In this world nothing is certain but death, taxes, and airline fees. As ticket prices skyrocket, all of the associated fees with flying, from baggage to food to changes, are mounting as well. And one of the surest premises on which our airline travel rests is that the non-refundable ticket is exactly that: non-refundable.
But that presumption might be changing. It turns out that U.S. Department of Transportation regulations guarantee full refunds in certain situations, even on non-refundable tickets. Here's a look.
Re-Fly or Refund?
You probably purchased a non-refundable ticket because it was cheaper and bet that you wouldn't need to make changes or cancel the reservation, which would trigger some hefty fees from the airline. But there are specific scenarios in which the airline can't charge change or cancellation fees, and may owe you a full refund:
Changes/Cancellations Within 24 Hours of Booking: DOT rules mandate that U.S. and foreign air carriers selling tickets to American customers must "allow a reservation to be cancelled within 24 hours without penalty." The 24-hour clock starts ticking once you make the reservation, so if you need to cancel or change the reservation right away, like, for example, you accidentally booked the wrong day to fly, you can't be charged for canceling or changing the reservation. (Note that if you change the reservation a fare difference may apply, but airlines can't charge an additional change fee.)
Involuntary Refunds: If an airline refuses to carry you for any reason, your flight is delayed more than a certain amount of time, or your flight is canceled, you can apply for a full refund even if you purchased a non-refundable ticket. Some airline rules may differ and you'll still need to show up and check in for your flight to be eligible.
Significant Schedule Changes: Airlines adjust flight schedules all the time, and serious changes (i.e., more than a few minutes delay) can trigger refunds. You could be eligible for a refund if your departure time is moved up by a few hours, if your new schedule requires a much longer layover or overnight stay, or even if your nonstop flight is changed to include a connection. There's just one hitch -- airlines might not tell you if a schedule change triggers a refund. So keep an eye on the flight schedule and notify the airline if the schedule changes and you want a refund.
On the DOT'd Line
While there are some federal regulations on refunds, rules regarding refunding non-refundable tickets may vary by airline. Make sure you're familiar with your particular airline's contract of carriage as well as the Department of Transportation's Fly Rights.