Why the 24-hour flight cancellation rule is a myth

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Q: I made two flight reservations on USAirways.com a few months ago [before the airline's merger with American], which I canceled within 24 hours. The receipts said that a full refund would be given if canceled within a day. I submitted a couple of requests to get the refunds. I got most of the money back, but approximately $78 was kept for a "booking fee" according to a representative I spoke to on the phone. How can I get the remainder back? —John B., Bristol, R.I.

A: While the amount of money at stake here is not large, it does offer an opportunity to break down the "24-hour rule," as it has become known. Current U.S. regulations state that airlines must allow a customer to cancel a ticket within 24 hours of purchase, if the reservation is made more than a week in advance of departure or allow a customer to hold a ticket for 24 hours. That "or" is important. US Airways used the former scheme; American, unlike most airlines, uses the latter. In other words, once you buy a ticket from American, you are not eligible for a refund unless you choose a refundable ticket.

Many customers assume the 24-hour rule applies to travel agencies as well, whether brick and mortar or online. It does not. On the plus side, however, according to a Department of Transportation spokesperson, that will probably change:

"The Department's Airline Pricing Transparency and Other Consumer Protection Issues Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposes to build on [the] rule and, among other things, would require large travel agents to adopt minimum customer service standards such as providing an option to hold a reservation at the quoted fare without payment, or to cancel without penalty, for 24 hours if the reservation is made one week or more prior to a flight's departure date. The rule is currently scheduled to be finalized this summer."

Note that even when the new rule goes into effect, it will only apply to large travel agencies. So whether it's now or after the rule change, review the policies for each reservation separately. Orbitz, for instance, does allow you to cancel a flight within 24 hours, but retains any service fees associated with the booking. It also states that flights booked with some low-cost carriers may have a different timeline for canceling. Strangely, when I checked a reservation on Orbitz, a Spirit Airlines flight did not qualify for a 24-hour cancellation, even though it would on its own website; an American Airlines reservation, on the other hand, could be canceled within 24 hours on Orbitz, even though that is not true if purchased on its own website. It's like political candidates—the message changes with the venue. Remember to pay attention.

So what about John? Even though US Airways merged with American, he booked before the merger. US Airways' 24-hour full refund policy applied. I contacted American on his behalf, since it handles all former US Airways issues. It found the "glitch" in the system and sent the rest of his refund. He's glad to have it resolved, but would have preferred it wasn't so difficult. And you may find, if you're due a refund, that it is equally challenging to get some or all of it. That's a good reason to check for alternative flights, and for errors in your reservation, before you click "Purchase."

Have a travel question you want answered? Email ombudsman@cntraveler.com, or tweet us @CNTraveler #dearombudsman.

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