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Unless you pay significantly more for a refundable plane ticket, most fares are nonrefundable under normal circumstances. However, these are strange times we are living through, so it’s worth looking at some facts that can prove useful if you’re holding a ticket for a flight you want to change or cancel.
What is a nonrefundable ticket, anyway? When an airline says that a ticket is nonrefundable, it doesn’t mean that you can’t cancel a ticket.
Depending on the ticket type, often, 'nonrefundable' simply means:
The airline will not give you all of your money back if you cancel (true for most basic economy tickets).
The airline will not refund your ticket value as cash (it will be remitted as a voucher instead).
You're always allowed to cancel the ticket — but if you want to use the value of that ticket later, you may have to pay a change fee.
Refunding a ticket can happen, but the stars have to be aligned exactly right.
Not all is lost when you cancel nonrefundable airline tickets.
When air travel is disrupted, airlines issue travel waivers. The most common examples are weather-related events such as hurricanes, volcano eruptions, winter storms and wildfires, to name a few.
These waivers give you more options and flexibility than you normally get with nonrefundable tickets. For example, if the airline issues a waiver, you can sometimes make changes without incurring those hefty change fees. Cancellations may be fee-free as well.
The COVID-19 pandemic drastically affected airlines, including inspiring more flyer-friendly policies.
In September 2020, United Airlines announced an elimination of change and standby fees for main cabin tickets and above. A day later, Delta Air Lines announced a similar change, and American Airlines followed suit shortly thereafter. These policies have expanded to include most international flights originating in (at least) the U.S.
As such, these three airlines step in line with Southwest Airlines in flexible change policies. Other airlines with fee-free cancellation policies include Alaska Airlines (not applicable on day-of changes) and Hawaiian Airlines.
Most nonrefundable main cabin and above fares are refunded as vouchers with the same airline. While not as good as cash, it's helpful to apply the entire value of the ticket to a future flight — just be sure to use it before it expires.
When you may be entitled to a refund in cash, even with a nonrefundable ticket
Here's how to get an airline refund — not credit.
If your airline cancels your flight, you may be entitled to a refund of the cost of your ticket — especially if those flights go through the United States at any point. In many cases, that’s due to U.S. Department of Transportation requirements.
However, this does not stop airlines from pushing other options so that you don't seek a full refund. In many cases, they will offer a voucher for future travel instead.
To avoid giving refunds, American has sweetened the pot by adding a 20% value to the voucher, valid for one year, if you let them hold onto your cash.
Delta is giving you two years to complete your travel instead of the customary one year, so you have more time to use your voucher once things get back to normal.
Internationally, the rules can get a little more complicated. If you’re flying to or through the European Union, you will be protected by a regulation known as EU261. It stipulates that if your flight is within, departs from or arrives in the EU and you have not already received any benefits in the form of compensation, rerouting or assistance from the airline, you have some rights.
For example, if your flight has been canceled, you have the right to reimbursement, rerouting, assistance and compensation in many cases. For more information and specific scenarios covered by this regulation, see the EU’s official website, which is interactive and easy to follow.
» Learn more: What to do if an airline cancels or changes your flight
If your flights haven’t been canceled but instead have been delayed, you might also be entitled to a fee-free change or refund.
Delta does a great job of informing passengers through their app about schedule changes and lets you rebook from the comfort of the app, bypassing typically long phone queues or airport lines.
American doesn’t allow you to make changes that easily in the app but will allow you to cancel your ticket and get a full refund if the flight has changed by at least 60 minutes.
Considering the number of flights that are being consolidated and the changes that are happening right now, a time change of at least 60 minutes is certainly a possibility. If you’re looking to get your money back, watch out for a time-change email from your airline so you can stay abreast of your options.
How to get out of a nonrefundable plane ticket
Unless the airline changes or cancels your flight to trigger cash refund eligibility, you are likely out of luck. It's not all bad news, though. Regardless of the reason to modify your booking, even nonrefundable tickets can be remitted as travel vouchers to apply towards future flights.
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