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Expecting a refund for a canceled flight? Here’s how long it could take

The Points Guy logo The Points Guy 4/28/2020 Zach Griff
a large passenger jet sitting on top of a runway © Provided by The Points Guy
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You are entitled to a refund for your canceled flight. But just because you’re legally entitled to one, doesn’t mean that an airline is in a rush to give your money back.

Due to the coronavirus, airlines have slashed their schedules and parked large parts of their fleets, leading to thousands of flight cancellations and significant schedule changes. Passengers are also postponing or cancelling upcoming travel.

Longtime readers know that they should wait until the last minute before canceling their flight to increase the odds they will get a refund. Even then, airlines are going to great lengths to avoid giving your money back. We’ve seen airlines try to convince readers to accept vouchers or future travel credit. Some, like El Al and Swiss, even claimed that they were temporarily suspending the ability to give refunds.

But, assuming you get a refund processed, how long does it actually take to show up on your credit card statement?

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Well, the U.S. Department of Transportation mandates that a credit card refund be completed within seven business days of the request. Spoiler alert: I dug through multiple data points from TPG staff and TPG Lounge members, and most airlines are taking much longer. (Thankfully, though, not nearly as long as cruise lines).

Alaska Airlines refund processing time

Alaska’s been one of the fastest to process refunds for canceled flights. In our experience, we saw the money post back in two business days.

Alaska has a published policy regarding its commitment to timely refunds, which matches our experience:

While not every ticket is refundable, we are committed to refunding all eligible tickets within 20 business days for cash purchases and 7 business days for credit card purchases. Note: It may take 7-14 business days for your credit card company to post your refund to your account.

American Airlines refund processing time

Of the big 3 U.S. carriers, American’s actually been the best about giving your money back for canceled flights. Though the process of requesting a refund with AA is a bit complex, everyone we spoke to got their money back within 10 days.

The average, however, was much closer to five to seven business days, which aligns with AA’s published policy regarding refunds:

We have a lot of refund requests so it’s taking longer than usual. If your ticket qualifies for a refund, you should hear from us within 7 days.

Delta Air Lines refund processing time

Though Delta’s invested heavily in onboard technology, the carrier’s reservations systems seem to be overloaded by the number of refund requests. In fact, we’ve heard reports of refunds taking as little as four business days, all the way to over 21.

a airplane that is parked on the tarmac at an airport: Delta Boeing 767 (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy) © The Points Guy Delta Boeing 767 (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)  

I’ve personally had multiple Delta tickets refunded since the outbreak of the coronavirus. The ones that were processed the fastest were approved directly by the phone agent I was speaking with. The others that I’m still waiting on were sent to the Refunds Department, and are supposed to be handled within 21 days.

Officially, Delta’s policy is:

We will make every effort to process eligible credits and refunds within 7 days. However, due to extremely high volume related to coronavirus and government-issued travel guidance, please allow up to 30 business days.

Frontier Airlines refund processing time

Throughout our research, we haven’t heard anything about Frontier’s refund processing time. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise, though, since the carrier’s been keen to get passengers to accept vouchers. In fact, the airline only has a rudimentary refund form on its website that doesn’t even list the expected processing times.

Hawaiian Airlines refund processing time

The Honolulu-based carrier is processing refunds in a timely manner. Our readers were thrilled to report receiving their money back within just a few days of making the request. In fact, some even received their money just one day after requesting it.

According to its contract of carriage:

Upon meeting the above requirements, we will issue refunds for eligible Tickets within seven (7) business days for credit card purchases and twenty (20) business days for purchases made with cash, check, or other forms of payment.

JetBlue Airlines refund processing time

JetBlue’s been slow and stingy in many aspects throughout the coronavirus outbreak. For instance, it’s the only major U.S. carrier that’s yet to extend elite status. Similarly, the New York-based airline also introduced (and then backtracked from) the strictest cancellation policy in the industry.

a purple car in the office: JetBlue Mint (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy) © The Points Guy JetBlue Mint (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)  

So, it’s no surprise that JetBlue’s taking its time to process refunds. We’ve heard a collection of reports ranging from five to fourteen days.

JetBlue’s contract of carriage does state that:

JetBlue strives to provide credit card refunds promptly and cash or check refunds within 20 days upon receipt of all necessary information.

Spirit Airlines refund processing time

I bet this is going to shock you. Would you believe me if I said that Spirit — the nation’s largest ultra-low cost carrier — was refunding tickets the same business day?

Well, don’t just take my word for it. You can read all about Mommy Points’ experience getting a Spirit flight refunded via text message.

In fact, this matches what we’ve seen in the TPG Lounge. Though Spirit’s not necessarily renowned for customer service, we’ve got to give the carrier kudos for its timely handling of refunds.

Perhaps it’s moving so quickly since most people are electing to take vouchers. Of course, we wouldn’t blame you for choosing a voucher though. Why? Because Spirit’s website makes no mention of the possibility of getting your money back for a canceled flight.

Southwest Airlines refund processing time

Southwest is the carrier than never imposes change or cancellation fees. But, the value of your ticket will be stored in a credit if you choose to make voluntary modifications to your travel. That’s why it pays to wait until the airline makes an involuntary change, so you can get your money back.

a sign on the side of a building: Southwest check-in in Maui, HI (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy) © The Points Guy Southwest check-in in Maui, HI (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)  

With Southwest, the refund process is taking anywhere from five to 30 days according to our research.

Southwest’s official policy is:

Our Refunds Department will process an eligible refund to the original credit/debit card within seven business days from the date we receive your request. Your card-issuing bank may then take up to ten business days to post the credit to your account.

United Airlines refund processing time

Like JetBlue, United’s (partially) circumvented its obligation to give refunds for canceled flights. Over the course of the last two months, the carrier has made five updates to its schedule change policy. The latest states that your flights needs to be canceled — and there’s no adequate replacement within six hours of your original departure or arrival time — to qualify for a refund.

If your flight does indeed qualify for a refund, though, you can expect to receive it anywhere from five days to a month after requesting it.

This large variance can be attributed to the overwhelming number of requests the carrier has received, as the carrier explains:

Due to extremely high volume related to coronavirus and government-issued travel guidance, please allow up to 21 business days for processing your refund request.

Strategies for getting your money back

Ever since taking over the change and cancellation beat for TPG, I’ve received countless emails and Instagram messages from readers asking for the best way to get a refund for an upcoming flight.

Well, as I mentioned, the first thing to do it be patient and wait until the airline cancels or significantly reschedules your flight. Only then will you qualify for a refund for your nonrefundable ticket.

United check-in counters in Newark (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy) © The Points Guy United check-in counters in Newark (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

If you’re flying with American or United, you should request your refund online. Otherwise, you’ll need to call in — here’s our tips to getting in touch with an airline quickly.

If an airline violates the DOT policy by refusing a refund, try hanging up and calling back. If that doesn’t work, then it’s time to consider filing a credit card chargeback, as well as a formal complaint with the DOT.

Bottom line

As airlines continue cutting flights, more and more passengers will be entitled to refunds. In a turn of events, Spirit’s been the fastest to process refunds. Of the legacy carriers, Delta and United have been the slowest. 

Either way, it pays to know when you’ll get your money back.

Featured photo by David McNew/Getty Images

SPONSORED: While travel is limited right now due to COVID-19, you need your everyday purchases to give you flexible, forever useful cash. In general, TPG gives preference to transferable points and using your points to travel, but on some days, cash is king.

These are the top cash-back cards, and a few others that award transferable points that can be used as cash.

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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