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You are entitled to a refund for your canceled flight


Recent years have brought us all too many reminders of the importance of knowing your air travel rights as a passenger. From pandemic chaos to Southwest Airlines’ holiday 2022 meltdown and United Airlines’ mass disruptions in late June, knowing what you should ask for when your flight is delayed or canceled is a key part of preparing for any trip.

And a big part of that is knowing when an airline owes you a refund.


Your rights to a refund

For domestic flights, as well as international ones departing or arriving in the U.S., you’re covered by the rules of the Department of Transportation.

Under DOT flight refund policy, you are entitled to your money back, no questions asked, if your flight is canceled and you ultimately choose not to travel. It doesn’t matter if the cancellation was the airline’s fault or something out of its control, like weather.

The policy applies to any unused portion of your ticket.

Let’s say you booked a round trip from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) to New York’s LaGuardia Airport (LGA), and your return trip got canceled. The airline offers to rebook you on a later flight, but you decline. You opt to take the train back to Washington, D.C., instead. The airline would owe you a refund for the return portion of your trip.

A JetBlue aircraft at Boston Logan International Airport (BOS). SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY

Refund rules apply only if you choose not to travel

The “ultimately choose not to travel” part of the rule is key, though.

If the airline cancels your 8 a.m. flight, rebooks you on the 11 a.m. flight, and you fly on it, the airline does not owe you a refund.

Does the airline owe me a refund for a flight delay?

The DOT refund rules don’t just apply to canceled flights. Under the policy, airlines must also provide you a refund for the unused portion of your ticket when a flight is significantly delayed or the airline makes a significant schedule change.

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Again, this is only if you choose not to travel.

What constitutes a “significant” delay? That part is a bit murky.

To date, the DOT has not defined what “significant” is. However, the Biden administration has proposed a provision that would aim to provide such a definition similar to what currently exists in the European Union.

Currently, the department determines refund eligibility following significant delays on a “case-by-case basis” when there’s a dispute between the airline and the customer.

In addition to the DOT’s guidelines, airline tickets are governed by each carrier’s contract of carriage. You can find the full text for the major airlines here:

If you read each, you’ll find clauses that state that if your flight is canceled, you are entitled to a full refund — in line with the DOT regulations. But just because you’re entitled to a refund doesn’t necessarily mean airlines will go out of their way to hand them out.

A United Airlines aircraft awaits takeoff at Raleigh/Durham International Airport (RDU). SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY

What should you do if airlines are offering future credit instead of a refund?

There’s a good chance your airline may not come out and offer you a refund if your flight is disrupted. The carrier may offer you future flight credit instead.

At the height of pandemic cancellations, we heard reports of airlines offering passengers extra value of 10% or 20% extra for future travel credits or vouchers.

This can be enticing, especially if you have plans to fly with the airline in the near future and know, for certain, that you’ll put the credit to good use before any expiration dates that might be attached.

However, that doesn’t mean you have to accept. The airline does technically have to offer you a refund if you don’t fly and just want your money back.

Now, that’s not to say airlines have been completely stingy with refunding customers. Airlines for America, an airline industry trade group, notes the 11 largest airlines issued more than $32 billion in refunds between 2020 and 2022.

What if the airline offers you miles instead of a refund?

There are also cases where the airline may offer you miles instead of cash. Again, you don’t have to accept.

And before you even consider accepting miles in lieu of a full refund, you’ll want to make sure you’re getting a deal that’s strongly in your favor by consulting TPG’s points and miles valuations.

For instance, let’s say you’re hoping for American to refund you a $217 ticket, and the airline offers you 10,000 miles instead.

TPG values AAdvantage miles at 1.5 cents apiece, so 10,000 miles would be worth about $150.

Clearly, in such a case, accepting miles wouldn’t be in your best interest…particularly with numerous loyalty program devaluations in recent years.

A Delta Air Lines aircraft at Dulles International Airport (IAD). SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY

Best strategy to get a full refund

The first thing to note is that the process of getting a refund typically isn’t automatic. You’re often going to need to physically request one.

You can certainly attempt to reach the airline through an online customer service complaint or message. For instance, Southwest has a page where you can contact the airline with a complaint, comment or question.

You can also check whether your airline has a live chat function. If there’s actually a real human agent on the other end, they may be able to help.

However, there are also cases where you may need to call the airline and attempt to reach a customer service agent by phone.

No matter how you contact the airline, be sure to have your trip confirmation number handy and clearly state that you want a refund, not frequent flyer miles or trip credit.

If an airline flat-out refuses a refund, and you think you’re entitled to one under DOT policy, your next best action is to dispute the charge on your credit card and file a complaint with the DOT.


What about compensation for food, hotels and ground transportation?

Compensation for things like meals, an unexpected hotel stay or an Uber ride in the event of a flight delay or cancellation falls under a different category than refunds.

At the moment, these are more discretionary forms of compensation airlines provide, and these are the cases where it does matter whether the disruption is the airline’s fault or, say, weather-related.

Check out TPG’s guide to passengers’ rights for a better sense of what you might be owed.

The DOT also has a rundown of what each major U.S. carrier guarantees in the event of a cancellation or significant delay on its airline customer service dashboard.

Bottom line

Some airline policies can be challenging to keep track of, but the federal rules that govern refunds are — relatively — straightforward.

You are owed a refund for any unused portion of your ticket:

  • If your flight is canceled, significantly delayed, or has its schedule significantly changed
  • No matter the reason why
  • And you ultimately choose not to travel with that airline

In any case, knowing your rights is the first step in getting a refund. Asking is the second.

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