a group of different currency bills and coins

First off, if an airline cancels your flight, you’re more than likely entitled to a refund, rather than a voucher. That’s true in the United States, Europe and likely other parts of the world too. The last place to find that information, of course, is on your airlines website.

While asking for bailouts and other considerations, airlines are going to great lengths to dupe, deceive or just frustrate passengers into accepting vouchers, rather than their actual money back. For better, and for much worse, airlines are starting to get creative with it.

Here’s the low down on airlines behaving badly, and a clear print out of what legal rules are in place..

a group of currency bills and coinsWhat are the actual rules for airline cancellations and refunds?

The United States Government and European Union each clearly state that if an airline cancels your flight, you’re entitled to a refund of any unused portion of the ticket. If you’ve yet to fly, this means you’re entitled to the entire cost of the ticket, even taxes and fees, and even if the ticket was non-refundable.

Here’s the US Department of Transportation Policy

What happens when my flight is cancelled? 

If your flight is cancelled, most airlines will rebook you for free on their next flight to your destination as long as the flight has available seats.

If your flight is cancelled and you choose to cancel your trip as a result, you are entitled to a refund for the unused transportation – even for non-refundable tickets.  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.

If the airline offers you a voucher for future travel instead of a refund, you should ask the airline about any restrictions that may apply, such as blackout and expiration dates, advanced booking requirements, and limits on number of seats.

And here’s the European Union Flight Refund Policy, even updated to the current situation…

3.2. Right to reimbursement or re-routing
In the case of a flight cancellation by the airlines (no matter what the cause is), Article 5
obliges the operating air carrier to offer the passengers the choice among:
a) reimbursement (refund);
b) re-routing at the earliest opportunity, or
c) re-routing at a later date at the passenger’s convenience.

It’s worth pointing out that since the global crisis began, leaders in both the EU and USA have reaffirmed the validity of these laws. In other words, airlines have been warned that even in these wild times, these laws still apply and must be adhered to. Still, some aren’t. 

Worse, many are playing cancellation games to confuse passengers.

a black board with white text and yellow dotsWhat should I do if an airline cancels and won’t refund, even though it’s the law?

If an airline plays hardball by cancelling your flight and refusing to refund you, you’re left with one powerful option – the charge back. This is one of millions of reasons to book travel with a credit card, rather than a debit card, since credit cards carry consumer protection rights.

If an airline outright refuses to follow the law, your last recourse is to call your credit card company, let them know the airline is breaking the law and initiate a charge back against the airline. This is the only pretty much guaranteed way to recover your funds in cash, not airline vouchers.

headphones on a chairCreative Bad Actors

United, British Airways and Jet Blue have been among the worst in the game, and have each gotten creative with how to dupe passengers into believing they’re not eligible for a refund. Other airlines, including Swiss, Virgin Atlantic, KLM and Lufthansa have been woeful with refund timing windows.

United offered a travel flexibility policy, which it changed days later and chose not to honor, and now aim to hold customer cash for a year. United also changed the very definition of a cancelled flight, to avoid paying out. That was textbook false advertising, and more than likely outright illegal.

British Airways then did its own best, actually going to the trouble to re-code a refund and voucher website to remove the button which allowed passengers to process their own refunds online. Only a workaround on Google Chrome would make the button appear.

With the shutdown of British Airways main call center in Delhi, India, the only realistic way to get a refund was now even more challenging. Having over four different types of vouchers, each with differing red tape doesn’t help either.

Lufthansa Group is specifically telling even travel agents that it plans to break the law, leaving Swiss, Lufthansa and other customers without a refund options. The airline is specifically stating that it doesn’t have a legal obligation, when it does.

Kenya Airways is also doing their best to be the worst, not honoring refunds on 100% refundable tickets.

And then there was Jet Blue, which is took a creative approach to their own contract of carriage and the US Department of Transportation rules on refunds in the event of a cancelled flight. They’re basically pretending they don’t exist.

a plane flying in the skyCreative Good Actors

Obviously, both situations call for a refund, but with airlines bleeding cash by the minute, many are doing their best to buck the law and encourage vouchers, even if it means breaking it.

Fortunately, there was a silver lining today, with the one airline taking a creative pass at encouraging passengers to accept vouchers, whether it works or not…

American Airlines joins in

American Airlines has offered a 20% bonus if you take a voucher, over cash refund. The policy changes regularly, but it’s an attractive incentive to support an airline.

Aer Lingus Incentive

Aer Lingus has offered a voucher valid for 5 years on any Aer Lingus flights, not just your current routing for the full amount of your flights, plus 10%. A $1000 flight could be exchanged for $1100 in flight credit, and so forth.

Qatar joins in…

Qatar Airways is also offering a voucher for the full amount of each ticket, with a matching 10% bonus if you don’t go for the refund. That, or you can move your flight to any other destination within 5,000 miles for free, so long as it’s in 2020.

Should you take a voucher, if you can?

For many, particularly those whose jobs are at risk, the $1000 in cash back in the pocket is more appealing, but for those with more security, or who wish to support the travel industry during a hard time, it’s at least the framework for a square deal.

GSTP understands that other airlines are mulling plans to offer similar bonus incentives to accept vouchers over cash refunds, and with any hope, future vouchers options may include better rewards, like increased bonus value, future upgrades, free bags or lounge access.

If you’ve got $1000’s in bookings on the table and know you’ll return to the skies when it’s safe, you could secure tremendous value, particularly knowing that airlines will be forced to offer competitive prices to get people traveling again. And above all, you’d be helping to buy precious time for airlines as they find ways to survive.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. I’m literally on hold (I think) with United. The hold time was short, but the agent told me that even though a 4th segment has been added into my itinerary and *my ticket has been canceled for “security purposes”*, they will not redeposit my miles without payment of a redeposit fee. Scum.

  2. what if the airlines bankrupt while you have a voucher with them? MY guess is that it is the very last to be paid in case of selling the assets once the airline goes bankrupt right? So if you worry about the money, it seems wiser to get a refund? Also, airlines says we’d still have to pay the fare difference, so what incentives do we have to keep our money as a voucher with them?

  3. I read somewhere about Turkish offering a refund in miles at .01/mile. If true, that’s smart business.

  4. Me and my wife had 9 hours to leave Melbourne australia before emirates closed all international flights. The only seats that were available was 2 seats in business class which we booked for £8853. Would we be in line for a percentage reclaim against this amount as the original flights that we had booked to come home on the 1st April were cancelled

  5. Yup, going through United’s policy now.

    We were booked to Dominican Republic, and were going to cancel, but waiting until closer to the flight. It got canceled last week, when Dominican basically closed their borders. Dealt with both a regular agent and supervisor – both refused to refund. The supervisor eventually agreed to refund the infant ticket (since she will turn 2 soon and will need a seat with any rebooking), but refused to do anything with the 3 other tickets except leave a credit. I’ve now written to CS, and officially requested a refund, noting they are ignoring their own COC and DOT regulations. I specifically added I’d be filing a DOT complaint if they are not going to honor the refund request. The thing is, I will almost certainly use the credit anyway – just don’t want cash tied up with them vs. me. That’s my cash I should have.

    Incidentally, UA keeps referring to what happened as a ‘schedule change’ instead of a ‘cancelation’. I’ve also disputed this. It is not a schedule change when there is no new flight time. You can’t put me on a new flight to a place that isn’t accepting international arrivals. That’s not a schedule change – that’s a cancelation. The US doesn’t have a ton of customer-friendly regulations around air travel. But they do require airlines to refund in the event of a cancelation.

  6. We have booked Manchester to Oslo Norwegian (requested refund), Oslo to Singapore Business Qatar and Singapore to Bali KLM business. Qatar and KLM have not contacted us to cancel the flights yet. We were due to fly 1 April. Should we contact them or wait for them to cancel? We would like refunds not vouchers.

    1. i was on same journey on same date and KLM only offering vouchers after many phone calls.
      good luck

  7. Iberia is clearly one of those airlines that do not care about the law (I wonder if they adhere to safety regulations?) and when my flight was canceled, they preferred to deceive me into requesting a voucher by putting a link in the email that led directly to a page declaring that a voucher would be issued – no intermediate page explaining options, no final confirmation request, nothing. It may be that Iberia, which wasn’t the healthiest airline to begin with, doesn’t expect to be around long enough to care whether it repels its remaining clients. It would be no big loss, as I have never had a great experience with this airline anyway.

  8. I have $6,000 of flights outstanding with BA and $2,400 with Turkish Airlines.

    No word on either yet. Cruise line much better. Silverseas offered 125% credit or 100% cash refund. Decided on the refund and it was retuned within 3 days.

    Well done Silverseas.

  9. TAP Air Portugal also refusing refunds and worse than that, they’re saying the voucher must be spent before 30th April, for travel before 31 Dec 2020. No regard for the law or their own T&Cs at all.

  10. Love your posts as always Gilbert. For the record Qatar were very good with me at offering change of flights including change of origin within 500 miles for a partially completed journey.

    Would love to know what you know about hotel refunds if the hotel is closed while prepaid booking was planned. As examples – I had a fully pre-paid non cancellable booking with the Langham in Hong Kong and although they weren’t closed they offered me a full refund when our plans changed due to Covid (despite being open – but pool closed for example) and were entirely lovely and pleasant to deal with! On the flip side planned stay at Disneyland hotel in Paris (with park tickets included in cost) – while park is closed – they’re saying online in according with EU regs they will offer a change of date (up to October) with no change fee or a voucher (only). No refund. They do provide a decent website to say yes I’ll take a voucher. But I want a refund as there are no free dates left in our schedule to change to. To be fair I haven’t managed to speak to them to dispute this – as the phone line they offer is chargeable – and wait times long. Marriott from the one booking I had were also very reasonable – and have an easy cancel via ap (they did at the time).

  11. easyjet cancelled my outgoing flight and have agreed to refund. however, for the return flight on the same booking due to fly next month, they are offering vouchers or a return to another airport, obviously having cancelled the original return as booked. do they expect me to find my own way now to spain from the uk just to catch the revampt return !! I have sent them an email requesting a refund but await a response.

  12. Gilbert,
    If I booked a flight on American using award miles and it is canceled will I be rebooked on another flight at no extra cost. Thanks

    1. Certainly should. But, some airlines are playing hardball. Just depends on the agent and or jurisdiction. For example, if it was from Europe to USA cxl’d then yes for sure.

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