Have you had to cancel a flight unexpectedly due to a medical emergency? If you’re a budget traveler (aren’t we all?) and you book the lowest possible fare, it generally comes with a big warning that it is non-refundable. But don’t assume the worst if your plans take an unforeseen detour.

Have you had to cancel a flight unexpectedly due to a medical emergency? If you assume the low fare you booked is non-refundable, think again.

Paradise delayed. My family was really looking forward to a pre-holiday getaway to enjoy some stunning Key West sunsets. Photo: Allison Kopf

When the Unexpected Happens

My husband recently had a complicated gall bladder removal. He was recovering nicely, had returned to work, and was looking forward to a quick getaway to Key West before holiday season erupts. We planned to meet my sister and daughter for a fun weekend of drinks on Duval Street, a tour of Ernest Hemingway’s home, and some glow-in-the-dark paddleboarding.

And then he didn’t feel too good. There was pain, a trip to the ER, a CAT scan, and a stay in the hospital. Fortunately, he responded to treatment and is on the mend. But he was placed on the “no fly” list for a couple of months by his doctor. She gave us a note and I steeled myself for a prolonged and nasty ground war with the airline about canceling our flights.

I booked our JetBlue flights using True Blue frequent flier points, over 65,000 of them. When I added in the tax, I estimated we stood to lose about $950 in hard earned travel. At best, I expected to get a portion of the points refunded if I paid a cancellation penalty. At worst, I feared I’d lose the whole enchilada.

JetBlue to the Rescue

After holding in the 1-800-JETBLUE queue for about 6 minutes, a friendly customer service agent answered the phone. Before I could get “emergency room” off my tongue, she pulled up my flight information. Then she told me she’d be right back after she contacted True Blue, the JetBlue points program, and assured me that everything – EVERYTHING – would be credited back to our account.

Have you had to cancel a flight unexpectedly due to a medical emergency? If you assume the low fare you booked is non-refundable, think again.

I can’t thank JetBlue enough for giving my family a happy ending to our travel story. Photo: Margalit Sturm Francus, Autism TravelingMom

I sat on hold for another 15 minutes, assuming she was fired and a manager was going to come on the line and reverse course. But she returned, told me the points were deposited, and credits were issued for the tax. She also said she’d waived the change fees. I asked if she needed me to send a copy of the doctor’s note. She said no and wished my hubby a speedy recovery. I hung up the phone, stunned and grateful.

Normal or Not?

I asked my fellow TravelingMoms about their experiences canceling flights and obtaining refunds. Tania Lamb, Latina TravelingMom, describes her feel good story: “We had a similar experience with Southwest last year and Christmas flights. Three of the kids had the flu, so we decided not to fly. They changed my family of seven’s flights for no charge to a couple days later.”

However, Nasreen Stump, Road Warrior TravelingMom, had a negative experience with, surprisingly, the airline that treated me so well: “I went into preterm labor with my daughter while I was still traveling for work. I was in the hospital for seven days and then got permission to do bed rest from home. Called JetBlue to cancel a flight the next week and the rep told me I should have called while I was in the hospital but since I was home they couldn’t do anything. After several managers and me threatening to take the flight and sprinkle my amniotic fluid all over the plane, I finally got a refund. But I really really had to work for it.”Have you had to cancel a flight unexpectedly due to a medical emergency? If you assume the low fare you booked is non-refundable, think again.

Lessons Learned

This adventure in booking and cancellation definitely taught me a few lessons. The most important one is to know the rules and regulations regarding the ticket you’re purchasing. I didn’t. I assumed my ticket was totally non-refundable. You know what happens when you assume….. I looked back through me emails after the refund, and realized the ticket I purchased was refundable. However, there were cancellation charges involved. In my case, these were waived.

All of the airlines handle their ticket reveals differently. Delta, for example, projects a pop-up with this ominous warning when you purchase one of their Basic Economy tickets:

Have you had to cancel a flight unexpectedly due to a medical emergency? If you assume the low fare you booked is non-refundable, think again.

There are no shades of grey with Delta’s warning about fare restrictions.

So much for plausible deniability.

Secondly, have your paperwork ready. Getting the doctor’s note wasn’t necessary in my case, but I had it on hand and could fax it to JetBlue if they requested it.

And, finally, consider travel insurance. I haven’t, in the past, but this little adventure has put it on the top of my things to research in the new year. If we’d booked non-refundable hotel rooms on this trip, I don’t know if I’d have been able to recoup that money. Or, if my husband had gotten sick while we were away, we could have incurred large bills that travel insurance would have covered.

A History of Kind Gestures

I really shouldn’t be surprised by my experience. JetBlue has provided feel good moments in the past, including a wonderful outreach program supporting Long Island’s Henry Viscardi School. It’s a truly special place with a mission to educate, employ, and empower people with disabilities.

Given the tumult of the 2016 election season and the vitriol of the rhetoric on television, Facebook and Twitter, and even on checkout lines in the neighborhood grocery store, it was really reassuring to be reminded that there are very nice people in this country and that companies can show compassion and kindness.

Have you had to cancel a flight unexpectedly? Did you have a positive or negative experience?