I’ve received thousands of emails from Times readers since the coronavirus put the brakes on travel in mid-March. And if there’s one thing that’s obvious, it’s that the aftershocks of canceled trips persist. Unclear policies, confusing customer-service protocols and not-yet-fulfilled refunds continue to be an issue — months later, and even as the world reopens.
This week, I dipped into my email inbox, grab-bag style, for three questions to tackle in brief. Have your own? Ask me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Tripped Up,
In early February, I used Orbitz to book a round-trip Qantas Airways flight from San Francisco to Melbourne, scheduled to depart in April. The flight was canceled. Who should one lobby for refunds in this case: the online travel agency or the airline? Meredith
I’ve gotten a lot of questions about this issue. Many readers report being herded like cattle from an online travel agency to an airline, and back — then around again.
Always start with the company that sold you the ticket. O.T.A.s like Orbitz can change most reservations (save for certain types on some low-cost carriers), so you’re well within reason to let the customer service representative do your bidding with the airline.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: When a flight to, from or within the United States is canceled because of the pandemic, you’re entitled to a cash refund. And if you’re not getting that as an initial option from sites like Orbitz, it’s because they can only process refunds after they’ve been granted that right by the end provider; here, the airline. That’s why getting refunds from O.T.A.s can be complicated, especially during this global crisis. These agencies are squished between an unprecedented number of consumer requests and airlines that stall or stonewall — or perhaps never pick up the phone. If you’re hitting roadblocks like these, ask that your case be escalated (Orbitz and other O.T.A.s have a hierarchy of urgency). Don’t be shy about following up.
That persistence seemed to work for you, even without my help: By the time I emailed Orbitz, a spokeswoman confirmed that the refund was already in process. Yes, it’s now June, and although call volumes in March and April have leveled off for most agencies by now, the current environment is still far from normal — patience is key.
Dear Tripped Up,
I have a flight to France coming up next month. Delta rebooked me on a different flight on my original departure date, which seemed fine — I understand flexibility is key nowadays. But when I hopped online to double-check my options, I didn’t see the new flight on Delta’s schedule. In fact, it didn’t appear until a few days later. What’s the story? Sabine
Although airline technology has improved in recent years, the pandemic has placed extraordinary stress on the system.
Even as the world begins to open up, flight schedules will be slimmer than normal this summer. Delta, like all airlines, has been compressing its schedule into fewer flights, so it’s possible that the flight you were rebooked on was kept “off-sale” to give already-booked passengers dibs before being made available to new passengers. It’s also possible that the new flight was full for a period of time, during which time it wasn’t appearing for sale online.
There are complexities to publishing and adjusting airline schedules, for sure, but there is one upside to a system that’s so in flux: mistake fares, or bargain-basement price glitches, that eagle-eyed consumers can score before they’re corrected. There are several websites that comb for these deals, including Secret Flying, Scott’s Cheap Flights and Airfarewatchdog.
Dear Tripped Up,
I paid a $125 “miles redeposit fee” when I canceled my United Airlines reward flight a couple of months ago. How can I get that money back? Jen
Save for the famously flexible Southwest, most airlines have long imposed some sort of fee — usually between $75 and $150 — when passengers change or cancel tickets booked with miles. These so-called “restocking fees” tend to lessen or disappear with elite status.
Although commonplace in normal times, these fees felt particularly out-of-step at the start of the pandemic. Facing increased pressure in March, many carriers waived them; United took a bit longer than some others to reverse its policy but eventually fell in line. On June 1, the airline announced that it will continue to waive redeposit fees on all award tickets with 2020 departure dates.
Refunds and waivers have been a moving target since the pandemic started, and if you got ensnared in an unfavorable policy before it changed for the better, you have plenty of company. If you’re committed to getting that restocking fee reversed, your best bet is to call the airline — a United spokeswoman wouldn’t commit to this as an across-the-board option, but she said the company will address the issue on a case-by-case basis.