Q: I'm trying to help my sister get a refund on her daughter's nonrefundable airline ticket. Her daughter went to Spain in January as an exchange student. Her return was scheduled for May 29.
When my sister, her husband and son went to Spain to visit her, my brother-in-law was rushed to the hospital. He had been hospitalized for more than a week until he was stable enough to fly back to Boston. They weren't sure that he would survive, so my niece went home earlier than expected.
My sister could really use the refund to help pay medical bills.
I looked at American's Web page and it said there are exceptions to the nonrefundable ticket. I thought this would apply to my sister's flight. When I called American Airlines, I was told that it would cost $250 to exchange the ticket, but the ticket was worth only $87. The ticket was virtually worthless.
An American representative asked if I wanted to cancel the ticket. I told her not to do it yet. Is there anything else I can do to help get the price of the ticket back? - Kathy Stickney, Las Vegas
A: I'm sorry to hear about your brother-in-law, and glad he made it. Like other airlines, American rarely makes exceptions to its nonrefundability rule. The only time it consistently does so, in my experience, is when a passenger dies.
Airlines say they offer "options" for travelers who want more flexibility, but they aren't practical. Your niece would have had to pay at least double for her ticket if she wanted the option of a refund. She could have always paid extra for a "boarding and flexibility package," which would have allowed her to make a change for $75, but as a student, she probably didn't have the budget to spring for that extra "perk."
So, to recap: American, like other airlines, makes it too expensive to buy a refundable fare, and people don't really think they'll have to make a change to their ticket, so the option is impractical. They'll only refund your niece's ticket if she dies. So what's a girl to do?
I think this is one of those can't-win situations. You were left with only two choices: cancel the ticket and let American keep the money, or call me.
I'm glad you picked Door No. 2. Your niece didn't have a case, at least as far as American's rules are concerned. Neither did I. All I could do is ask the airline to consider making an exception to its refund policy. I did - and it did. The ticket has been refunded.
Christopher Elliott is the author of "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or email him at email@example.com