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Do You Have To Pay Airline Change Fees For Emergency Situations?



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Letter-sender Sunita's husband was admitted to ER 12 hours before their flight. Do they have to pay airline change fees or can this be considered a special case?  Read on to see how Travel Troubleshooter Christopher Elliot helped Sunita from paying the airline change fees.

My husband is in the ER — why do I have to pay this $850 ticket change fee?

Do You Have To Pay Airline Change Fees For Emergency Situations?

Sunita Gupta's husband makes a detour to the ER shortly before his Virgin Atlantic flight. She cancels their tickets, but must pay $850 to reschedule a future flight to a random date. What are the chances of a refund?


Q: My husband and I had tickets from Philadelphia to New Delhi on Virgin Atlantic this fall. We bought the tickets through CheapOair and paid $1,911. About 12 hours before the flight, my husband was admitted to the emergency room with severe stomach pains. Doctors diagnosed him with a small bowel obstruction and said he may need surgery the next morning. He had to stay in the hospital for two more days.

While my husband was in the emergency room, I called Virgin Atlantic to inform the airline that we wouldn't make the flight. A representative cut me off and directed me to call CheapOair. I called CheapOair, which gave me the choice of canceling and losing all the money or changing the reservation to a future date. I picked a date 2 1/2 months later, not knowing if my husband needed surgery or how long the recovery period would take.

CheapOair told me I had to pay $850 at that very moment and then take up the matter with Virgin Atlantic for a refund due to the medical emergency.
I have contacted both Virgin Atlantic and CheapOair verbally and by email. I've provided the hospital and physician reports to both of them. Both of them tell me that the other company has the money. I feel I am getting the runaround. Can you help me?

— Sunita Gupta, Voorhees, New Jersey

A: I'm so sorry to hear about your husband's medical condition. In a situation like this, your airline and travel agent should work together to either rebook you on a future flight with little, if any, additional expense, or give you a full refund. No, they don't have to, but it's the right thing to do.

It doesn't really matter who has the money. CheapOair, as your travel agent, should have tried to help you. I'm surprised that someone tried to charge you an $850 fee to reschedule your flight to a random date. Normally, when you make it clear that you have to cancel a flight for circumstances beyond your control, like an emergency hospitalization, an online agency will work with a special “waivers and favors” department to secure a compassionate refund.

Bottom line: No one should force you to pay an extra $850 when your husband is in the ER. I'm certain that if CheapOair had fully understood your situation, it wouldn't have taken your money.

You kept an excellent paper trail on your complaint. It shows your agent and airline shifting the blame on each other. First Virgin told you it couldn't change your reservation and asked if you had travel insurance — you didn't, but that would have been a great idea — and then CheapOair told you the change fees were nonrefundable.

In this situation, an appeal to someone higher up might have helped. I list the contact information of the executives at CheapOair and Virgin Atlantic on my consumer-advocacy site.

I checked with your online agency, and it turns out that it had no intention of sticking you with $850 in change fees. CheapOair offered you either a full refund or use of your original ticket value plus the value of the change fees as a future credit, valid for one year. You went with the full refund, and Virgin Atlantic charged you a less painful $400 cancellation fee.

For more Travel Troubleshooting articles, click here.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the author of “How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler.” You can read more travel tips on his blog,, or email him at [email protected].
(c) 2018 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.
1 Comment

1 Comment

  • John Rchmond says:

    That CheapOair would still charge you 400 dollars for cash refund on a medical cancellation is beyond belief. I have taken you condition to heart and will henceforth not bother to use their site for air tickets.
    This reminded me of my travails with another on-line travel agency. In late January of last year this Agency’s pop up an ad stating round trip to Germany for 600 dollars each. I had checked other sites and was well aware that the current price was almost double. So I immediately booked the trip for two, received confirmation, awaited e-tickets. Two weeks go by no tickets, so send emails two or three times, no response. I had checked credit card company and nothing had been charged. So last email stated I wanted tickets within 24 hours or I was taking legal action, including filing with Travel Agency Authorities. I further stated I was retired Airline Executive and had the pleasure of shutting down several agencies in my career. Next phone call, from India, advising me I was threating them, my response my comment was not threating but a promise of what I would do if tickets did not arrive with 12 hours remaining. That I would contact my friends in Airline world and ask them to refuse to allow them to sell there tickets. He hung up but an hour later I received an email that the airline would not honor that fare, My response was swift , you sold RT fare of 600 bucks now deliver the tickets , if the airline refused the fare then you will need to make up the difference. Their response was the would deliver the tickets and make up the difference to amount of 900 dollars. I called credit card company an advised them to pay 1200 to this agency once I had tickets in hand. Upon receipt of tickets checked with Airline if tickets were valid,. I release the credit card hold. Very pleasant trip!!

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