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Originally published Tuesday, November 6, 2012 at 6:30 AM

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The 24-hour rule: Cancel a flight and get full refund

Many travelers are unaware of a federal rule that lets passengers claim a refund of most airline tickets within 24 hours of purchase.

Chicago Tribune

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Sounds like American Airlines gets the idea of good customer service, while... MORE

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If you knew that you're entitled to a full refund on almost any plane ticket within 24 hours of purchase, congratulations. If you didn't know, you're not alone.

I randomly asked 10 or so smart, hardworking people who travel with some regularity, and not one of them knew of the following U.S. Department of Transportation regulation that took effect earlier this year: "Passengers will be able to hold a reservation without payment, or cancel a booking without penalty, for 24 hours after the reservation is made, if they make the reservation one week or more prior to a flight's departure date."

Obviously, there's one large wrinkle there: Travel must be booked a week or more in advance. But setting that aside — because most of us do book more than a week out — this is a powerful tool for the consumer.

The regulation was part of a broader DOT initiative also stipulating that airlines must include all taxes and fees in advertised fares. That fact got more traction in the press, letting the 24-hour cancellation rule slip past many travelers.

Though many airlines already quietly offered such cancellation policies, it is good news to have it backed up by the DOT.

Different airlines have different methods for complying. American Airlines, for instance, makes it easy: In the last stage of booking, travelers see a handful of purchasing options given equal size and weight on its Web page, including a "free 24-hour hold." I use that often.

Testing United's refund

And then there is United Airlines, which operates in a vein similar to most others when it comes to complying with the DOT rule. United does not offer a free 24-hour hold; it charges for that service. Instead, it allows for 24-hour cancellation.

I wanted to see how the process worked, so I went big, buying a $1,500 ticket to Johannesburg that I never intended to use. To United's credit, at the time of purchase, consumers are told they have "up to 24 hours to change your mind" with a link to the airline's "24-hour flexible booking policy." In the meantime, though, my credit card was charged the full fare.

The next day, I logged on to United's website to cancel the reservation. When I did, I wasn't told about a refund — only that the cost could be applied to future travel on United, and with a penalty.

This is where the airline gets needlessly tricky. To get the refund, you must know about and find United's refund Web page (www.united.com/web/en-us/content/reservations/refunds). Once you do, the process is relatively simple: Input your pertinent information, including ticket number, and then wait. Six days later I received an email from United telling me my refund was approved and that my credit card would be credited the proper amount.

Still, a 24-hour hold in the American Airlines model makes things simpler. The moral of the story is standard when dealing with the airlines: Know your rights, and don't take much at face value.

(For Seattle travelers, Alaska Airlines' information on the 24-hour cancellation is at alaskaair.com/content/about-us/customer-commitment/).

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