No refund for canceled Vegas vacation

by Christopher Elliott on September 30, 2009

parisvegasQuestion: I’m trying to get a refund for a flight, and I need your help. Last summer, my husband and I booked a trip to Las Vegas through Travelocity. In late August, he was diagnosed with colon cancer, which had metastasized to the liver. Travelocity refunded $314 but kept $737 as a “cancellation penalty.”

I was advised to write to Travelocity’s customer service department for the balance. I sent them supporting documents and have been writing and calling ever since, always to be told that I would hear from them in 30 to 60 days but never hearing from them unless I initiated the call.

Finally, I was told there would be no refund. In contrast, we had a trip planned for Thanksgiving through Southwest Airlines, and when I notified them, I had a complete refund within weeks.

If you could intercede on our behalf, we would be grateful. We are a senior couple living on a fixed income, and these were circumstances beyond our control. — Ethel Schweitzer, Boynton Beach, Fla.

Answer: Travelocity wasn’t keeping any of your money as a cancellation penalty. Those appear to be your US Airways tickets, which are nonrefundable.

Someone at Travelocity should have advised you that you could have received a credit for up to a year for the tickets, but it looks like the trip was canceled outright, leaving you with nothing.

As a matter of policy, airlines don’t make exceptions for passengers with nonrefundable tickets who fall ill and can’t travel. But as a matter of practice, they evaluate each case — some more carefully than others — and will grant a refund request once in a while.

You were correct to write and call Travelocity. But were you writing to the correct people? I suggested sending a letter up the chain of command, starting with Travelocity’s vice president for sales and customer service. The response: “Unfortunately, many hotel and airline policies are very strict and do not allow for refunds in the case of serious illness.”

Next, I recommended that you explain the situation to US Airways. You did, but it replied with a form letter denying your request. Too bad.

It’s important to understand that neither Travelocity nor US Airways are under any obligation to refund your money. When you’re offered a package or trip that includes nonrefundable airfare or hotel rates, travel companies have a duty to remind customers to buy travel insurance. That way, if something happens, you won’t lose your entire vacation.

Did your online travel agent and airline suggest an insurance policy? I don’t know because I wasn’t there. But my sense is that most travelers gloss over the fine print regarding cancellations, and that travel companies are content to let them do it. Until something goes wrong.

For me, the last line in your letter — noting that these were circumstances beyond your control — was the clincher. We constantly allow travel companies off the hook when there are events they can’t control, like weather. When thunderstorms ground your plane, for example, you aren’t entitled to any compensation, and the airline is under no obligation to pay for your hotel or meals while you wait for the weather to clear.

Why shouldn’t an airline show some compassion when something similar happens to one of its passengers?

I asked US Airways to take another look at your case. The airline refunded your $737.

(Photo: Christopher Chan/Flickr Creative Commons)

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  • Joel Wechsler

    While I certainly sympathize with Mr. and Mrs. Schweitzer, and I agree that airlines should make exceptions for special cases like theirs, this is further proof of the need for travelers to know the exact nature of their committment and how they can protect themselves. This is true whether booking online or through a traditional travel agent. Fortunately for the Schweitzers Chris’ intervention saved the day but it could have just as easily gone the other way.

  • Arizona Road Warrior

    It is easy to have compassion for the Schwitzers and I am sure that this happens to hundreds if not thousands of ‘Schwitzers’ every year. I am sure if the Schwitzers purchased their tickets directly from US Airways (like what they did with Southwest Airlines) and contacted them directly (like what they did with Southwest Airlines) that they would have received a refund.

    Unofficially, I think that most airlines will refund the money or waive the fees if you call them directly, before the first flight departs and etc. We were planning to visit my parents but two days before we were ready to leave, my father became very ill and he wanted me to be home ASAP and didn’t want to wait two days. I was at a customer site so US Airways waived $ 300 of change fees for the two ticket reservations that I was holding.

    How motivated is Travelocity (or another web based travel service) in fighting for a refund?

    At the US Airways website, before you purchase your ticket(s), you must accept or decline the travel insurance issued by Access America if you are purchasing a non-refundable ticket. On a ticket that had a total cost of $ 510.91, the cost for the travel insurance was $ 28.10 or an extra 5.5%.

    I went to the Travelocity website and again, they offer travel insurance from AIG and you must accept or decline the travel insurance before buying your ticket

    The solutions are 1) purchase a refundable air fare or 2) purchase travel insurance. It is much cheaper to purchase travel insurance than a refundable ticket. If your travel insurance has a waiting period for pre-existing conditions (i.e. 120 days), a person might have to purchase a refundable ticket if a person has concerns that a pre-existing condition could act up.

    From the posts that I have read at this forum and others, it seems like older passengers (i.e. 65+) will spend $ 10,000 for a cruise but don’t want to purchase travel insurance. Yes, it is a cost like auto insurance, homeowner insurance and etc…but most people will have these insurance policies because they can’t afford to fund the loss if there is a claim or etc.

    The government could mandate that if you purchase a non-refundable airline ticket (or other travel product like a cruise), you must purchase travel insurance. I don’t know if the public will accept that. I am sure that some people are willing to take the risks and some won’t. I am sure that some people are willing to purchase travel insurance for big trips\vacations but not for small trips.

  • DaveS

    It’s not obvious to me whether Travelocity was as clear as it needed to be about the nonrefundable nature of the package and the opportunity to get insurance. But that’s exactly the point of buying insurance – to protect yourself against costly unforeseen events. Why should anyone buy insurance if you think you can just get your money back anyway if something comes up? If the product is clearly identified as nonrefundable, and the person knew about and declined the opportunity to buy insurance, then really no compensation should be expected.

  • Bottom Line

    The bottom line is that U.S. Airways sees the customers as “seats.”
    Southwest Airlines sees the customers as “people.”
    Whenever I can, I’ll fly with Southwest first!

  • http://www.holidaysbylandandsea.com Jonas

    If Travel Insurance was offered and declined, then I believe the clients have to bear the brunt of the penalties. As a Travel Professional, I ALWAYS highy suggest Travel Insurance since we do not have a crystal ball to our future. At any age and in any circumstance, something can happen to force you to cancel. Travel Insurance is a “peace of mind” purchase that is invaluable!

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