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How to Get a Refund After Canceling Your Flight

Pro hacks for navigating airline fare rules and guidelines to get your money back.

U.S. News & World Report

How to Get a Refund After Canceling Your Flight

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What are your options if things don't goes as planned?(Getty Images)

Forget weather-related delays and cancellations. These days, Zika, terrorism or feeling under the weather may have you wondering whether it's a smart idea to cancel or postpone your trip. While some unfortunate circumstances (think: severe weather) won't guarantee that you'll get reimbursed in the event you need to pivot your plans, there are plenty of situations where you're entitled to a refund or a rebooked trip. To help you navigate when – and how – to receive reimbursement for a canceled flight, U.S. News gathered insider tips from industry experts.

Know Your Rights

"There are things that people may not realize that airlines have to do, especially if a flight is canceled," explains Christopher Elliott, a consumer advocate and journalist. If an airline owes you a refund, the carrier must issue an immediate refund to your card company within seven business days of receiving a reimbursement request, he explains. In some cases, a carrier will offer you a voucher, but if you accept a voucher or get your flight rebooked rather than receiving a reimbursement, "all bets are off," he cautions. In fact, if an airline puts you on another flight on your scheduled departure day or the next day, or if your flight is stalled due to the weather, the airline owes you nothing, he adds. On the other hand, if you're delayed due to an operational issue within the airline's control, such as getting involuntarily bumped from your flight, your rights are outlined in the contract of carriage (the legal contract between you and the airline), Elliott explains. Also keep in mind that the U.S. Department of Transportation has a rule that allows you to tweak or cancel a reservation within 24 hours of booking a flight. The catch: If you bought the ticket less than a week before the flight, the 24-hour rule doesn't apply, Elliott explains.

In some scenarios, there are workarounds to change or cancel your flight without paying a hefty fee. "Typically, if your departure or arrival time has been changed by at least 30 minutes, you can request a change (to the flight or date) for free," explains Zach Honig, editor-in-chief of The Points Guy. "Additionally, during irregular operations (a snowstorm, for example), an airline may post a travel waiver that allows you to change your flight by a few days without a change fee or difference in fare," Honig adds. And should you need to change your plans for an alternative reason, there's no guarantee, but you should call the airline and request to have the fee waived as a courtesy, Honig advises.

Familiarize Yourself With the Airline's Fare Rules

Ticket restrictions aren't always clear-cut, and each airline imposes its own fare restrictions that determine when you can – and can't – waive a cancellation fee or get a refund. While some carriers, like American Airlines, offer travelers the opportunity to receive a refund for nonrefundable tickets in the event of a schedule change lasting longer than two hours, other airlines, like JetBlue, impose $135 cancellation fees for nonrefundable tickets priced at $150 or above. So, make sure to read the fine print before you purchase your tickets.

Aside from significant schedule changes, "airline representatives may choose to offer refunds on a case-by-case basis, even if they aren't required to," Honig adds. So, if you're ill or you're worried about traveling somewhere affected by Zika, it doesn't hurt to inquire about a refund, "although you may not have a strong argument if your destination already had reported cases of Zika at the time you booked," Honig says.

"Airlines will usually make an exception in the event of a death of traveler, traveling companion or family member," says Megan Singh, project management director for insurance comparison site Squaremouth.com. "When the Zika virus outbreak became a major concern, airlines and cruise lines offered refunds to travelers going to an affected destination, as long as the trip was booked prior to the news of the outbreak," she says. But fear of contracting the Zika virus is not covered by travel insurance, she cautions. "Travelers who are worried about traveling due to the Zika virus can only cancel if they have the 'cancel for any reason' upgrade, unless they contract the virus and are recommended not to travel by a doctor," she adds.

"Typically, if you book through a travel agency, any changes before the day of departure must be handled by the agency, including flight changes and refund requests," Honig says. "The travel agency's policy may differ from your airline's [policy] as well, so be sure to confirm the terms before you book," he adds.

Consider Travel Insurance

If you're concerned that you may need to call off your trip, consider investing in travel insurance. Standard trip cancellation insurance allows you to be reimbursed up to 100 percent of your pre-paid and nonrefundable travel expenses for reasons such as an illness, a mechanical disruption that leads to a 12- to 48-hour delay, a terrorist attack in or near a destination on your itinerary (if you purchased insurance before the attack occurs) or a mandatory evacuation due to severe weather, Singh explains.

Conversely, a "cancel for any reason" policy comes attached to a higher premium, Singh says. You must purchase a policy within 14 to 30 days of your initial trip booking date and insure 100 percent of your trip, and you must cancel your trip two to three days before your planned departure date to be eligible for the policy, she explains.

To stay prepared, "always have your credit card as back-up support," advises Tom Spagnola, senior vice president, supplier relations at CheapOair. You can often receive trip interruption and trip cancellation reimbursement through your credit card provider, he explains.

Assess Your Situation Before Taking Action

If you're set on canceling your trip, get in touch with the hotel, airline or travel company you booked with right away, Honig advises. Singh also advises contacting your airline, even if you've purchased a nonrefundable ticket. While many carriers do impose cancellation and change fees, they may waive the fee for medical reasons, she explains.

If you're concerned about flying in the aftermath of a recent terrorist attack, remember you will unlikely be covered by insurance, Singh cautions. "Policies that are purchased after a terrorist attack happens will not cover travelers who want to cancel a trip to the destination where the attack happened," she adds. Another example where you won't be able to get coverage from a travel insurance company is a storm that's already been forecast. "Once a storm is named, regardless if it is a hurricane or winter storm system, it is considered a foreseeable event in the eyes of travel insurance companies, and can no longer be covered," Singh says. No matter your situation, it pays to stay up to date on current fare restrictions to avoid being slapped with a steep cancellation or change fee.

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