TRAVEL TROUBLESHOOTER: My brother died, can I get a refund for my airline tickets?

By Christopher Elliott

After Debbie Schembri’s brother dies, she cancels her Alaska vacation. Can she get a refund for her airline tickets?

Question: I had tickets on United Airlines to fly from San Jose to Anchorage last summer. In August, my brother died unexpectedly, and we canceled our travel plans.

I reserved my airline flights through and followed all their instructions regarding a refund. I sent my brother’s death certificate and obituary. asked for more proof that we were related and finally, they asked for his birth certificate. They kept asking for more documentation. Then they denied our claim.

I appealed to United Airlines and it graciously agreed to refund our tickets even though we booked through a third party. Shortly after that correspondence from United, also agreed to refund our tickets.

As of now, I still have not received the refund to my credit cards even though they say they have refunded me. I have sent numerous emails to all the people listed on your consumer advocacy site, and I continue to get the runaround about waiting for to receive responses from the airline. I don’t know where to turn! I’m so frustrated at this point. I hope you can help me.

— Debbie Schembri

San Jose

Answer: My condolences on your loss. Airlines will almost always refund a ticket if a passenger dies or if the travel companion of a passenger dies. But when it comes to relatives like brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, it depends on the carrier.

Online agencies like, the online agent you were using, have a special department that handles waivers and favors. United Airlines turned down your request through an intermediary but then agreed to refund your ticket when you contacted it directly. By the way, excellent job on the self-advocacy. You worked your way up the ladder, first contacting your online agency and then your airline — and you didn’t take “no” for an answer.

You might have avoided this with a reliable travel insurance policy. Insurance would refund your prepaid, nonrefundable expenses such as airline tickets and hotel rooms, in the event a close relative dies.

I like the way you kept all of your correspondence in writing instead of calling. Too often, people try to phone the airline or online agency, hoping that they can get a quick resolution. But they don’t have a record of the conversation, so when they don’t get the outcome they want, they have to call again and explain the situation all over. That’s so frustrating and it rarely fixes the problem.

What made this case a slam-dunk was that you had a promise from United in writing that it would refund your ticket. But here’s where things went off the runway. Although you booked your ticket on, it was actually made by a third party called GoToGate (you can find executive contacts for GoToGate on my consumer advocacy site, It looks like there was a miscommunication between United,, and GoToGate, which led to the delay.

I contacted GoToGate on your behalf, and you received a full refund, as promised.

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit organization that helps consumers solve their problems. Email him at [email protected] or get help by contacting him on his site.