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How We Got Flight Refunds on Our Non-Refundable Tickets

  • Post last modified:September 5, 2022
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For nine months, we eagerly waited to use the deeply discounted flights we bought for Japan. However, due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, Japan still wasn’t open for tourism when we were due to travel. Fortunately, we were able to get full refunds, not flight credits, even though the airline didn’t cancel our flights and we purchased non-refundable tickets.

After we did this, it surprised us just how many people asked how this was possible. So, today we are sharing a little knowledge about when you’re entitled to a full refund on flights, even on non-refundable tickets.

In our case, we were flying with Delta, but our experience and advice can help towards working with any US carrier.

Flight Refunds Pinterest Image

Pay Attention to Schedule Changes

Our flights were round trip from the US to Japan on Delta. As our flight neared, unsurprisingly, schedule changes went crazy. I’m sure we’ve all had this happen to us, especially recently.

In our case, this worked in our favor. As Japan wasn’t open for tourists, we knew we had to cancel or reschedule.

At the time, airlines were waving change and cancellation fees for Main Cabin and above. However, rescheduling meant paying the difference in fares, which had gone up a lot. No thank you!

Our other option was to cancel, but this meant taking an e-credit. This is what Delta initially offered. However, if we did this, we would need to use the credit with Delta within a year. We love Delta and all but would much rather have the cash.

The "Significant Delay" Clause

The key is that our flights were “to, within, or from the United States.” Each country has its own laws. For instance, if you’re flying in the EU, air passengers have even more protections.

The US Department of Transportation’s guidance on flight refunds says travelers can request a refund if a flight is canceled, has a significant schedule change, and/or has a significant delay. The refund should include optional services purchased for the flight that can no longer be used.

The problem is, the DOT doesn’t define “significant delay.” This is left to the airlines and each airline defines it differently. However, this may be changing in the near future. On August 3, 2022, the DOT announced a proposal to clarify definitions, and solidify consumer protections. So, watch this space.

The changes Delta made to our original flight included an extra layover, and a three-hour delay on our return flights.

Before calling the airline, we checked Delta’s “significant change” policy. This told us we were within our rights to request a refund.

Delta’s Refund Policy Defining “Significant Change” (March 2022).

  • A delay of 120 minutes or more
  • Change to an itinerary resulting in no comparable schedule being available within 120 minutes.
  • Change in the routing of a scheduled Delta flight which adds one or more stops to the original itinerary.
  • A change in equipment from DL mainline to DL connections carrier.
  • Any change that causes a misconnect.

Reading the policy, we knew we could ask for a refund on our flights. We had the delay of more than 120 minutes and an additional layover added on our itinerary.

**Update August 2022: We rechecked Delta’s policy. The definition of “significant delay” is no longer easy to find. However, they must still honor the US Department of Transportation’s guidelines, so must have a definition for “significant delay,” and when full refunds are warranted.   

SEPTEMBER 2022 UPDATE – Airline Commitments Dashboard

With airlines still struggling with delays and cancellations, the US Department of Transportation has collated airline commitments for the top 10 US carriers. The easy-to-read chart summarizes what each carrier’s Terms and Conditions stipulate they will provide in the case of delay or cancellation, such as hotel vouchers, rescheduling on another flight, or rescheduling with another carrier. Not all carriers are created equal.

The law gives you the right to a full refund if you don’t want what they offer on a cancellation or a significantly delayed flight. However, when you still need a flight to get to your destination, this chart helps know what the airline promises to do for you.

A Tip on Speaking with the Airlines

If you’ve tried calling the airlines lately you know waits can be painfully long. However, there are a few ways around this.

First, if you only want an e-credit, you can usually do this online by logging into your account and requesting a change or cancellation. However, if you’re eligible for a refund, you need to speak with Customer Service.

Luckily, when we first called Delta, the system allowed for call backs. We put in our number and four hours later we were on the line with a real person.

Unfortunately, after encouraging us to take the e-credit, the first rep we spoke to said we needed to speak with another team. She then put us on hold for ages without a callback option. Eventually we hung up.

Next, we begrudgingly tried the online chat system. This turned out to be a massive shortcut. Even though, once again, the first rep couldn’t process the request, we were on the line with someone who could within minutes.

We wrote a polite message asking for a full refund and explaining how our tickets had been “significantly changed.” Within minutes our email pinged with refund notifications. All up, using the online chat system took about 10 minutes.

Moral of the story:

  1. Don’t always take the first answer you get.
  2. Look for alternative methods to speak with Customer Service. We were surprised how well Delta’s web chat worked.
  3. Be nice! Airline reps are dealing with lots of stressed, angry people all the time. Be someone they want to help.

Full Refund up to 24 Hours After Booking

Finally, it’s worth mentioning The US Department of Transportation also entitles passengers to refunds within 24 hours of purchasing a flight. As long as you booked the flight at least seven days before departure. 

Where to Go for Additional Help

If you feel an airline is not complying with the regulations around refunds for canceled or significantly delayed flights, you can file a complaint with the US Department of Transportation.

Filing a complaint is likely not a speedy process, so we only recommend this as an absolute last resort. As we mentioned earlier in this article, sometimes it’s more beneficial just to speak with a different customer service representative. And don’t be afraid to use the chat service!

Travel Resources

We recommend and use these companies to arrange our travel plans; they make travel planning easy and affordable. If you have questions on our experiences, feel free to ask us!