Fear and uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic prompted Jaqueline Liakopoulos, of Beverly, Massachusetts, to cancel a family trip to Aruba this summer. She said trying to get a refund for her flight was impossible, even though she bought travel insurance.
"There was a day when I was on hold for an hour and a half," Liakopoulos said.
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Instead of a cash refund, Liakopoulos' third party booking site, working with her airline carrier, agreed to give her flight credits, worth $2,500 to be used in the next 18 months — a deal she says is not acceptable.
"We understood that you run a risk when you buy non-refundable tickets, but we weren't canceling the trip because we didn’t want to go," Liakopoulos said. "I think it's unfair that they are holding onto this money. I feel like they are holding us hostage a little bit… that we have to travel within this certain time frame, or we are just going to lose the money."
Under federal law, if an airline cancels your flight or makes a significant schedule change, you are entitled to a refund, even if you used a third party booking site. But if a passenger decides they don't want to travel, in most cases, airlines are just offering flight credits.
Kevin Brasler with Boston Consumers' Checkbook says the airlines have been flexible in waiving all the change fees.
"But the problem is they are still not offering straight-up cash refunds," Brasler said.
Currently, only two U.S. carriers, Allegiant and Spirit airlines, are offering cash refunds to passengers who cancel their flights. A bill, co-sponsored by U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey aims to change that.
If passed, the bill would mandate all airlines operating in the U.S. to offer refunds for travel canceled during the pandemic and remain mandated until 180 days past the date when the nationwide state of emergency order is lifted.
"People need their money now and the problem is a lot of the airlines don't have enough money to refund people back and remain solvent," Brasler said.
As things play out on Capitol Hill, Brasler says if you have a scheduled trip you don't want to take, it's best to wait as long as you can before contacting the airline.
"Just wait until the last day or so, and then cancel yourself for a credit if the airline doesn’t cancel," Brasler said. "Give them a chance to cancel, because then they have to give you your money back."
Not all airlines are automatically refunding passengers for flights they cancel or change. If you don't see your money right away, contact the airline, and submit a refund request. If you still don't get your money, file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation.