Here's How To Get A Cash Refund Instead Of A Voucher From Your Airline

There's little more unpredictable than travel, and when flying, the rug can be rapidly pulled from under your flip-flops if the airline cancels your flight. When this happens, you'll often have the option to move to another flight. If you choose not to do that, you're entitled to a refund. There are several other circumstances under which you may claim a refund from the airline, too, including a schedule change or a class of service change.

And while you might expect to receive cold hard cash (or at least the equivalent on your credit card), you might be left hanging. Airlines have long been defaulting to issuing vouchers rather than cash refunds for canceled flights.

How likely are you to run into an issue like flight cancelation? Numbers vary from month-to-month and year-to-year, but the trend seems to be going in the wrong direction. Data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics shows that in 2022, over 2% of flights from U.S. airports were canceled, more than the average in the years up to 2019. If you're among the unlucky 2%, what can you do to actually get your money back?

What's the law?

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) is clear on the issue of refunds: if your flight is canceled by the airline and you choose not to travel, you are entitled to a refund. That means the dollar amount you paid, not a voucher for the equivalent to use with the airline. Other reasons you may be entitled to a refund are a schedule change or a significant delay ("significant" is currently undefined by the DoT) or if you are bumped from business class to economy, for example. These rules cover flights that originate or terminate in the U.S. You are also entitled to have other fees refunded, for example, if you paid for baggage or in-flight WiFi. 

There are certain exceptions to the refund rules: if you purchased a non-refundable ticket, the airline is unlikely to refund you except in the event of cancelation or schedule changes. You're also not entitled to compensation for expenses you incur because of a cancelation or long delay, such as hotel rooms. However, you should always contact your airline and ask what they will provide. Don't ask, don't get.

Rules in other countries differ, so you'll need to check on an individual basis. If you're flying from or to an airport in the European Union (EU), you are entitled to compensation if you were informed of a cancellation or change fewer than 14 days before your original flight. You can choose from reimbursement, re-routing or return, and you are entitled to cash rather than vouchers.

How to get your cash refund

So the airline has offered you a voucher, which is perfectly legal, but you'd rather just have the cash. You'll need to proactively ask your airline for a cash refund in writing. The same goes for if you've booked through an online travel agency like Expedia. They are also covered under DoT rules. The airline is required to make refunds within seven business days if you paid by credit card and 20 business days if you paid by cash or check. Ticketing agents, however, are not covered by these time limits. We strongly recommend paying for flights with your credit card if you can because if the airline is playing hardball with your refund, you can dispute the charge with your card company. As a large financial institution, the card company will likely hold more sway over the airline than a single customer.

If that doesn't work, and you've been refused a refund that you know you should get, make a complaint via the form on the DoT website. In the EU, you can get assistance by filling out the form on the European Commission site. If you are entitled to receive a cash refund rather than a voucher from the airline, know your rights and don't give up.