Plane Tickets on United; Event Cancelled; Next Steps?
April 29, 2020 9:30 AM   Subscribe

I booked two round-trip first-class tickets directly through United Airlines on Jan. 06 2020, for domestic travel within the US, for a trip from July 01-07 2020. Total value: US$1573.60. The event we were flying to attend has been cancelled. The airline has not cancelled or rescheduled the flight. I need some advice on what to do next.

Mrs. Sourcequench got me a trip to AC2020 for my 50th birthday. The con is cancelled (as well it should be!).

I've read the United Airlines refund page, which is remarkably vague on all points.

If I go to my trip details and choose "Cancel", I see two options:
* Apply value to an electronic travel certificate

Select this option and you’ll receive a travel certificate by email which can be used for travel on United and United Express operated flights. Can be applied to book a new ticket up to 24 months from today.

* Rebook later with future flight credit

Select this option and you’ll keep the value stored on this reservation so it can be changed later. Change fees will apply unless you qualify for a change fee waiver. Travel must commence within 12 months from original ticket issue date.

If cancellation fees apply, you may be eligible for a full refund if your flights have been severely adjusted or service to your destination has been suspended. Visit the Refunds page to submit your refund request.
If I try to fill out the refund form, when I enter my trip confirmation code, the tickets are greyed out. I see a link saying "For active reservations, cancel your reservation and request a refund at Manage reservations." which takes me to the same two options I quoted above.

My ideal outcome is a refund to my credit card.

If I have to pick one of the two options they offer, it sounds like I want the "Apply value to an electronic travel certificate" option. (The "Rebook later with future flight credit" won't work, as "Travel must commence within 12 months from original ticket issue date." and I do not expect to travel before Jan 06 2021.) However, I'm worried that United may go bankrupt or just decide not to honor the credit, or that AC2021 might not happen, or that we won't be able to attend. This option is less than ideal, but I recognize it might be the best I'm going to get.

Dear hive mind: Do you think I should take the "future flight credit" option? Try to contact United on the phone and argue it with them? (If so: can you suggest a contact number?) Pester them on Twitter? Wait until much closer to the time of the flight (which might open more options if they cancel or reschedule, but might also lose the options I've got now)? Something else I haven't thought of yet?
posted by sourcequench to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Does the credit card you purchased the tickets with have some sort of travel protection?
posted by notjustthefish at 9:51 AM on April 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

You won’t get a refund unless United cancels the flight. At that point you can get a refund. The other option is getting flight credit.

I would wait until a couple days before flight to see if it cancels. I doubt travel credit card will have event cancellation insurance.
posted by sandmanwv at 10:05 AM on April 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

So, the part you should be interested in is here:
If cancellation fees apply, you may be eligible for a full refund if your flights have been severely adjusted or service to your destination has been suspended. Visit the Refunds page to submit your refund request.
What this means is that if your flight itself is disrupted (cancelled or a major schedule change) you have a decent chance of getting an actual refund to your credit card. Do you know if there've been any changes to the flight schedule? (It doesn't matter that the schedule change isn't actually the reason you want to cancel.)
posted by mskyle at 10:07 AM on April 29, 2020

I just went through this for a conference that was cancelled. It is frankly impossible to get a hold of an airline by phone right now; I waited on hold for over an hour, multiple days, before the call just got dropped. This is true of multiple airlines, not just United. Supposedly they are prioritizing calls for flights taking off in the next 72 hours, but I have no idea how they would know that when you're on hold.

Ultimately, my United flight -- which was supposed to take off today -- was cancelled. No idea when United made that determination, as they never sent me anything; the flight just was noted as "cancelled" in My Bookings. (United has pulled stealth cancellations or significant flight time changes on me before, in the pre-corona days, so I was expecting something like this and checking online a couple times a week.) I tried to call again, same interminable holds and calls dropping.

Finally, last night, I did the 24 month electronic certificate, then immediately submitted a refund request. I am not sure when I will hear back from them, but in the refund request I cited the US Dept of Transportation enforcement notice that cancelled flights must be refunded even if a non-refundable ticket, as well as the fact that I've already submitted a complaint to DOT and am prepared to open a charge dispute on the card used to purchase the tickets.

As you've discovered, there's no way to submit a refund request without first accepting their travel voucher for either 12 or 24 months. I think this is a bullshit move that they are doing to be able to deny refunds (You accepted our voucher!) and thus is probably in violation of DOT policy -- there is already at least one class action lawsuit against United about this.

Assuming your credit card does not have travel protection, and assuming your tickets are not refundable, I'd suggest you wait and see if the airline cancels, which is the only way to get a refund, with or without global pandemic.
posted by basalganglia at 10:09 AM on April 29, 2020 [9 favorites]

I talked to my credit card company and learned that, while event cancellation insurance is a benefit that exists, my card doesn't have it.
posted by sourcequench at 10:14 AM on April 29, 2020

I'm a little reluctant to just wait it out; this page says: "To help with uncertainty around future travel, you now have until April 30 to change or cancel any travel you’ve booked through the end of the year without fees. This is in addition to existing flexibility which allows you to change or cancel travel plans through May 31."

