What Non-Refundable Really Means To Travelers

The other day I went through two months of e-mail and made an interesting discovery … I discovered that more than forty people had contacted me to either seek advice or complain about an airline not refunding their fares after they themselves changed or cancelled their tickets.

This revelation in reading these e-mails was this … that travelers do not seem to understand what “Non-Refundable” really means.

So let’s start with this … non-refundable has its first known origins in 1963, so it’s a fairly new word in our lexicon … it’s an adjective and Webster’s Dictionary defines ‘non-refundable’ as “not subject to refunding or being refunded.”

No traveller expects to have to cancel their trip or change their flights, but these things happen, and when they happen there are ways to avoid being told “no refund.”   Travellers actually have multiple choices.

The first and most obvious choice to avoid hearing “no refund” should you need to cancel a flight is to purchase a flexible or refundable ticket.  Each airline uses they’re own fare codes, however in economy class a “Y” fare is almost always fully flexible and refundable.

Yes … flexible and refundable airfares are more expensive than the lowest cost restricted fares, but that is the trade off for your freedom to change your ticket on a whim. By purchasing the lowest possible fare, the most restricted fare, travelers are gambling that they won’t need to cancel or change their travel plans. I admit it, I often buy the lowest fare and play the odds, and the few times I have lost out on that gamble I knew it was my problem since I purchased the lowest fare with the most restrictions.

For those not interested in paying a higher airfare, there is travel insurance.  Travel insurance protects travelers in case they have to cancel a trip due to illness, injury or personal tragedy. Travel insurance is also good for unforeseen incidents where travel plans change once travel has begun.

Airline seats  are ‘perishable’ items.  Once the cabin door closes on a flight an airline can’t get that revenue back. A passenger opting off a flight leaves the airline limited access to resell a seat, if they can resell it at all and there is no way to sell that empty seat the following day … once it flies, its gone.

Before any airline website or travel website allows customers to pay for their tickets customers must check off a box stating that they understand the rules and regulations of their purchase.  Failure to read the terms of service shouldn’t be made the airlines’ problem.

So next time you purchase tickets please read the fare rules and restrictions. Should you have to cancel your travel plans remember this … no matter what happened, no matter how sad or horrible … its not the airlines’ responsibility.

We’ve all been there; the difference is knowing where to place the blame …

Happy Flying!


  1. Would you happen to have guidance about changes from the airline side? When would it be ok to ask for a refund without penalty?

    Example, schedule changes, and even changing airports.

    I don’t think this is explicitly stated in terms and conditions.

  2. I don’t think the Y fare is a viable option for most people. Except for certain cases largely say with Southwest and Amtrak, the industry prices Y or similarly more flexible tickets in such a way that they are unattainable except to those who are wealthy or have lavish expense accounts.

    Southwest has among the most consumer friendly practices in the industry, and are leaders! While most of their tickets are nonrefundable they can be used with no change or cancellation fee for even future unrelated trips. I imagine this also saves their employees a lot of hassles, they don’t have to argue with pax about change fees, or deal with the pax who is going to call 12 times and go to 20 airports and talk to 50 agents until they get the anser they want say at a legacy. 🙂 That repeated contact, though exaggerated, ticks off productivity and time from legacy carriers agents. Southwest can just tell the pax not to worry, you can use your full credit on a future trip.

    Just yesterday I had a friend flying out today on a WN award ticket from BOS to SMF. I had about $300 in old WN credits expiring in early November. In about 2 to 3 minutes I was able to rebook the pax with the expiring funds, cancel and redeposit the award, and re-check the pax in fast enough that he still gotthe the A boarding pass he had in the old award PNR.

    I applaud Southwest for their upcoming No Change Fee add campaign.

    Of any travel annoyance, change fees, and hotel fees for local/800 number calls top my list.

    Also the airline contract of carriage is largely a quasi contract, in that the airline and the consumer aren’t on equal footing when it comes down to negotiating the specific terms and conditions. This is of course true with many if not most business to consumer transactions with large companies..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *