How do I get money refunded from an airline?
January 24, 2011 4:51 PM   Subscribe

I feel I just got screwed out of about $500 by an airline. Of course they don't see it that way. What resources do I have to get this money back? If not, what else can I do?

The figure is actually $561.52, and it's because I had to change tickets. The new tickets are $386.52 less than the old ones. But I'm not refunded the money - I get a voucher. On top of that, the airline charged me $175 in change fees.

My entire experience with this airline has been awful. I think the change fee is unconscionable and I don't want a travel voucher for an airline I hate. How can I improve this situation? Or how can I complain really loudly?
posted by boghead to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Write a polite letter to the airline's executive laying out your reasons for believing the fees laid out in they contract of carriage to which you agreed should not apply to you in this instance. Do not tell them that you hate their airline or that you believe the fee you contracted to pay is "unconscionable." Your letter should be calm and clear, asking for an exception based on your circumstances. "Complaining really loudly" won't work nearly as well as complaining calmly, politely, and nicely. Make it easy and pleasant for them to help you.
posted by decathecting at 4:55 PM on January 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

That's completely standard practice. Were the tickets refundable? Did you look at the policy beforehand? Southwest regularly advertises that they're they only (major US) airline with no change fess, which means that unless it was Southwest... the change fee is completely standard and expected. The lowest I've heard of is $100, and I think they're mostly all around $150, like yours is. It sucks, but there's almost certainly no way you can get it back.

If there were some extenuating circumstances, or there's some way in which you're really a special case, you might get away with what decathecting suggested, or contact Chris Elliott for help, he usually gets refunds when he tries, which, again, if there's some special reason why he should, he might.

But in general... airplane tickets are non-refundable (unless you buy the refundable ones, in which case you would have gotten refunded) and have large change fees. That's how airlines roll. You're almost certainly screwed.
posted by brainmouse at 4:58 PM on January 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

Cue the Serenity Prayer, and accept that--particularly with airlines--there are charges and policies you may never get the better of.

That said, I am delighted to report that after no less than six months' worth of repeated calling the New York Times finally refunded me the $30 dollars that they 1) insisted they didn't owe me; 2) could only be credited to my account; and 3) should be applied to my (imaginary) overdue balance. Every time I called, I was patient and polite and explained my side of the story. Sometimes I was rebuffed, others I was told that the amounts would be credited to my card, or paid by check (never to appear).

In the end, I think they had their own Serenity Prayer, and accepted that I was going to call them every month, forever and ever, until they paid me $30. At that point, they caved.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 5:01 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

decathecting and Admiral Haddock have it - letters written in an serious but not angry tone, plus persistence, are your friends. I've had luck getting refunds by talking to someone - if you're willing to say uncomfortable things (not mean, angry, or threatening - just directly and politely challenge their assumption that the rules apply to you) then you may have luck making them so uncomfortable that they'll just give you what you want. Again, nothing mean, just count on the fact that people don't like to be contradicted. Then keep hammering away, and document your communications so you can reference each point of contact the next time you try.

Ever wonder why airlines don't give refunds for cancellations and hotels do? Because consumers let airlines get away with it. Vote with your wallet - fly Southwest whenever possible and let them know that you're flying due to their refund policy. Okay, Southwest gives credit, but they do it without change fees. I hate Southwest fanboys - it's just another airline, people - but they saved me several hundred dollars in change fees last year, so I'll fly them as long at that's their policy.
posted by Tehhund at 5:26 PM on January 24, 2011

Decathecting, I think it's entirely reasonable for me to describe a $150 change fee charged for a task that takes less than a minute to perform as unconscionable, but I understand how to be polite to an executive. I also understand now that non-refundable tickets and a fee for changing them is standard practice. I just think that standard sucks.

Thank you all for your advice. I'll probably take a two-pronged approach on this one - write a letter to the airline's executive (it's Continental, btw) that's just dripping with civility, and avoid flying on this carrier again.
posted by boghead at 6:09 PM on January 24, 2011

I think it's a mistake to point out how little time is required to make the change. It would have taken no more time to make a similar change for a passenger who had paid full fare. The point of charging a fee for changing reservations on a nonrefundable ticket is to penalize you for changing. It helps the airlines keep flights reasonably full, which keeps costs lower. Otherwise everyone would buy cheap tickets and, if their travel plans changed, they would change them for free. And then we'd all be paying two or three times as much for our tickets.

TL;DR: saying "this only took 2 minutes of an agent's time, therefore I shouldn't have to pay the fee" is not a winning strategy.
posted by brianogilvie at 6:51 PM on January 24, 2011 [8 favorites]

Did you call them and ask them nicely? Last month Delta waived a $200 international change fee and did not charge me the $360 difference in fare that their website was showing – it took a ten-minute phone call, explaining why I wanted to change my flight (so I could be on the same 13-hour flight as my significant other; I had booked different itineraries about a month prior), and politely asking that they waive the fees. The representative put me on hold for about a minute while she talked to a supervisor, and then returned to tell me that I won't be charged anything.
posted by halogen at 7:33 PM on January 24, 2011

I agree that polite, firm letters are the way to go. I don't agree that you are going to (or necessarily should) get anything. The change fee and policy on ticket price differentials would have been right there in the ticket you bought originally. Change fees are always high for cheap tickets, if they're available at all. It costs the airline money if you change at the last minute and they have an empty seat, so they want to discourage changes. I'm not sure that protesting this by flying another airline with exactly the same policy make sense. (Though I admit to having contemplated it before, when Air Canada wouldn't seat me and my girlfriend together, when we'd bought our tickets in the same transaction, because we hadn't paid for seat selection. Open skies? Bring 'em on.)

On the other hand, airlines continually treat us more and more like shit, and I agree that not refunding the difference in ticket price, in particular, is a ludicrous policy. So write away. Just bear in mind that they are unlikely to be willing to cave in when they didn't do anything that you wouldn't expect under your contract.
posted by Dasein at 7:33 PM on January 24, 2011

These were cheapest economy, non-refundable tickets by the way.
posted by halogen at 7:34 PM on January 24, 2011

Are you a frequent flyer with Continental? They've waived random fees for me more than once, just for asking over the phone.
posted by halogen at 7:36 PM on January 24, 2011

Fees for stuff like that aren't because of the time it costs the airline, they're to discourage people from switching things around all the time, and because it's a hassle for the airline.
posted by Slinga at 8:13 PM on January 24, 2011

I just went through this, and though I called several times over several days (often waiting more than an hour just to speak to someone...who inevitably barely spoke English) and emailed and filled out a survey and expressed my dissatisfaction, and though this was a weather related problem (complicated) and they were offering waivers up until the day before my flight was canceled, noone would budge. I guess it comes down to how much of a time investment do you want to make into something that might yield nothing (as in my case)...
posted by FlyByDay at 8:58 PM on January 24, 2011

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