(Tribune Media Services) -- Ethel Schweitzer's husband falls ill before a trip to Las Vegas, and the couple cancels their vacation. Now US Airways wants to keep their money. Why can't it offer them a refund?
Q: I'm trying to get a refund for a flight, and I need your help. Last summer, my husband and I booked a trip to Las Vegas through Travelocity. In late August, he was diagnosed with colon cancer, which had metastasized to the liver. Travelocity refunded $314 but kept $737 as a "cancellation penalty."
I was advised to write to Travelocity's customer service department for the balance. I sent them supporting documents and have been writing and calling ever since, always to be told that I would hear from them in 30 to 60 days but never hearing from them unless I initiated the call.
Finally, I was told there would be no refund. In contrast, we had a trip planned for Thanksgiving through Southwest Airlines, and when I notified them, I had a complete refund within weeks.
If you could intercede on our behalf, we would be grateful. We are a senior couple living on a fixed income, and these were circumstances beyond our control.
-- Ethel Schweitzer, Boynton Beach, Florida
A: Travelocity wasn't keeping any of your money as a cancellation penalty. Those appear to be your US Airways tickets, which are nonrefundable.
Someone at Travelocity should have advised you that you could have received a credit for up to a year for the tickets, but it looks like the trip was canceled outright, leaving you with nothing.
As a matter of policy, airlines don't make exceptions for passengers with nonrefundable tickets who fall ill and can't travel. But as a matter of practice, they evaluate each case -- some more carefully than others -- and will grant a refund request once in a while.
You were correct to write and call Travelocity. But were you writing to the correct people? I suggested sending a letter up the chain of command, starting with Travelocity's vice president for sales and customer service. The response: "Unfortunately, many hotel and airline policies are very strict and do not allow for refunds in the case of serious illness."
Next, I recommended that you explain the situation to US Airways. You did, but it replied with a form letter denying your request. Too bad.
It's important to understand that neither Travelocity nor US Airways are under any obligation to refund your money. When you're offered a package or trip that includes nonrefundable airfare or hotel rates, travel companies have a duty to remind customers to buy travel insurance. That way, if something happens, you won't lose your entire vacation.
Did your online travel agent and airline suggest an insurance policy? I don't know because I wasn't there. But my sense is that most travelers gloss over the fine print regarding cancellations, and that travel companies are content to let them do it. Until something goes wrong.
For me, the last line in your letter -- noting that these were circumstances beyond your control -- was the clincher. We constantly allow travel companies off the hook when there are events they can't control, like weather. When thunderstorms ground your plane, for example, you aren't entitled to any compensation, and the airline is under no obligation to pay for your hotel or meals while you wait for the weather to clear.
Why shouldn't an airline show some compassion when something similar happens to one of its passengers?
I asked US Airways to take another look at your case. The airline refunded your $737.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2009 CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT, DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
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