Question: I’ve been trying to get a refund for two unused international airline tickets from United Airlines for the last nine months, without success. I could use a hand.

My wife and I wanted to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary with a trip to Russia and Finland last year. I booked the airline tickets directly through United Airlines and paid $5,964. When I made the reservations, I asked about United’s cancellation policy and was told that if I decided to change my plans, I had a year to make a new reservation after paying a change fee.

Several months after I booked the reservations, we sold our house and moved to Tucson, so we postponed our trip to Europe. We made new reservations, but as it turns out, we couldn’t make that trip, either. My wife had to be hospitalized shortly after we rebooked the tickets, and she died a few days later.

I’ve asked United for a refund and have provided documentation of my wife’s death. United has sent me two flight certificates for the domestic portion of the trip, but has denied my request for a refund. I believe I’ve complied with all of United’s rules. Anything you can do would be greatly appreciated.

– Robert Maddocks, Tucson, Ariz.

Answer: I’m sorry to hear about your wife’s passing. When something tragic happens to one of its customers, you expect an airline to act in a compassionate way. But nine months of stonewalling and a series of refusals is not compassionate. It’s callous.

While it’s true that most airline tickets are nonrefundable, airlines generally make exceptions in the event of the death of a passenger. I can’t believe United sent you flight certificates. That suggests someone in the refunds department didn’t bother to read your letter all the way through.
The airline should have refunded your money quickly, but you might have avoided this nine-month odyssey if you’d taken some ordinary precautions. If you thought to ask about United’s cancellation policy when you made your reservation, you were probably entertaining the possibility of postponing the trip. Then why not buy travel insurance? Some policies allow you to cancel your trip for any reason and get a full refund.

You might also have considered booking your trip through a travel agent. Self-booking is fine for simple itineraries, but a 50th-anniversary trip to Europe is unlikely to be a simple itinerary. A competent travel adviser might have found an air-inclusive package that could have saved you money. Plus, the agent would have helped you change the reservations after your move and would have advocated for your refund during what must have been a difficult time for you.

It seems you got the runaround from lower-level employees at United, but they were probably just following protocol. In a situation like this, it pays to speak to a supervisor. I list the names, numbers and e-mail addresses of several high-level customer service executives at United and other major carriers on my Web site. I also offer important tips there on how to get what you deserve during a dispute.

As I reviewed your correspondence with United, I noticed something else: Your correspondence tended to be lengthy. Airlines are most responsive to short, polite letters; in fact, some customer service agents decide on a response after reading just the first few sentences of a complaint letter. Get your point across quickly and you may get the results you want sooner.

I contacted United on your behalf and the airline refunded both of your airline tickets.