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Hoping for flight refund? Travel agent explains your rights

Airlines waive fees, but refunds may be hard to get
Tips for staying healthy while traveling
Posted at 11:38 AM, Mar 05, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-11 18:07:44-04

Amanda Stewart was planning a big Disney World trip for her family this spring, booking flights for her family on Southwest Airlines.

But in recent days, this Hamilton, Ohio mom decided she'd rather stay home for now.

"With coronavirus popping up in the United States we started getting worried," she said. "So we just wanted to cancel and get a refund."

But when she called Southwest Airlines, "we couldn't get a refund."

Travel agent explains what airlines are offering

Lesley Sawhook is a travel agent who these days is more of a counselor to her clients. Sawhook owns Exclusive Travel Partners, overseeing 30 agents from her her Cincinnati office.

Clients are now calling nonstop asking about postponing cruises, European vacations, and even some domestic flights.

"My email has been blowing up, and my phone, with concerned guests who are traveling this spring break and beyond," Sawhook said.

"Some of my guests who do have small children are genuinely concerned and are trying to get me to move those to future dates."

Sawhook, however, says it's almost impossible to get a refund for a flight or cruise, even with insurance.

For instance, she says, "cancel for any reason" insurance may let you cancel, but typically gives you just 75% of your money back in the form of a voucher for future travel.

Almost no travel company, she explains, will give you cash back, unless you purchased a fully-refundable, full-fare ticket, which almost no leisure passengers do.

Airlines relax penalties

But the good news, Sawhook says, is that more airlines and cruise lines will let you reschedule to later this year, without the usual penalties.

"I had to make a change with Delta airlines and they waived the $200 penalty; American Airlines is doing the same," she said.

As for Amanda Stewart's upcoming flight, we contacted Southwest, where a spokesman said the airline cannot give her a full refund.

However, he said, "unlike most carriers, Southwest never charges change fees, and our non-refundable fares can be applied toward future travel without penalty."

Meantime, travel agents like Lesley Sawhook are trying to give nervous travelers a little bit of comfort in this uncomfortable time.

"We all don't want to lose the business, so if that means moving things to keep everyone safe, we will do that."

In a time of crisis, it can help having a trusted travel agent.

And that way you don't waste your money.

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