Need to cancel a nonrefundable flight or hotel? You might have options

Persistence, politeness and persuasion, rather than trip-cancellation insurance, can get you a refund

Dan Rafter
Personal Finance Writer
Specializes in mortgages, credit and credit scores


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Nonrefundable flights and hotel stays are an affordable way to travel on a budget – until life happens and you need to cancel that trip.

But what if you’re not covered by the trip cancellation protections offered by booking sites or your credit card? Are you completely out of luck?

Maybe not. It is sometimes possible to cancel those travel plans without having to swallow the cost – if you know how and whom to ask.

Nonrefundable bookings can actually be refunded

Nick Brennan, a 42-year-old New York resident and the owner of My UK SIM, was in the middle of a lengthy trip to London and Croatia when his mother suffered a stroke.

Brennan wanted to cancel his trip to be with her, but between hotel stays, train tickets and a round-trip flight, he’d paid $850 in nonrefundable bookings.

Instead of giving up, Brennan contacted each of his bookings. The hotel and the train company refunded his fees because an immediate family member was sick. The airline delayed his booking so that he could use the round-trip ticket he’d bought anytime during the following 12 months.

“This really was an exceptional outcome,” Brennan said. “Neither the hotel nor the airline had any legal obligation to refund me.”

Keys to refunding nonrefundable trips: Persistence, politeness and persuasion

Valerie Joy Wilson, the Los Angeles-based chief executive officer of Trusted Travel Girl, said that you shouldn’t give up on those nonrefundable rooms or flights. She said that customers rarely work hard enough to get their refunds.

They might make one call to Priceline to cancel a nonrefundable reservation and then take the loss when the person on the other end of the phone tells them that no refund is coming.

Wilson says that the key to getting money back on nonrefundable flights and hotels is to be persistent:

  • Call several times until you get the answer you want.

  • Dealing with a hotel? Don’t call the hotel itself. Instead, call its national reservation line. “You will always get someone different on the line,” Wilson said.

  • Be “super, super nice when you call, she says. Make a compelling argument and, if you don’t like the answer you get, ask for a supervisor. 

  • If you still don’t like the answer, “Hang up and call again.” Wilson said that she’ll call as many as five times in a row, seeking that refund.

“It often depends on what mood the person answering the phone is in,” Wilson said. “There is a human element here, a human touch. If you get the right person on the phone at the right time, they can sympathize and empathize with you.”

Ane Lowe, an Austin, Texas-based independent luxury consultant and owner of The Hungry Chronicles, agrees that persistence can pay off. Her advice:

  • Contact the airline or hotel personally and explain why you need to cancel.
  • Make sure to talk to a decision-maker, and not just the person who answers the phone. 
  • Be polite, and work out an argument before you call for why you need to cancel.

You might not get that full refund. But you might get some positive results if you’re patient and calm, Lowe said. Most airlines, she said, will offer you a credit that might be good for up to a year.

You won’t get that flight canceled and refunded, but you will be able to take it later. Hotels might offer the same deal if you contact them personally.

"It often depends on what mood the person answering the phone is in. There is a human element here. ... If you get the right person on the phone at the right time, they can sympathize with you."

You can cancel a trip booking – if you have a good reason

Nonrefundable bookings usually can only be canceled under very specific circumstances, unless you’ve purchased more expensive “Cancel for Any Reason” insurance.

You can cancel, for example, if you become sick or injured, a family member does the same or if a family member dies. And you’ll have to provide proof – such as a doctor’s note – to gain your refund, too.

Many booking sites, including Priceline, Expedia or Hotwire, offer trip-cancellation coverage for a separate charge, but those policies usually only provide refunds in for specified reasons.

Some travel and rewards credit cards come with trip cancellation and interruption protection, too, but that coverage also has limits. These are two examples:

Again, you can’t turn to this insurance just because you no longer want to take the trip. There must be a real emergency, such as injury, death or severe weather, or other conditions you must meet.

See “Compare cards’ trip cancellation, trip interruption policies” to see the protections offered by cards from different issuers, including Chase, Wells Fargo and Citi. 

'Cancel for any reason' insurance: Expensive and limited

  • Cancel for any reason (CFAR) insurance will allow you to earn refunds for hotels and flights even if you cancel these reservations for reasons not included by traditional travel insurance policies.
  • These policies can be expensive, with most carriers who provide them offering them as an upgrade to a traditional travel insurance policy. 
  • You can expect to pay about $150 on average for a CFAR addition to your policy, according to a search of different policies online.
  • Not all CFAR policies reimburse all your travel costs. Some policies, for instance, only reimburse you for 75 percent of your costs. 

See related: Trip canceled? Your credit card may reimburse you, Can you count on your credit card travel insurance?

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Updated: 11-14-2018