As droves of holiday shoppers head to stores for refunds, many fliers are unaware they can get one when their non-refundable airline ticket drops in price.
Most airlines provide a refund if it is requested before a flier’s scheduled flight. Depending on an airline’s policy, the request can be made on the phone or at the carrier’s website.
Only Southwest Airlines allows fliers to rebook their flight at a lower fare and refunds the difference on a credit card.
Most other airlines make up the difference with a voucher for a future flight. A change fee — ranging from $75 to $150 for a domestic flight — may apply.
Southwest’s refund policy is the most consumer friendly, a USA TODAY survey of airline policies shows. Besides giving fliers money back, the airline has no change fee.
United, JetBlue and Alaska also do not charge a change fee but reimburse with a voucher that can be used up to one year from the issue date. Continental, Delta, US Airways and Northwest issue vouchers but charge a change fee.
Frequent flier Rich Szulewski, of Memphis, says the refund policy benefited him and his family last year, when, “on a whim,” he checked the price of a Memphis-Orlando ticket on Northwest a week before departure. The price had dropped $175 below what he had paid for each of three non-refundable tickets.
Szulewski exchanged the tickets, minus a $50 change fee for each, on the reservations page of Northwest’s website. He received three $125 vouchers, which he used for a later trip.
Southwest passengers can receive a refund at the airline’s website or by calling the airline. The refund is processed immediately but can take up to two weeks to appear in a flier’s credit card account, says Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz.
United, JetBlue and Alaska passengers must call the airline for a refund.
American Airlines passengers booked on domestic flights can get a travel voucher for the fare difference, minus a $150 change fee, on the airline’s website.
“Some people find this daunting, though,” says American spokesman Tim Wagner, “and they choose to call our reservations to make changes.”
AirTran, Virgin America, Spirit and Frontier do not provide a refund or a travel voucher for the difference in price when a passenger buys a non-refundable ticket and it later drops in price.
Within 24 hours after buying a ticket, a Virgin America ticket holder can, however, cancel the ticket and rebook at a lower fare without a change fee.
Alaska has a price guarantee for fliers who buy a ticket on its website and notice — within 24 hours — on any website a fare for the same flight that’s at least $5 cheaper. They can call the airline and get the difference refunded on a credit card and a $50 voucher for a future flight.
No federal regulation requires airlines to provide a refund within 24 hours of buying a ticket or when a fare drops, says Department of Transportation spokesman Bill Mosley.
Szulewski says he’s undecided whether airlines should be required to make refunds if a fare drops before departure. “As a consumer, I believe the airlines should refund the difference,” he says. “But the capitalist in me says they shouldn’t. What a consumer pays should be what they pay.”