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Is my nonrefundable ticket really nonrefundable?

Airport Ticket Counter
Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images

Sometimes travel plans can change, and flights need to be canceled. But a glance at the fees associated with altering your itinerary can give one pause — airlines often charge between $200 and $500 for “change fees” depending on whether your flight is domestic or international. Is it really not possible to get a refund on a nonrefundable ticket?

The short answer: yes and no. The U.S. Department of Transportation has a stipulation that requires that all airlines hold or refund tickets — even nonrefundable ones — within 24 hours, so long as the ticket was purchased at least seven days before the date of the flight. If you meet these circumstances, all airlines are legally obligated to refund the complete value of your ticket.

Additionally, airlines will refund your tickets should they decide to cancel your flight or make a drastic schedule change.

But outside of these situations, obtaining a full refund for a nonrefundable ticket becomes significantly challenging. You might be able to change your itinerary and apply the face value to a flight at a later date, but you’ll still be hit with a change fee. And if you’re looking to cancel your flight altogether, you’ll have to eat the cost of that ticket.

But, as the Washington Post points out, there are always loopholes — especially as airlines are under intense scrutiny following a series of customer service debacles. If you’re facing a set of exceptional circumstances, airlines might be willing to bend the rules to avoid confrontation or bad press.

The Post detailed the situations of two separate American Airlines passengers who were able to receive refunds because of health emergencies. While that solution might seem like a given, both passengers only got their refunds after the reporter inquired the carrier as to why the customers had not received reimbursement.

One passenger had a brain tumor that required emergency surgery, thus preventing his flight. The other had recently been diagnosed with pulmonary disease and hypertension and had been advised by her doctor not to fly. But in both cases, obtaining that refund proved to be difficult.

“I’ve sent in at least three or four refund requests, only to receive automated responses,” one of the customers told the Post. “On the last request, I was sent a reply telling me that it could possibly take 30 days for someone to respond. It’s been 60 days and I have yet to hear from anyone.”

So, moral of the story: You can receive a refund for a nonrefundable ticket, but it can be pretty difficult.

If you have any reason to suspect you might want to cancel your flight within the first day of the ticket’s purchase, you’re better off playing it safe — you’re guaranteed to get all of your money back, and you can always purchase another flight.

Otherwise, travel insurance might be the way to go. For rates ranging from typically $50 to $100, you can ensure you receive a full refund on a nonrefundable ticket should you need to cancel your flight.

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