Airline won't refund after medical emergency

Airline travel

Airline travel (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

When Patricia McConkey's sister ends up in the intensive care unit, she has to cancel her cruise. Royal Caribbean offers a full refund, but her airline pockets all of her money. Can it do that?

Q: My husband and I booked a Royal Caribbean cruise for last March. But before we left, my sister was taken to the intensive care unit and put on a ventilator. I have power of attorney, and the family was called in and there were some decisions that I had to make.

On March 7, I called both the cruise line and United Airlines, and asked for a refund. The cruise line refunded our fare (thank you, Royal Caribbean) but I just received an email from United saying it would not do anything for me.

They told me my ticket was nontransferable and nonrefundable. I thought they might do something for me, considering that this was a medical emergency. Is there anything else I can do? -- Patricia McConkey, Northfield, Ohio

A: I'm so sorry to hear about your sister. You could have certainly done without the additional stress of canceling your vacation and then worrying about a refund. It's a good opportunity for your cruise line and airline to show some compassion.

It was exceptionally generous -- and, I should add, highly unusual -- for Royal Caribbean to offer a full refund under these circumstances. Normally, if you're outside the cancellation window and you don't have any travel insurance, you're outta luck.

Nice work, Royal Caribbean.

I'm puzzled by United's response. Normally, an airline would offer a ticket credit if you cancel a flight before leaving, which you did. In reviewing your paperwork, it seems United was confused by the fact that you were asking for a full refund, and after it rejected the claim, it also tagged you as a "no show" for the flight. In effect, you lost your entire airfare because of it.

United should have said, "No, but you can get a ticket credit" when you asked for a refund. It appears the airline sent you the wrong form response.

In a situation like this, you can appeal to the airline, but you have to know what to ask for. A ticket credit might have allowed you to use the money (minus a change fee and fare differential) on a re-do of your cruise, if you have the time for it. You can find the names of United's customer-service managers online. Its email addresses are formatted as firstname.lastname(at)united.com.

I contacted United on your behalf. It offered you a full refund.

(Christopher Elliott is the author of "How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler (and Save Time, Money and Hassle)" (National Geographic). 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 e-mail him at chris@elliott.org. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, which he answers as quickly as possible, but because of a backlog of cases, your story may not be published for several months.)

(c)2014 CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

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