When the pandemic first began, I felt airlines and hotels were reasonably generous in waiving cancellation fees. More recently my experience has been different with airlines in particular digging in their heels on refunds and extending flight credit expiration.
Let’s get right into it…
Most US carriers have eliminated change fees to encourage new ticket purchases. But it’s important to note that flexible change policies are different than free refunds. Once a ticket is purchased, a clock starts ticking towards its value expiring if you don’t take the trip for whatever reason.
For example, with American Airlines if you cancel a ticket you get a Flight Credit. With a Flight Credit:
- Travel must begin within a year of purchase
- Tickets are name locked
- You can only use one Flight Credit per booking
- You’re responsible for any fare differences
Thankfully most other airlines (though not all) have more flexible cancellation terms and have been more generous about extending the expiration of flight credits.
Between my personal experience and in talking to friends and family, it feels to me like airline patience is wearing thin and they’re starting to put the screws to customers.
I bought tickets for travel on AA eleven months out right when the schedule opened in 2021, for travel in early 2022. About a month before the trip we decided collectively that we didn’t want to take the trip.
I booked through Amex Travel (for a 35% Membership Reward rebate and Insider Fares) and I didn’t want to wait on hold to talk with them so I clicked “Cancel” thinking I’d have plenty of time to use the funds towards a future trip. I didn’t realize until later that I’d need to use the funds for travel on AA by February 2022.
Once I realized I had only a couple months to take a trip on AA, I looked into whether AA was extending expiration of flight credits. They aren’t but this article gave me some hope, suggesting a Flight Credit could be converted into a more flexible Trip Credit with an additional year of expiration. I pinged AA on Twitter asking about this. They told me they aren’t empowed to do that, and that if the ticket was eligible for conversion to Trip Credit I’d be informed via email.
Further complicating matters is that I booked through Amex Travel. Any change or refund would have to come through them. It looked like I was going to be taking a loss on these tickets…
Refunds When the Airline Cancels Your Flight
Around the time I was considering my options I read this post from Matt at Miles Earn and Burn. He points out that if you’re booked on a flight that the airline cancels you’re entitled to a refund:
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 travel.
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.Source: DOT
My flight time actually was changed along the way. But since it was a two hour change that wasn’t enough for AA to consider it worthy of a refund.
I could have waited to see if by chance the flight I was booked on was cancelled. But I didn’t like the feeling of this hanging over my head. I wanted to get a refund buttoned up, and I felt like I’d exhausted my better options so I set to change to a flight with a high chance of cancellation due to weather.
In practice this is easier said than done, and I experienced a lot of customer service reps who quickly defaulted to telling me why I wasn’t getting what I wanted rather than seeking to help me get what I wanted.
I talk more about this in Episode 151 of our podcast.
At the suggestion of member of the Milenomics Slack community I’ve been reading a book called Nudge. A counterpoint they mention is Sludge. An example of sludge is how it’s easy to subscribe to a channel on a smart TV, but far more difficult to cancel that subscription. I experienced Sludge at every step of the way while seeking a refund for these airline tickets.
First, AA’s flight credit scheme is incredibly complicated. There are Flight Credits, Trip Credits, and Travel Vouchers, each with their own restrictions. And this is just one airline we’re dealing with. Each airline is different so understanding the restrictions before booking can be very time consuming.
Second, by booking through Amex Travel I put myself in a weak position. As my “travel agent” any changes I wanted to pursue had to be taken up with Amex Travel who in turn has to negotiate with AA. So if I wanted to get anywhere I had to convince the Amex Travel rep of my position, and that person had to convince an AA rep on my behalf. That’s a difficult game of telephone to play effectively.
Third, the complexity of the rules and regulations conceived by the airlines in conjunction with booking through a third party is such that it exceeds the limits of what a customer can do themselves online. I could book the ticket on Amex Travel online, and I could cancel it online. But from that moment on, since it was an AA Flight Credit booked through Amex Travel, everything had to be done by calling.
Fourth, the hold times when calling are very long. And if a third party travel agent in turn needs to call the airline the call time gets even longer. If you factor in calling during during a weather event hold times get even worse.
Ultimately I think:
- Flight credits shouldn’t expire. Retail gift cards don’t expire. It would be nice if flight credits didn’t expire either. The funds are in the airline’s hands. I’ll use them eventually. It just doesn’t seem right to me that the value disappears a year after a ticket is purchased.
- If they’re going to expire, they should expire 13 months after purchase. This would give customers the ability to book into the same week the next year if they need to cancel.
I’m going to take into consideration the ease of booking and refund more than ever. This has implications on both the booking channel I use as well as the currencies I’ll favor using.
I appreciate getting value out of flexible bank points, but the savings over cash needs to be significant in order for me to enlist bank travel agencies as a middle man between me and the airline.
I’ll heavily favor using airline miles over bank points or cash, even if the value per point out of the airline mile isn’t as good as cash. Being able to cancel and get miles back is far more convenient than dealing with flight credits.
But beware: Even if you book with airline miles you’re not in the clear on cancellations. For example, I’ve got award travel booked for Japan in February with AsiaMiles. Even though Japan isn’t open for tourism AsiaMiles is insisting on a $120 per ticket award cancellation and redeposit fee. This is in stark constrast with typical airline policies when Covid started, and even more stringent than when there was political unrest in Hong Kong a couple years ago. Like I said upstream: Airlines are running out of patience and they want money.
Like many of you, I’ve been booking and cancelling a lot of flights lately. Recent experiences have taught me to be more careful before booking and to explore more options when looking to cancel.
I’d encourage you to become familiar at a high level with the cancellation policies of your hometown airline(s) and above all know your rights when it comes to when you’re due a refund. Because flexible change policies don’t equal free refunds.