Like many industries affected by the coronavirus outbreak, air travel is in crisis. Countries are closing their borders to travelers. Airlines are cutting routes and laying off staff.
On the traveler side, many people with upcoming plane tickets are confused and anxious, wondering if their flights will be canceled, if they should be doing the canceling themselves or traveling at all, period.
The uncertainty may drive people to cancel travel plans immediately, but that may not be the best route to take for getting your money back, especially when it comes to airfare.
"If your flight hasn't been canceled yet, but it's a trip that you no longer want to take, it's better to wait until as late as possible to actually cancel it," says Scott Keyes, founder of Scott's Cheap Flights. "Because you don't get any benefit from canceling early, even if it's eligible for a refund in travel credit."
So what should travelers with upcoming flights do about their outstanding reservations? While the general rule is that airlines won't give you a cash refund unless they are the ones who cancel the flight, exceptions can happen. This can all depend on when you booked your flight, or when it is departing.
The likely outcome is that you'll be able to use the value of your existing flight toward a future flight. Those future travel funds usually must be used a year from the original purchase date; however, during this pandemic, many airlines are changing their policies — from travel-credit windows to change-fee requirements.
To get the most out of your cancellation, here's what else to know before you make any moves:
— If you want to cancel a flight departing in 72 hours or less: If your flight departs in the immediate future, pick up the phone and see what an airline reservation agent can do.
"When you call, I would try to ask for a cash refund. Plead your case," Keyes says. "It's not within the policy, and most won't. But this is why agents get empowered to make exceptions. And if you have a good reason why you deserve an exception, they can sometimes do it."
Airline agents aren't following a strict script when customers call with concerns. They're able to use what's known as "situational flexibility" to make their own judgments.
"Situational flexibility is the customer care agent's ability to reach an agreed-upon travel resolution with the customer that goes outside of the ticket's original agreement," Anthony Black, general manager of corporate communications at Delta Air Lines, said in an email.
You may have a better chance of the agent making an exception for your refund request if you have frequent-flyer status with the airline, but it's not impossible for non-status fliers to end up with a refund.
Keyes says that if you don't have luck getting a cash refund from one agent, try calling back and try again with a new representative.
"You'll almost certainly get to somebody different who may take a more charitable view of your specific predicament," he says. "If a travel credit is all they're offering, it's certainly way better than nothing."
Know that it may be difficult to get through to an agent.
The coronavirus outbreak's impact on flights has been going on for more than two months, meaning airline customer service centers have been swamped with calls long before recent announcements, such as President Donald Trump's 30-day travel restriction on travelers from Europe.
That means there are thousands of people like you trying to resolve their problems.
"The best kind of hidden trick that I can recommend folks is to look up the airlines' foreign offices and call one of those numbers," Keyes says. "They can handle a reservation all the same, and likely have far fewer people calling them."
Don't abuse the privilege of calling a foreign office; save the option for the worst-case scenario. Note that international rates will apply if you call a foreign phone number.
Your other option is to contact your airline, or whatever outlet you booked the flight with, through social media. Although companies are putting as many employees as possible to staff reservation phone lines, there are agents trained to manage requests through these channels as well.
— If you want to cancel a flight further out: Wait to call the airline until closer to your scheduled departure date.
Due to those thousands of people flooding airline call centers, companies are begging customers with non-immediate flights to hold off on calling customer service.
It's in your best interest to heed that request. You're likely to face long wait times to deal with an issue that's not actually time-sensitive.
Although travelers may feel anxious about resolving travel concerns, there's no harm in waiting to make moves. Canceling now would probably result in the same outcome as canceling later: getting a refund in the form of a travel credit. If you're hoping for a cash refund, don't cancel right away.
"There's nothing that you lose by canceling late," says Keyes. "What you gain is, if the eventuality does come that your flight gets canceled or changed significantly, then you can get a cash refund."
Cancel online before your reservation if you'd like a future flight credit.
Not everyone may need a cash refund. If you know you'd like to fly on the same airline after the coronavirus pandemic is resolved, you may be happy with a credit. In that case, you can probably change, or cancel and rebook, your flight through an airline website or app without a fee.
Keyes warns travelers to read the fine print and pay attention to the expiration date of that credit. You may want to make a change closer to the flight date so your credit is valid when you want to use it.
"I would expect that that deadline will get extended, just by the way things have been looking, but it's not a guarantee," he says.
Set a calendar reminder for a date closer to your flight, then make a change to your reservation to have the most time to use your credit.
Miss that calendar reminder or miss your flight completely? Airlines may still let you reschedule that same flight you missed for a fee; however, Keyes says that you probably won't be eligible for a cash refund.
"Rather than just no-showing, it's a lot better to call the airline or the [online travel agency] if you booked through one, to get a cancellation or refund with them beforehand," he says.