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Where's my ticket refund?

The Travel Troubleshooter

American Airlines promises Tracy Wilkinson a bereavement discount in the form of a refund after her grandfather dies. But now it isn't even responding to her inquiries. Why the radio silence?

Q: My grandfather recently passed away and I needed to travel to Austin, Texas, a few days later for his funeral. Because I was already scheduled to fly from Baltimore to Austin on American Airlines on Nov. 24 for Thanksgiving, I thought it would be easiest to just move my outbound flight up a few days to Nov. 19.

I had originally booked the flight through American's website months ago, so I called their helpline on Nov. 17 and explained my situation. They were able to switch me to a flight on the 19th, but said I would need to pay a $150 change fee and the difference between the fare I originally paid and the current fare, which was $254.

I then inquired about bereavement fares, and the agent told me that they were completely sold out of "compassion fares" for that date, but that if I sent them a copy of my grandfather's death certificate, they would refund the difference in cost. I'm currently a graduate student with very little extra money to spend, but my grandfather and I were close, so I decided to go ahead with the ticket change given the information about the refund.

I received a copy of the death certificate just before I returned to Maryland, and began the process of requesting a refund on the American Airlines website. The online system tells me that I am ineligible for a refund because I used my nonrefundable ticket.

I have emailed American through the form on their website and have received no response. I am very upset that this is happening after the death of a beloved family member -- if I had known that it would be this difficult, I would have canceled my flight on American and instead booked a flight on an airline that would have been more sensitive to my situation. -- Tracy Wilkinson, College Park, Md.

A: American Airlines should have refunded your ticket as promised after you showed it a death certificate, of course. Every time you have to contact the airline to ask about your fare, it's a painful and completely unnecessary reminder of your loss.

Bereavement fares are an odd thing, which may be why American seems confused. Many airlines no longer have them, but ticket agents are sometimes empowered to offer a discount off the overpriced "walk-up" fare that business travelers typically pay to fly at a moment's notice.

When there's a death in the family, airlines may also waive cancellation or change fees. But there's no hard-and-fast rule about it, so if you find a ticket agent who is willing to make an exception, be sure the rule is bent for you now -- not later. (And if you're promised a refund later, make sure you get it in writing.)

It appears there was no written record of a promised refund, which is why American was denying your refund. Plus, because of an unspecified problem with its systems, it wasn't receiving the death certificate, despite numerous attempts on your part to send it.

American is under absolutely no obligation to give you a refund or discount, even when there's a death in your family. But if a representative promised your money back, then you should get it.

I got in touch with American on your behalf. A representative contacted you and issued a refund to your credit card.

(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, or e-mail him at Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, and though he answers them as quickly as possible, your story may not be published for several months because of a backlog of cases.)

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