Column: Get Your Money Back From a Canceled Flight

People often ask me how to get a refund when a flight goes belly-up.

Nov. 16, 2012— -- People often ask me how to get a refund when a flight goes belly-up. "Belly-up" covers drama from Sandy or that Nor'easter - when airlines are the ones canceling flights - to you falling ill and scrubbing your own trip. How to get your money back? Not so fast.

You could be toast since refunds are denied every day. It all depends on what happened to the flight and/or why you're ditching, plus whether or not a magic word appears on your ticket. Check out the following three situations; see which one applies to you to learn whether you've got money coming.

If you are due a refund, a word of warning; it may not happen quickly.

For more travel news and insights view Rick's blog at Does your ticket have the magic word on it?

The magic word is "refundable." Did you buy your ticket during an airfare sale? No magic. Were you offered different prices and chose the cheapest? Forget it. Most of us seek out the lowest airfare, but those bargains are almost invariably non-refundable. You'll know a ticket is refundable because not only will it say so but you'll have paid more - triple the price of a non-refundable ticket, and sometimes even more.

Tip: When airlines say non-refundable, they mean business.

U.S. military veteran Jerry Meekins bought a non-refundable ticket on Spirit earlier this year, but at that last minute learned his cancer had progressed to the point where doctors forbade him to fly. Surely, he figured, Spirit would give him his money back, but Spirit said no. When former comrades learned of Meekins' dilemma they got his back on Facebook and a PR battle was on. It took a while, but the bloodied airline finally caved and Meekins got his refund. He died just two months later.

When You're the One Canceling a Flight

In defense of Spirit, most airlines operate on razor thin margins and refund dollars do add up. Even airlines that allow refunds - generally only under very special circumstances - may make you jump through hoops and even pay a fee.

United, for example, seems to have one of the more generous policies regarding "unplanned events" such as death or illness of a traveler, but it is by no means guaranteed. The airline merely says it will "consider" granting a refund on non-refundable tickets providing you fit certain criteria and submit proper legal documentation up to and including actual death certificates or doctors' notes on letterhead stationery. Plus, if you do get your money back or a partial refund, you may still be dinged a $50 processing fee.

Again, that's a generous policy! Even Southwest, the only airline with no change fee, does not have any sort of blanket refund policy for non-refundable tickets, but they do say you can write to them (via snail mail). Presumably, if your case is good enough, you might get a refund, but again, no guarantees.

Bottom line: With most airlines, non-refundable means non-refundable. Pay more for a refundable ticket or get travel insurance, but be sure that insurance covers what you need it for.

When the Airline Is the One Canceling a Flight

Finally some good news. When bad weather threatens, airlines are much more pro-active in letting you know your options, allowing you to change flights without a fee penalty and often providing refunds. It wasn't always that way, believe me.

And it's still not guaranteed. Weather, considered a force majeure event (which also includes anything beyond an airline's control from strikes to terrorism), is governed by all sorts of arcane rules. Check out any airline's 'contract of carriage' for fascinating details about the ways your airline works and you will find surprises.

Speaking of surprises, American pulled one off recently but maybe they felt they had to. The carrier waived change fees and doled out refunds to unhappy flyers during its long kerfuffle with pilots and those thousands of delayed and canceled flights.

American is now saying "we're sorry" with extra miles for everyone, and since management and its pilots have come to a tentative contract agreement, I do not believe you have any worries about booking with them for the holidays. You may even score a free trip out of it.

Getting Your Money Back

Airlines say they'll post refunds anywhere from seven to ten business days. My personal experience is that you have to wait a couple of billing cycles before it shows up. Don't spend that refund too quickly.

And in the meantime, if you have doubts about your ability to make a flight consider a refundable ticket or insurance. Or gear yourself up for battle. The opinions expressed by Rick Seaney are his alone and not those of ABC News.