(Also, the thought of having this hanging over my head for two months isn't an appetizing one. That's an irrational response, but I'm at a point where I'm willing to put a surprisingly large dollar value on having a little less cortisol bouncing around in me right now.)
posted by sourcequench at 10:32 AM on April 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

United has unfortunately been one of the less good airlines in the pandemic. Originally they were going to screw people out of refunds unless the flight was changed by more than a day! Given the precedent that they are allowing people to convert flight credit into refunds if the flight ends up getting cancelled, I think I might take the credit with the idea that, worst case, I would be able to use it eventually. There's a thread about the situation you are in on the forum which is a consumer advocacy site. It's titled, aptly, "United Game of Chicken". Good luck. I really hope one result of this pandemic is a wholesale reform of airline cancellation policies. How is it that United can cancel the flight and not owe anything except the original fare, but if we cancel we owe $200? You'd think that would be a penalty clause, which has been prohibited under common law for centuries.
posted by wnissen at 10:48 AM on April 29, 2020

The thought of having it hanging over your head is unappetizing, but by waiting is the best course of action. Airlines are still adjusting their schedules and it also seems to be happening on a rolling basis (week by week). There is a high likelihood of something changing in regards to your flight schedules and that would allow you to ask for a refund. If that doesn't happen for some reason you can still ask for the credit at the latest possible moment.

I'm going through the same with 5 tickets from US to Australia; as those tickets are with Qantas the value of the credit is debatable as we won't know if/ when we'd plan another trip to Australia. With United your worst case is to use the credit over longer period of time for any number of domestic and international destinations.
posted by zeikka at 10:48 AM on April 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

cancelled flights must be refunded even if a non-refundable ticket

This is true and something the airlines will not really fight even under normal circumstances. My job is booking travel for executives, and I've never had any trouble getting refunds for cancelled flights by filling out the form on the airline's website.

I would accept the credit, then file for a refund. You will probably get it. If not, worst case is that you'll be able to use the full fare later.
posted by something something at 10:49 AM on April 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

On the TODAY Show this morning, they said that flights on average carry ten passengers. TEN.

I know that most flights carry mail & freight to cover costs, but there will be a lot of cancellations!
posted by wenestvedt at 10:58 AM on April 29, 2020

I went through this as well recently. My conference was cancelled and so I had no intention on going on my flight. A few months prior, I cancelled a flight and asked for a refund because I had surgery. I was issued a refund for that flight within 24 hours. I'm currently 5 months pregnant and my doctor told me that I should not be traveling on a plane as I am in a 'high risk' demographic. I got a doctor's note and submitted a request for a refund. They refunded me the money for the upgraded seats but refused to refund me for the flight as I "could potentially travel" within the next year. Funny, how they didn't use that same excuse 6 months ago. And how will I know if I will be even able to travel within the next year? Who knows what air travel or traveling in general is going to look like in the next year? So even if you had a medical condition which prohibits you from flying, United will not issue you a refund.
posted by wasabifooting at 11:59 AM on April 29, 2020

Also, the thought of having this hanging over my head for two months isn't an appetizing one.

I was in the place you were in February and March, when I was trying to figure out a long-planned trip to Japan. It was stressful and anxiety-producing not to be able to cancel a month out, when it was clear that it didn't make sense to go. Waiting is, unfortunately, often the best bet these. Airlines and travel agents are overwhelmed by calls and are prioritizing trips that are happening soon, within the week.

What made it easier for me: I made a decision that we weren't going; I then just had to wait to act on it. I got a full refund whereas if I had acted right away, I would not have. You already know you are not going. If you want a change at a refund, there's likely no harm in waiting at least into May.

I don't think you have a lot to lose by waiting. At the very least, why not wait and see what emerges through the end of May? I realize you want this to be done. So think through these two scenarios: you can wait and deal with that stress and possibly get a full refund or the same or better deal, but also risk maybe losing the credit. Or, you can act now and you probably won't get a refund but you might end up learning you would have if you waited. Would you rather have more stress now and possibly more money later? Or just resolve it all now, even if it means no money back?
posted by bluedaisy at 12:00 PM on April 29, 2020

I got a full refund on a United flight around March 10th due to an event cancelled because of Coronavirus. I would just call and keep asking to speak to their manager. Does United have the "get a call back" option so you don't have to sit on hold?

If you can't get ahold of someone by the end of tomorrow, the 30th, I would do the online refund to flight credit, and then keep calling to get them to refund back to credit card instead.
posted by amaire at 12:02 PM on April 29, 2020

My experience, in case it is of some use: my international travel plans in late March were stymied by border closures--I would not have been able to enter the countries I planned to visit--and United canceled the direct flights I had booked, though they did supposedly still have other flights via a hub. I called a few days before I was due to fly and they refunded me less than half of the ticket price. The only other option offered was to rebook for a later date, with a "change fee" that was more than what I paid in the first place. You have first class tickets booked directly with the airline, whereas I had cheapies booked through an agent...but you may be up for a fierce fight, which I hope you win!
posted by ogorki at 2:04 PM on April 29, 2020

Check the fare rules on your specific ticket. Being in first, it almost certainly has a better refund/credit policy than you are worried it does. It is very unlikely that you will lose more than $100 of the value (the change fee, if any, which would be deducted from the value of the ticket for a voluntary change or cancellation, assuming there even is one) even if you wait until the day of departure to cancel.
posted by wierdo at 3:35 PM on April 29, 2020

Free changes extended to May 31.
posted by wnissen at 6:27 AM on April 30, 2020

I actually just called United yesterday or the day before for my own flight. They have the callback option and called back in 15 mins. My flight was significantly changed though so I was eligible for a refund.
posted by theRussian at 6:22 AM on May 1, 2020

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