Travel plans have been put on hold due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and many airlines have canceled flights in response to travel restrictions and drastically decreased demand.

Consumers looking for refunds have been blindsided by new policies and airlines offering anything but money back in the form of an actual cash refund.

Wait Until the Airline Cancels Your Flight

If your goal is to get a cash refund and money back in your pocket, do not preemptively cancel your flight. Instead, wait to see if the airline actually cancels the flight and then request a refund. U.S. DOT regulations state that “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.”

From the DOT Refunds page, where it states:

Am I Entitled to a Refund?

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When the airline is at fault:

Passengers are often entitled to a refund of the ticket price and associated fees when the airline is at fault.

  • Cancelled Flight– A passenger is entitled to a refund if the airline cancelled a flight, regardless of the reason, and the passenger chooses not to be rebooked on a new flight on that airline.
  • Schedule Change/Significant Delay- A passenger is entitled to a refund if the airline made a significant schedule change and/or significantly delays a flight and the passenger chooses not to travel.

When the airline is not at fault:

Passengers are entitled to refunds only in limited circumstances if the airline is not at fault.

  • Fully refundable tickets- Passengers who purchase fully refundable tickets are generally entitled to a refund when they do not use the purchased ticket to complete their travel.
  • Non-refundable tickets- Passengers who purchase non-refundable tickets are generally not entitled to a refund unless the airline makes a promise to provide a refund.

If this makes your head spin, just remember to forgo accepting a travel voucher or credit with the airline if all you want is to get your money back — even if the airline is telling you a refund isn’t possible. Once you’ve accepted a change in itinerary or travel credit, the airline has no obligation to refund any money.

Likewise, if your flight has yet to be canceled, the airline may be allowing you to voluntarily change your travel plans without any fees, but if the flight is still on the airline’s schedule to operate, it is not required to provide an actual cash refund. Airlines have canceled most international flights for the near future, but several domestic flights remain scheduled and may not be canceled until a few days before departure. If you have a flight for a later date that you no longer want to take, wait and see if it gets canceled before asking for a refund.

Always Be Kind and Courteous

The most important rule is to treat others as you would like to be treated. We are all experiencing a lot of stress these days, but the reservations agent on the other end of the line is not at fault here so it’s best not to take out your frustrations on them. Sometimes kindness can be the ticket to an agent actually going out of their way to help you out and process a refund — even if they are being instructed to only offer travel credits. The Golden Rule can go a long way so when you’re pleading your case for a refund, remember, be nice.