If You Shouldn’t Fly When You’re Sick, Why Can’t You Get a Refund?

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Airlines likely won't offer a refund on a nonrefundable ticket even when you’re too sick to fly.

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is raising a number of questions about flying when you’re sick.

It turns out that getting a refund if you cancel your ticket because of illness isn’t easy, or even possible, in many cases.

Traveler columnist Christopher Elliott wrote:

A passenger who is ill might prefer to cancel and receive a full refund for the ticket. That’s possible if you’ve purchased a top-dollar, refundable ticket. But most passengers opt for the cheaper, nonrefundable fare. If you’re too sick to fly, you can rebook a different flight but there will be a change fee of $200 to $300. And you’ll have to pay the difference if the new fare is higher than the old one.

If you’re denied boarding a plane because of a visible illness, the airline may refund you in full, Elliott said. Otherwise, if you don’t want to eat the costs of canceling or exchanging an airline ticket, then flying sick may be the only option, although it’s not a good one.

If you want to return or exchange an airline ticket (even if there’s a hefty cost), Michael Baker of Demand Media said there are steps you’ll need to take:

  • Check class fare. This information, typically a single letter, can be found on your receipt or itinerary. If you’re flying economy, a letter Y or B denotes full-fare economy class, which indicates your ticket is refundable. If you see another letter, that means a discount fare, which is nonrefundable, Baker said.
  • Refund policy. If you do have a refundable ticket, you may be able to return it electronically if you purchased it via a credit card. Or you may need to do it on the phone or in person at the ticket counter, according to Baker. You could also potentially exchange it for an equitable flight.
  • Exchange policy. Most of the time, you won’t be able to get a direct refund, but you could get a flight voucher for a future trip. Of course, there’s a catch. “You almost always will have to pay an exchange fee as well as the difference in ticket cost if your new ticket is more expensive than your first ticket,” Baker said.
  • Emergency refund/exchange policy. If your travel plans change due to an illness or death, some airlines have fewer restrictions, but you’ll need to provide documentation of the emergency situation. “Travel insurance, such as that offered by certain credit cards and travel agencies, can ensure you get a full refund should you need to change a ticket for this reason,” Baker said.
  • Cancel in advance. A minimum of 24 hours’ notice is often required to cancel a ticket.

So why is getting a refund on an airline ticket so difficult? It seemingly boils down to money. According to Elliott, domestic airlines brought in $2.8 billion in ticket change fees last year, an increase from the $2.5 billion it collected in 2012. It’s not known what percentage of the ticket change fees were due to an illness.

Have you ever tried to get a refund on an airline ticket? Share your experiences below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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