Yelena Shuster's case looked hopeless. She had a one-way, nonrefundable airline ticket from New York to Los Angeles on United Airlines – and she wanted a refund.
"I got sick, which turned into a terrible sinus infection," says Shuster, a college counselor who lives in New York. "My doctor advised me to cancel the trip."
If you travel, you've probably been in a similar bind. You bought the less-expensive, nonrefundable airline ticket. Then your circumstances changed.
"Booking nonrefundable flights can be an excellent way to save money," says Stan Sandberg, co-founder of TravelInsurance.com, a travel insurance site. "But in the event that something goes wrong and you can no longer take your planned vacation, it can be heartbreaking to lose that money."
Maybe you should have bought a refundable ticket, but the cost is double or triple the amount of a nonrefundable ticket. Realistically, only corporate travelers on an expense account can afford them. Maybe you should have purchased a travel insurance policy, but now it's too late.
Even though airlines like to tell you that nonrefundable means nonrefundable, it doesn't. It just means less refundable. A few kind words, the right circumstances and a little persistence can score you a full refund.
If you're planning ahead: How to choose the right travel insurance
A kind word can unlock a refund
Just like other airlines with nonrefundable tickets, United would have turned down Shuster's refund in a New York minute. But she had a secret weapon. In addition to a doctor's note, she had a way with words. So much so that Shuster has turned her skill into a business that coaches prospective college students on writing better application essays.
"I wrote the nicest, most gracious note I could think of," she says. "I figured the employees reading these are drowning in accusations and negativity, so I made sure to lift them up and acknowledge how hard they worked and how much I love flying United."
"We're sorry to hear your travel plans changed due to a medical condition," United wrote in an email. "We can certainly understand your concerns, and we wish you and your family well. We've processed the refund."
Time and again, I see passengers talking themselves into refunds. It's an art, not a science. If you approach the airline politely and sincerely, and with a valid and verifiable reason, you might get your money back.
When do you deserve a refund?
When your flight's canceled, an airline can't always keep your money. For example, if the airline cancels your flight, it owes you a fast, no-questions-asked refund. Airlines sometimes also offer refunds when there's a significant schedule change, if you have a change in military orders, a valid medical reason or if your travel companion dies. If you die, an airline will always refund your ticket to your next of kin, as long as your next of kin remembers to ask.
"If you encounter any of these special circumstances, check with your travel provider or contact the airline directly to find out what information or documentation is required for a refund," says Angela Zade, a spokeswoman for Trondent Development Corp., which develops software for the travel industry.
Just because you can – or could – get a refund for your ticket doesn't mean you will. Airlines sometimes say "no" for no good reason. They ask for the same documents, such as death certificates or jury duty, over and over until you give up.
Why? Because they can.
All the more reason to go back to my first piece of advice: Use kind words. It isn't that you're feeling kind but that the employees considering your request are so beaten down by the complaints and cruelty of disaffected passengers that your request might seem like a bright shiny beacon of hope. They just might do your bidding.
Want a refund on a nonrefundable airline ticket? Be persistent
The final and maybe the most important trick to negotiating a successful refund is persistence. I've seen so many cases that started like Jeanette Franz's. She was flying from Austin, Texas, to Moline, Illinois, on American Airlines for her grandmother's funeral and experienced a lengthy delay in Dallas that made her miss the event.
"I was supposed to sing at the funeral, and my husband was going to be a pallbearer," she says.
She contacted the airline and asked for a refund, but it refused, offering flight vouchers instead. She appealed to an executive but received the same answer. Franz didn't give up. She kept replying to the appeals, arguing that she'd made a trip in vain and should receive a full refund. Eventually, with a little nudge from yours truly, American agreed with her and refunded her tickets.
There's no secret formula for getting a refund on a nonrefundable ticket. But with a few kind words, some insider knowledge and diligence, you could get your money back. It's always worth a try.
More refund tricks for nonrefundable tickets
Remember the 24-hour rule. If you're flying domestically, you can cancel most tickets within 24 hours of booking them. Airlines will try to offer a flight credit, but if you cite the 24-hour rule, you should get an immediate refund.
Use a travel agent – and get travel insurance. A travel professional often has insider contacts at an airline and can help negotiate a refund if necessary. Some larger online agencies even have entire departments dedicated to processing "waivers and favors" for customers who want an exception to the refund rules.
"Use a travel agent when possible," advises Julian House, founder of a discount promotional codes website. Also, ask your agent about an insurance policy that may cover you if you have to cancel your flight.
If you can't get a refund, salvage the ticket. "Your odds are much better of changing the date or repurposing the ticket," says Andrew Weinberger, a frequent air traveler who works for a real estate company in New York. He's managed to change his ticket to a different destination and dates, paying a change fee. It's far better than throwing the ticket away.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Flight refund: How to get a refund for a nonrefundable plane ticket