When You’re Suddenly Unable to Travel, But Already Bought the Tickets

PHOTO: United AirlinesMira Oberman/AFP/Getty Images
A United Airlines logo is seen behind the ticket counter at Chicago's O'Hare airport, Aug. 13, 2013.

Dear ABC News Fixer: Last year, I purchased an airline ticket for my dad to travel to the Philippines on United Airlines.

Unfortunately, three months before his intended travel, he tripped and fell. My dad's hip was fractured and he had a total hip replacement surgery.

I canceled my dad's flight and requested a refund. United wouldn’t give us a refund because they said exceptions are based on a person’s ability to travel in the future and his illness didn’t qualify.

Almost a year later, my dad is still recovering and unable to walk without the help of a walker; he can't go down the stairs and just stays inside our house. He can't travel and can't sit for a long time. He spends most of his time on his bed. He underwent physical therapy but his lower body is still weak.

I asked United if I could at least transfer the ticket, so my mom could use it for future travel, but they said the ticket is non-transferable. I don't know what to do. This was hard-earned money. It could have been used to buy maintenance medicine for my dad.

-Junel Corales, Jersey City, N.J.

Dear Junel: This was the sort of gray area that requires a human touch, and you told the ABC News Fixer you weren’t sure customer service had really looked at what happened. In addition to your father’s hip surgery and his continuing incapacitation, he also has diabetes and high blood pressure and his primary care doctor says he is not fit to travel.

We have some good news. After the ABC News Fixer went to United with that information (and letters from his surgeon and primary doc), they made a gesture of good will. They’ve decided to issue an electronic travel certificate in the amount of your dad’s old ticket, which can be used by your father to purchase a ticket for another person (like your mom) on United. It’ll be good for one year. So that $1,457 for the ticket will not be money down the drain.

It’s worth noting that the airlines don’t have to do this for people with non-refundable tickets – but they sometimes will, if the person makes a good enough case.

Typically, what a consumer will get if they prevail is an offer to extend the ticket for one year, though the consumer may have to pay a change fee.

United’s policy states that it will review requests for refunds on nonrefundable fares due to an “unplanned event” such as the traveler’s death or the death of a traveling companion or immediate family member; jury duty during the travel dates; or “certain illness situations.” United will only issue monetary refunds if the unplanned event prevents the person from using the ticket within one year.

In general, travelers who want to play it safe (or who have reason to think something may go wrong) may wish to buy a more expensive flexible ticket or purchase travel insurance, especially if the trip represents a substantial financial investment.

Trip cancellation insurance is often available at the time of purchase. But before you buy, make sure you understand the conditions – for example, does the policy cap reimbursement at some low amount? Does it exclude recent pre-existing medical conditions?

Make sure you get those answers before spending the money.

- The ABC News Fixer

Got a consumer problem? The ABC News Fixer may be able to help. Click here to submit your problem online. Letters are edited for length and clarity.