Airfare refund rules in Europe sometimes more strict

This item appears on page 31 of the January 2012 issue.

On July 29, 2011, my wife, Susann, was hit by a motorcycle while in a crosswalk in Paris. She sustained an injury to her leg that required surgery after we returned to the United States.

We had purchased airline tickets from Lufthansa via for various flights: from Paris to Prague on Aug. 6, to Budapest on Aug. 11 and back to Paris on Aug. 13. The cost was $1,982. The tickets were nonrefundable.

I nursed my wife in our Paris hotel until it became clear that she would not be able to continue our trip and we would have to return to the US. On Aug. 4, I had an agent at Expedia call Lufthansa to cancel our tickets and see if they would do anything like a credit or a partial refund. The representative at Lufthansa said, “Use the tickets or lose the money.” When asked if that would still be the case if my wife had died, they again said, “Use the tickets or lose the money.”

Earlier in the year, we had to cancel nonrefundable tickets on Hawaiian Airlines due to the earthquake in Japan. Hawaiian refunded the entire amount. On another occasion, my wife had to have surgery that made it necessary to cancel nonrefundable tickets on Southwest Airlines; Southwest gave us credit for one year.

I thought the readers of ITN should know the Lufthansa policy.

Los Angeles, CA

ITN sent a copy of the above letter to (333 108th Ave. NE, Bellevue, WA 98004) and received no reply. ITN also e-mailed a copy to Lufthansa (1640 Hempstead Turnpike, East Meadow, NY 11554) and received the following reply.

Mr. and Mrs. Hirsch both bought nonrefundable tickets. Therefore, refunds are normally not possible, only exceptionally and for very specific reasons. For instance, the tickets would be fully refunded in the case of the death of a family member.

(For Mrs. Hirsch’s ticket), we saw that a tax refund should have been processed by the travel agency (in this case, Expedia), but this didn’t happen up to this point. As we were made aware of this situation now, we will refund Mrs. Hirsch with the total tax of $162.80.

As Mr. Hirsch flew from CDG (Paris) to MUC (Munich), the one way flown is greater than the value of the whole ticket, itself (€742 versus €600). Unfortunately, no refunds of taxes are possible in this case.

Customers always have the option to buy fully refundable tickets at a higher price. Also, travel insurance covers the expenses that come with a rebooking or cancellation of tickets.

Benedikt Fischer, Corporate Communications The Americas, Lufthansa German Airlines

According to Lufthansa’s website, for a nonrefundable ticket for a flight from the US to Europe, there is an “emergency provision” in the case of the illness of the passenger or traveling companion or in the case of the death of the passenger, an immediate family member or traveling companion. In such a case, the ticket may be refunded (except for the surcharge) or, upon payment of a change fee, used toward the purchase of another ticket. A valid death or hospital/medical certificate is required.

Also, the full value of a wholly unused ticket may be applied toward the purchase of a new ticket upon payment of a change fee plus taxes, etc., and any difference in fare, provided the original reservations are canceled prior to the originally scheduled flight and reservations for the new itinerary are made and tickets reissued no later than one year from the date of issue on the originally purchased ticket. (Any surcharge will not be refunded.)

HOWEVER, Lufthansa’s rules differ for flights wholly within Europe. Rules can vary with the fares and flights, but for some of the airline’s least expensive flights within Europe the following rules apply.

A full refund is permitted before departure if the passenger’s visa is rejected; an embassy statement is required. A full refund (minus the surcharge and, in some cases, taxes and fees) also is allowed in the case of the death of the passenger or a family member. Likewise, ticket changes are permitted only in the case of the death of the passenger or a family member. In each of these cases regarding flights wholly within Europe, there’s no mention of a refund or change being allowed in the case of illness (or injury) of the passenger or family member.

It also should be noted that, besides “published fares,” companies that sell airline tickets wholesale (like may also have discounted “unpublished fares,” sometimes known as “bulk fares,” “negotiated fares” or “contract fares,” with rules that may be more restrictive and which can be difficult or even impossible for an airline employee to access or identify.