Airlines Offer Vouchers, Credits For Canceled Flights. Customers Want Cash A new survey suggests nearly 60 million Americans are losing money because of canceled plans. And would-be travelers are getting the runaround, even when they are legally entitled to a full refund.

Airlines Offer Vouchers, Credits For Canceled Flights. Customers Want Cash

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NOEL KING, HOST:

If you had travel plans this spring, you probably also have tried to get a refund for those plans, and you know it is a journey. A new survey finds almost 60 million Americans can't get full refunds for things like canceled flights or vacation rentals. Here's NPR's David Schaper in Chicago.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: In the midst of Chicago's brutal winter, Mary Fabianski made plans for a week in spring on a beach.

MARY FABIANSKI: This year, I'm lucky enough to visit a different place in Florida.

SCHAPER: She booked a round trip flight to Sarasota on United Airlines on January 22, before the pandemic started affecting travel in the U.S. But as it got closer to the March 29 travel date, Fabianski figured the trip might not happen. Still, she didn't cancel herself. The airline did that for her on March 26.

FABIANSKI: I got a text alert on my phone at 1:23 in the afternoon.

SCHAPER: After dinner that night, Fabianski logged on to United's website to explore her options.

FABIANSKI: And it was confusing to say the least.

SCHAPER: When the airline cancels and offers no other reasonable substitution, it is legally obligated to offer a refund. But that wasn't one of the options United presented, so Fabianski called. At first, she was told she can't get a refund because she canceled her trip even though United had. Then she was told her ticket was nonrefundable but she could get a voucher for future travel.

But Fabianski felt that still wasn't right, so she called again and again, spending hours going back and forth with the airline. The retired English teacher took meticulous notes. She even mentioned Department of Transportation regulations requiring airlines to pay refunds when they cancel flights. Eventually, Fabianski was told she can get a refund next year if she doesn't use the voucher by then.

FABIANSKI: I somehow feel they're being - what's the right word? - disingenuous.

SCHAPER: A spokeswoman for United Airlines says it appears Fabianski is right and she is now getting a refund for her canceled flight. But if you cancel your trip, the airline is under no obligation to offer a refund. Each airline's policies differ, but they usually offer only credits or vouchers for future travel. And buying travel insurance may not help; only cancel-for-any-reason insurance will get you a refund. And even then, you may have to wait months for reimbursement. Most airlines are now waiving hefty change and cancellation fees and some, like United, will now give you up to two years to use travel vouchers or credits. Still, complaints about denied refunds are skyrocketing.

TED ROSSMAN: We found that a lot of people have lost money unfortunately.

SCHAPER: Ted Rossman is an analyst at bankrate.com, which just published a study on refunds.

ROSSMAN: Only 30% of people who experience canceled trips or other events due to the coronavirus have gotten all their money back.

SCHAPER: That leaves 70% of consumers getting only partial refunds, credits or nothing at all for canceled flights, hotel stays, vacation rentals and event tickets.

ROSSMAN: This leaves 59 million people that have lost money due to recently canceled plans.

SCHAPER: Rossman suggests waiting as long as possible before canceling to see if the airline cancels first. If there's a dispute, he says, take it up with who you purchased from. Disputing charges with your credit card company may help, too. The reason airlines in particular are trying to convince customers to take credits or vouchers instead of refunds is simple. DePaul University aviation expert Joe Schwieterman says they're running out of money.

JOE SCHWIETERMAN: You know, giving travel credit, of course, keeps some money in their coffers. And if there's a time the airlines need some liquidity, need some cash, it's right now.

SCHAPER: Take United, for example, which says it is losing $100 million a day. It expects to fly fewer passengers in all of May than it carried on one day last May. But a lot of people who made travel plans are facing their own cash crisis right now, so a refund for a trip they could not take is critical for them, too.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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