Don’t want to fly during coronavirus crisis? Don’t rush to cancel that ticket. Here’s why

The surge of passengers trying to change or cancel plane tickets as travel grinds to a halt during the coronavirus crisis is overwhelming airline and online travel agency reservation centers.

Hours-long waits, dropped calls and don’t-call-us-we’ll-call-you messages are the norm. Airlines have taken to their websites, Facebook and Twitter accounts to advise travelers to hold off on calling unless their plans are in the next few days.

Travelers who heed the advice might see an unexpected benefit: a refund.

Since the coronavirus outbreak began, all major airlines have added a variety of waivers to allow travelers to change or cancel upcoming flights without fees that generally start at $200 a person. What the waivers don’t allow, at least for nonrefundable tickets: a refund, which has confused, surprised and infuriated travelers.

The only way to snag a refund is to plead your case with a sympathetic airline representative — or have your flight canceled.

When airlines cancel a flight, whether due to a coronavirus public health emergency, a winter storm, a hurricane or a mechanical issue, passengers are eligible for a refund even if they have a nonrefundable ticket, including those restrictive basic economy tickets. Airlines don’t always broadcast this option, preferring to rebook a passenger or issue a credit so they retain the revenue.

What does this mean for travelers who don’t want to travel during the coronavirus outbreak?

Airlines have been canceling flights in droves to cope with a crushing decline in demand. And the flight cuts get steeper by the day. Delta Airlines, for example, is slashing 70% of its flights as it draws down its operation until travel demand returns.

That means travelers due to fly Delta over the next few months may see their flights canceled, even if it hasn’t been announced yet. 

The story is the same at all U.S. airlines, and there have been even deeper cuts by foreign carriers.

“In those situations, you would get a full refund in cash rather than travel credit,” said Scott Keyes, founder of travel deals service Scott’s Cheap Flights. “But if you have already processed your cancellation and gotten a travel credit, you might not be able to go back and ask for cash instead.”

Keyes was getting a lot of questions about how to get a refund instead of a travel credit  so he offered tips in a Twitter thread Tuesday.

“There’s no harm in waiting it out in the hopes that they do cancel it,” Keyes said in an interview.

Keyes has a few upcoming flights he’s monitoring for cancellations, including a flight to Philadelphia at the end of March and a July trip to Europe.

“If they don’t (cancel), I’ll just end up taking the travel credit,” he said.

How long should you wait to cancel in hopes of getting a refund? 

Keyes recommends canceling a few days before your scheduled flight to allow time to reach airlines or travel agencies if needed. (And airlines are telling passengers not to call unless their travel is in the next 72 hours.)

But that might be cutting it too close for infrequent travelers worried the value of their ticket will evaporate if they can’t get through and don’t cancel before the flight departs.

Airlines generally have policies that changes or cancellations have to be made before the flight departs, but some are being more flexible given the crush of cancellation and change requests. Delta, for example, says on its website that, “even if you’re not able to reach us before your departure and don’t take your flight, all changes will be processed, and your ticket number automatically becomes an unused eCredit  within 24 hours.”

American’s website says, “If you’re scheduled to travel before March 31, 2020, but can’t get through to reservations, we will honor all changes and the value of your ticket if you don’t take your flight as planned.”

Southwest Airlines’ no-show policy voids the value of a ticket if travelers don’t cancel at least 10 minutes before their flight is scheduled to depart.

Bottom line: If you don’t want to play “Will they cancel my flight and give me a refund” roulette, cancel the ticket online now or through reservations (when you get through), bank the travel credit and move on.

Be sure to save your confirmation number, ticket number and other relevant information so it’s available when you cash it in for a future flight.