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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This article originally appeared on Conde Nast Traveler.

Where you should travel, based on your Zodiac sign:

Best places to travel for zodiac sign (My Domaine)
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Why the 24-hour flight cancellation rule is a myth

Marrakesh, Morocco

Who: Pisces (February 20–March 20) are naturally artistic and intuitive. They love the idea of escaping reality and exploring the globe. Pisces crave alone time to reflect and stay in touch with their emotions.

Where: Marrakech, Morocco, is calling! You'll feel as if you've stepped into another world when you wander the winding alleyways filled with merchants selling fragrant spices, fresh olives, and hand-painted ceramic wares. Be sure to visit Majorelle Garden, a 12-acre botanical garden in the heart of the city, owned by famed fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, for a quiet moment of solitude.

Photo: Courtesy of Pullman Hotels

Yosemite National Park, California

Who: Aries (March 21–April 20) are known for being courageous, energetic, and impulsive. They love physical challenges and spending their time outdoors.

Where: California's Yosemite National Park is a nature lover's playground. Hire a car and drive through Mammoth Lakes to see the spectacular park entrance. Be sure to stay for more than a weekend to explore the trails and spot wildlife like black beers and woodpeckers. If you're a seasoned hiker, apply for a permit in advance to do the iconic Half Dome day hike.

Photo: Doc Miles

Granada, Spain

Who: Taurus (April 21–May 21) are true romantics at heart. On weekends, they love to unwind by cooking, gardening, and spending time with loved ones.

Where: Granada beckons. The Spanish city is a cultural hub that boasts delectable tapas dishes and streets pulsing with music and the rhythm of local flamenco dancers. Add the Alhambra Palace to your must-see list; the stunning fortress has lacy Islamic archways and a gorgeous manicured garden that sprawls for miles.

Photo: Rolf Hicker

Tulum, Mexico

Who: Geminis (May 22–June 21) love company. They're a social bunch who are curious and talkative. They're also quick learners and love to explore new places, especially if they're only a short flight away.

Where: With its soft sand beaches and azure waves, Tulum, Mexico, is always a good idea and a perfect destination to see with friends. Indulge your curious side by exploring the Mayan ruins in Tulum National Park.

Photo: Iztok Alf Kurnik

Lisbon, Portugal

Who: Cancers (June 22–July 22) are artistic and highly imaginative. Close friendships are important to them, and they love catching up over a good meal.

Where: Lisbon, Portugal, is your ideal next destination. Art aficionados will love the vibrant street art scene, while foodies can flock to Time Out Mercado da Ribeira, a gourmet food hall where the country's most talented chefs serve up culinary delights. Don't miss the creamy Portuguese tarts—they're worth the long line.

Photo: Vacances Bleues

Chicago, Illinois

Who: Leos (July 23–August 21) love to go on vacation. They're less inclined to travel far but are happy to splash out and indulge their love for the arts and their theatrical side.

Where: London and New York often top the list of amazing performance cities, but theater buffs should add Chicago to their flight-alert list. Take a look at the Broadway shows playing at the Goodman and Chicago theaters, or visit Second City for a comedy scene, with alums like Tina Fey and Steve Carell.

Photo: Vladimir Mitrovic

Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland

Who: Virgos (August 22–September 23) rarely take a break, so choosing a relaxing vacation destination is paramount. They love nature, healthy food, and cleanliness.

Where: Consider Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland. The quaint town is quintessentially Swiss, with wood cabins, red Swiss flag bunting, and colorful window boxes. Jump on the funicular to Jungfrau, one of the most accessible mountains in the Bernese Alps. On a clear day, you can see as far as Germany and France.

Photo: Ravi S.R.

Sydney, Australia

Who: Libras (September 24–October 23) are intellectual, fair-minded, and diplomatic. They like to share experiences with others, appreciate natural beauty, and love to settle down with a good book.

Where: Australia's Harbor City combines sparkling world-class beaches with a bursting restaurant scene and plenty of natural attractions. Take your pick of picturesque beaches to throw down a towel and read a book—Tamarama, Balmoral, and Gordon's Bay are our picks. Venture out of town for a weekend trip to the Blue Mountains for awe-inspiring natural rock formations and dense bushland.

Photo: Eugene Tam for Aquabumps

Burano, Italy

Who: Scorpios (October 24–November 22) are brave, passionate, and honest. They're natural-born leaders who rarely take a break.

Where: Take a moment to relax in Burano, Italy. The vibrant city is filled with waterfront buildings painted with rainbow hues and colored awnings. You'll get on with the passionate Italian people, and if you feel the urge to flex your mind, download an Italian language app and try to order your next pasta in the local tongue.

Photo: Stevan ZZ

Madagascar, Africa

Who: Sagittarians (November 23–December 22) are curious and energetic. They're adventure seekers who crave freedom.

Where: Madagascar, an island off the coast of Africa, has a unique mix of attractions for those who look beyond busy capital cities for vacation. From the lush rainforests to the white beaches and colorful reeves, Madagascar houses thousands of animal species you won't find anywhere else in the world.

Photo: Dennis Van de Water

Jasper National Park, Canada

Who: Capricorns (December 23–January 20) are family oriented. They're practical and often serious, with a lot of discipline.

Where: Test your disciplined nature at Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies. Located in Alberta, the park has subalpine forests and an immense ice field, perfect for those determined to push their physical limits, or take the family on an outdoor escape.

Photo: Via Edu Photograhy

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Who: Aquarians (January 21–February 19) fight boredom at all costs. They seek out original adventures and love being independent.

Where: Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, is an island in the Persian Gulf. You'll never have to worry about boredom during a trip to Abu Dhabi, thanks to an itinerary packed with sailing, historic sights, shopping and desert safaris.

Photo: Nicole S. Young

Marrakesh by Design by Maryam Montague
Lisbon Street Art by Photographs by Rob Wilkinson, $113.91
AIA Guide to Chicago by American Institute of Architects Chicago, $22.51
The Alhambra by Robert Irwin, $13.67
Madagascar by Xavier Van der Strappen, $169.13
Yosemite by Kate Nearpass Ogden, $19.35

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