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travel troubleshooter

I’m contagious. Can I get a refund for my flight?

Q. Last year, I booked a round-trip ticket from Vienna to New York on Lufthansa’s website. I didn’t notice it, but the comprehensive fare rules were not displayed at the time of booking, only the following note: “The fare you have selected is nonrefundable (except the unused taxes and fees) and cannot or only with restrictions be rebooked.”

A day before the outbound flight, I came down with a severe case of the flu, even though I had gotten the flu shot a few months before. My doctor told me not to fly since I was contagious, and gave me a note to that effect. I decided not to travel.


When I tried to rebook, Lufthansa told me that my ticket was unchangeable, then it canceled the ticket and kept the money. Several appeals to the airline’s reservations number — and even through its Facebook page — were unsuccessful.

I ended up buying a new ticket for $1,318 to fly several weeks later. I contacted Lufthansa, and it refunded $135 in taxes and fees and offered me a 20 percent flight credit.

I think I deserve a full refund of the $950 I spent on my original ticket, as the Lufthansa website didn’t display the fare rules for the type of ticket I was purchasing. I have contacted the European Union’s consumer protection agency, and it has contacted Lufthansa on my behalf. I was hoping you could give the airline a little push too.


A. Lufthansa shouldn’t compel you to fly if you’re contagious, but its rules are no different from any other airline. In fact, this is a textbook cancellation, and the restrictions Lufthansa cited are fairly standard.

Most airline tickets are nonrefundable and can be changed only with a fee and a fare differential. That fee, which ranges from $250 to $1,000 on Lufthansa, often invalidates your credit, rendering the ticket unusable. It’s how airlines make money these days — they charge significantly less than a fully refundable ticket and then make up the difference in change fees when people change their mind.


In order to receive the credit, you have to contact the airline before your departure; otherwise, you’ll be considered a “no-show,” and you will lose the entire value of your ticket, including the return flight. By the way, the airline is free to resell your seat, potentially doubling its money.

You can make two arguments for a refund. First, you can claim that the fare rules weren’t displayed clearly. It looks as if the EU regulators have gone in that direction. Second, you could argue for an exception to its refund rules on compassionate grounds.

I believe the second argument is stronger. Had you flown with an infectious disease, you might have sickened other passengers as well as the flight crew. Lufthansa should be grateful that you stayed home, and it ought to return the favor by refunding your ticket.

But here’s the problem: You can’t force a company to be compassionate. There are no rules requiring it to do right by its customers, at least not in this situation. All you can do is ask, politely.

And that’s exactly what I did. This case crossed my desk more than a year ago. I contacted Lufthansa on your behalf then, and several times again. Finally, it offered you a full refund in June. Better late than never.


Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the author of “How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler.” Read his blog, elliott.org, or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.