Saturday, January 25, 2014

Cancelling Flights for A Full Refund

You may recall that back in November, my father was able to nab 3 tickets on non-stop United flights from Newark to Tel Aviv for the low, low price of just $398/person by purchasing them through a small Norwegian Airline's website that was incorrectly pricing tickets without adding the Fuel Surcharge (which amounted to $600/person). While normal United flights were ~$1,000/person, we were able to get the 3 of us for just $1,200 TOTAL! So for the past few months, we were all getting ready to fly out on January 21, 2014 and celebrate my mother and grandfather's birthdays this week in Haifa, Israel.

Then you may have read the other week that my mother was finally scheduled for her long awaited U.S. Citizenship interview on January 29th - right in the middle of our planned Israel trip! Unfortunately, we couldn't reschedule the interview for a confirmed future date (we'd just be thrown back in the queue), so we regretfully made the decision to cancel our Israel trip, meaning we'd just have to forfeit the $1,200 in prepaid airline tickets. Now for some of you $1,200 isn't a lot of money, but remember, I'm half Asian and half Jewish. I'm twice as likely to hate wasting money.

You can read more about the mistake fare and the decision to cancel here:

Wait For It...
Now, while we may have decided to cancel our itinerary back on January 13th, we didn't actually cancel the reservation at that time. Why?

We realized that it would have been much better for United Airlines if we just cancelled as soon as we decided to forego the trip. That way, they could re-sell our Economy Plus seats on the January 21st EWR-TLV flight to other passengers (likely at a more realistic price of $1,000+/person). However, we wanted to wait til the very end, because (A) we had no financial incentive to cancel early and (b) there's always a chance something would happen...

Then, as you Northeast readers will remember, last week New York City prepared for it's second Polar Vortex of 2014, scheduled to arrive on... you guessed it, January 21st (our scheduled departure date).

Getting Your Ducks In A Row
The evening of January 20th, my father immediately jumped online to see what the Travel Notices website was saying for passengers traveling through the affected airports. At that time, they were offering a waiver of their Change Fees if you wanted to reschedule your flight. Had we wanted to just fly out a few days later, we could have done so and avoided the $300/person Change Fees for international flights. Nice, but not what we really wanted.

My father then called United and spoke to a live agent who confirmed the same weather related change policies (no change fees for rescheduling, but may have to pay a fare difference). Unfortunately, she said (a) there were no cancellation refunds being offered, and (b) that because the ticket was issued by the Norwegian company, she couldn't even make any changes if she wanted to.

He would have to contact the Norwegians to see what they could do. However, my father was smart enough to ask the United agent what specific protocol/policy he should reference to the Norwegians so that they could abide by the same rules. He was told "EWR Weather Waiver - Severe 1."

Of course, our specific issue wasn't the just Jan 21 departure date, it was the fact that we wanted to cancel the entire trip.
Side note: You may be thinking that we should have used this opportunity to just reschedule the entire trip to dates that would allow my mother to have her Immigration Interview, but that wasn't a viable option. Rescheduling for new dates would require United to reprice the $400 mistake fare and we would have to pay the fare difference. Trust me, my nerd father literally has nothing better to do than think through all these sorts of details and scenarios.
So here was the hand we were dealt as of January 20th.

1. We booked our United operated flight on a random Norwegian company that United wasn't really familiar with (and vice versa).

2. Our flight from Newark the next evening was possibly going to be affected, though international flights tend to depart even though domestic flights are cancelled. But as of Jan 20, it was unclear what would ultimately happen.

3. After calling United, we knew to use the term "EWR Weather Waiver - Severe 1" as our ace up the sleeve.

4. However, United was not actually offering refunds for cancellations, just waivers on their self-imposed change fees. Their typical protocol was to retain the value of your original ticket for a future flight, but you'd have to pay the change fee (which in this case would be waived).

Fire When Ready!
So my father contacted the Norwegians by online live chat (given it was 8PM in NY and afterhours in Olso). However, given that this was Norway, it was highly likely that the person on the other end of the chat would be a Norwegian (surprisingly, they generally speak fluent English), not some offshore call center in Bangladesh.

He got Merete, which based on the photo seemed to be a middle aged woman with a stern disposition. He explained the situation and while she initially said that a cancellation of the reservation would only refund the airport taxes and fees (~$80 USD/person), after invoking the "EWR Weather Waiver Severe 1" terminology and standard United Airline protocol for giving full fare credit (notice we didn't say refund), Merete relented and said she would ask for a refund of the fare as well.

To be very sure, my anal father tried to get her to confirm in writing that the "full fare" meant the $390/person (fare + taxes, but not the $5/ticket service charge). She slyly responded "you see the amount on your receipts" though that may have been to avoid specifying an exact US dollar amount (given we were dealing with moving FX rates). As the chat ended, he clicked to receive the transcript of the conversation sent to him via email, so that he had some backup in case he needed it.

So now we had to wait. On Thurs (1/23) morning, our credit card showed a refund for the $80/person in taxes. $240 back was nice, but my father went back to the online chat to see why the rest of the fare wasn't being refunded. He got Merete again. Small world.

She informed him that the fare refund was still in process by their Refund Department and that I should continue to wait. Given #4 above (United wasn't actually offering refunds) and the fact that on January 21, United Flight #90 actually successfully departed for Tel Aviv despite the winter snow storm, we were a bit nervous our refund wouldn't be approved/processed.

But then on Saturday morning (1/25), we saw that our credit card was refunded the additional $306/person.

The big lesson learned here is that there are oftentimes situations where you should wait as long as you can before cancelling/changing a reservation. There may be a schedule change or weather that may allow you to wiggle out of your original booking with little/no penalty. Until the airlines start to incentivize us for declaring our intentions early, we have little reason to do so.

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