How to get refunds for canceled flights

Saturday, December 31, 2022

A massive storm has triggered widespread flight cancellations, most notably at Southwest Airlines, which has canceled more than 15,000 flights since last week, stranding droves of customers during peak holiday travel season.

The problems continued for passengers on Thursday, when Southwest canceled about 2,300 flights or 58% of its flights scheduled for that day, according to flight tracking site FlightAware. But the company said in a statement that it plans to return to "normal operations with minimal disruptions" on Friday.

After a flight cancellation, airlines are typically willing to rebook passengers on the next available flight. Since flights are scarce and some airlines are overwhelmed, customers may prefer a refund.

Any potential refund depends on a passenger's communication with the airline, Clint Henderson, a managing editor for news at The Points Guy, told ABC News.

"Be your own best advocate," he said. "You really have to appeal to the airline directly - there's no third party that takes care of it for you."

Here's how to get a refund if your flight has been canceled:

Seek a cash refund for the ticket

If an airline cancels a flight and a customer decides that he or she does not want to rebook an alternative one, the customer is entitled to a full refund by law, according to the Department of Transportation. That requirement applies no matter the reason for the flight cancellation, the agency said.

In such a circumstance, the customer can demand reimbursement directly from the airline, Henderson said.

"A lot of times airlines will try to give you a voucher but you're entitled to cash back," he said.

Pursue a refund for food, lodging and other expenses

In light of the holiday disruption that has stranded many customers, Southwest Airlines has vowed to "honor reasonable requests for reimbursement for meals, hotel, and alternate transportation," the company said.

The offer to refund non-flight expenses only stands for customers who suffered a cancellation or "significant delay" between Dec. 24 and Jan. 2, Southwest Airlines said.

It remains unclear exactly what costs Southwest Airlines will cover. Before affected customers take on sizable costs, they should note that "there's a lot of wiggle room in the word 'reasonable,'" Henderson said.

Ultimately, Southwest Airlines will refund customers for food, travel and lodging fees, even if they exceed typical rates, Henderson predicted, since the company will want to restore its reputation and respond to criticism from elected officials.

"I do think they'll make good even if you're spending $1,000 on a last-minute flight or renting a car for $300 a day or airport hotel prices jumped dramatically and you spend $500 a night for a hotel," he said.

Send receipts to the airline as soon as possible

Southwest Airlines has posted a web page where customers can submit receipts for expenses that resulted from travel disruptions over the holidays.

The company has warned, however, that reimbursements may take an extended period of time due to the severity of the current problems.

"As our focus remains on stabilizing and restarting our operation, of which we're seeing very positive signs, our teams will then take on the task of processing the requests. It will take some time given the scale," Southwest Airlines told ABC News.

In turn, customers can expedite the process as much as possible by submitting receipts to the company soon after the relevant purchases.

Henderson said he did not know how long reimbursements would take but said customers should not expect them anytime soon.

"Usually this kind of thing takes weeks and weeks, if not months," he said. "I don't think there will be a speedy timeline."

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