Q: I booked a round-trip flight from Minneapolis to Savannah, Ga., through Orbitz. We were supposed to fly out on American Airlines and back on Sun Country. We also purchased trip insurance through Travel Guard.
A hurricane was heading for the Savannah area, and we were watching our flight status online and discovered that our flight had been canceled. We contacted Orbitz and a representative told us that they could not issue a refund, but they would give us a travel voucher for future flights that would expire in a year. They also stated that our travel insurance did not apply because the flight was canceled due to an “act of God.”
In February, we booked a Sun Country flight to Phoenix using the Sun Country voucher and it was a real hassle to arrange it. Plus, they charged a $50 fee each for a reservation change. After that experience and reading your column, I sent Orbitz an e-mail using your executive contacts. I requested a refund of $310 for the American Airlines leg of our trip. Orbitz never even acknowledged receipt of the e-mail.
We are not going to be able to use the American Airlines voucher before it expires and feel we should be reimbursed. Can you help?
A: Orbitz should have helped you get a full refund for your flights, not vouchers. The Department of Transportation is crystal-clear about your rights. You’re entitled to a refund if the airline canceled a flight, regardless of the reason, and you choose not to be rebooked on a new flight on that airline.
Here’s the problem: If you accept a voucher, then you’re bound by the terms of the voucher. Thus, your Sun Country voucher requires a $50 “reservation change” fee; and your American Airline voucher expires within a year, as most vouchers do.
It makes sense for an airline to offer a voucher. After all, vouchers allow them to keep your money. And since many passengers can’t fly within a year, it also means the airline doesn’t even have to fly you anywhere. It’s great if you’re an airline — not so great if you’re a passenger.
That’s why it’s so important to know your rights. If a flight is canceled, do you get a refund? Absolutely. But airlines will try to talk you into accepting vouchers. Before you say “yes,” review your rights at the DOT site. Then decide.
I also list executive contacts for all the companies involved in this recurring drama on my consumer advocacy site, elliott.org. I have the customer service managers at American, Orbitz (Expedia) and Sun Country. A brief, polite e-mail is usually enough to get help, but not always.
I recommended that you contact American Airlines directly and ask for a refund. You did, and it refunded your ticket.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.