also I wish to add. If you can afford to send your daughter to Spain for a couple of months as an exchange student, and then have the rest of the family pay her as visit, they maybe you can afford to buy more medical and travel insurance. But of course, there is always that sister-in-law in Vegas who knows how to play the advocate lottery :)

  • TonyA_says

    I did not read this and posted the same question :)

  • Bill___A

    I’m glad he recovered and I’m glad Chris was able to get the money back. However, I am suspicious of the choices made here. Having just been through a similar ticket change situation a few days ago, I changed the tickets and did not purchase new ones. I had to pay the change fee. I can understand how it is expensive, but I know about the change fees every time I buy a ticket. it is like buying anything – there are risks. When you go away from home, there is the risk you will have to return early. Although I sympathize with the situation, the fact of the matter is that in any given day, there are a huge number of people facing things like this every day. The airlines offer to change tickets for a fee. If they thought everyone would rather pay a few dollars extra on all of the tickets to accommodate no change fee, perhaps they would do that. However, I’m much more inclined to have a change fee for those that need it.

  • Bill___A

    Not always the case. On Tuesday I changed a ticket from May 26 to Wednesday and it was no difference in fare. Just the change fee.

  • TonyA_says

    To expand on your theory further, a reissue would have meant repricing the whole ticket again with the origin being the USA. That will probably cost a fortune. So maybe they were able to find a ONEWAY ticket (or a throwaway ticket) on another airline originating from Spain. While US carriers have cheaper fares starting from Europe compared to those starting from the USA, the oneway fares are still pretty high up there.

    I have a feeling this family knew what they were doing so it’s the sister in law who is doing the talking.

  • flutiefan

    love your grocery store analogy!

  • y_p_w

    I voted no.

    I have a relative who was a travel agent at one time, and I remember when discounted airfare was difficult to come by unless one knew tricks. Today almost anyone can get cheap fares without any direct help from a human. You’re getting those fares, but they come with costs, penalties, etc. Heck – I’ve recently tried taking bargain bus travel via Megabus. No refunds, no changes, and if you can’t find your reservation number you’re out of luck. That’s what you get in exchange for bargain prices. If you want flexibility, it’s going to cost you more. That’s the deal.

    I’ve priced fully refundable fares. It was actually about 4 to 5 times more for a fully refundable coach ticket for exactly the same flight. I’ve also flown cross country on business on someone else’s dime, and it’s not cheap.

    I have no problem with exceptions being made, but it’s not something to be expected.

  • Ploughmud

    Things used to be much better. I remember when my parents died two weeks apart. I had just returned for the third time from seeing my father who was critical when he died as I got off the plane in my home town. I went to the agent and told them my problem and they put me on a return flight to my fathers home town at a much reduced price. Then my mother passed just after returning home and again the airline came through. That was Piedmont before it became US Air. Oh and they doubled my miles when they merged.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    I have to say, I’m a little disappointed at what seems to be some heartlessness here.

    Yes, the OP’s sister had a non-refundable ticket to return from Spain. Yes, her husband fell ill (or was hurt, or some other emergency) but from the sounds of things, he’s young enough it was unexpected.

    From what I’m reading, he had to be medevaced to Boston once he was stabilized and was hanging on by a thread. In reading all of this, I don’t see anything other than a genuine concern both for her brother-in-law, her sister and the family. In addition, not everyone has the best health insurance and this is going to cost the family dearly, to say the least.

    It’s easy to play the armchair quarterback, it’s easy to say what “should” have been done, but the truth of the matter is, until it’s you in the situation, you don’t know what you’ll do because at a time like that, common sense kind of flies out the window and you grasp onto any good idea, even if it’s not the best idea.

    I’m glad the OP’s family got their money back, even if it was bending the rules. If it’d been me at American, I’d have done it from the beginning rather than make them jump through so many hoops. I believe airlines are too inflexible at times such as these. If they can provide something official to show it’s not a hoax, all should be well.

  • TonyA_says

    Were the rest of the family on AA tkts?
    Maybe not and she wanted to be on that same flight with them back to BOS?

  • Bill___A

    I always thought these advocate sites were to straighten out things when someone wasn’t being fair. Not to bend the rules.

  • TonyA_says

    It is equally just as easy for us to tell the airline to refund a non-refundable ticket for every sad story. After all, it ain’t our money we’re giving away.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    That’s not what Exploration is saying. She’s merely stating that she is happy that in this case, the airline showed some compassion and grace and choose to bend the rules.
    But as a point, what better time to bend the rules than when someone has a legitimate sad situation.

  • TonyA_says

    I wonder, did they also try to get a refund from the school and dorm she was attending or staying at since she did not stay till the end of the term? If not then why is the airline the only bad guy?

  • TonyA_says

    Yup. The same folks who find it very difficult to fathom the loss of an unused return ticket, won’t hesitate to buy a throwaway ticket or a mistake fare to screw the airline or the agency that sold it. This advocacy thing is pretty difficult because you never know the true colors of the people who ask for help to get money back.

  • flutiefan

    “too inflexible”?
    no…. refundable is refundable and nonrefundable is nonrefundable.

    the end. (except when Chris gets involved)

  • backprop

    It’s up to us – we’re paying for all these “heartfelt” refunds :)

  • backprop

    And on a fixed income. With a scary dark man waiting on the jet bridge!

  • doctork

    If she gets a refund, so should I. I have been in a similar situation a few times. Going just to bat for her seems unkind to the rest of us. This is a situation that occurs. Airlines have to face it. Other firms do too. OR, Let the airlines revise its policies if proof can be provided. I had booked one flight, on medical advice to see my ailing mother. A few hours later, the opinion was reversed. The very next morning things changed again. If providers keep on having to balance exceptions where is the line?
    If too strict, make exceptions.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    no airline refund policies are too flexible now.
    Airfares are cheaper on ailrines that don’t offer ANY refunds.
    What part of nonrefundable don’t you understand ?

  • pauletteb

    Definitely worth an exception.

  • wiseword

    Eighty-seven dollars? Is she kidding? To help with medical expenses? She could collect that by standing on a corner with her hand outstretched. Really!

  • Daddydo

    I realize that you are an advocate! I may one day come to you. This one was wrong! American should not have listened to you and not others.

  • TvlCCS

    Something vital is missing from this. This makes absolutely no sense. Did she buy a one-way to come home? What was this ticket for? Has this letter been heavily edited because the information provided does not seem in regards to a ticket from Europe with the exception of the change fee. If I were asked to solve this problem I would still be scratching my head wondering what this non-refundable ticket was for and how she got home without purchasing an even more expensive one way ticket.

  • Will

    If you buy your ticket from Orbitz or one of these internet travel agents is EVEN WORST.
    Im willing to pay the money to change the ticket but they refuse to grant me the price they advertise in their website and want to charge me double for a new ticket,. i NEVER AGAIN WILL BUY FROM ORBITZ OR AN INTERNET TRAVEL AGENT. If I had buy directly from the airline I wouldn’t have this problem.

  • bodega3

    OTA’s show you a price, but it is cached and not live inventory. But also note that the airline’s websites don’t show you live inventory either. The only place you get that is through a travel agent who uses a GDS.

  • Will

    THANKS for the advice. But what is GDS?

  • bodega3

    It is the airline computer system that travel agent’s use for booking airline tickets. It stands for Global Distribution System. It is government regulated and is the only system that has live inventory.