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You asked: How do I get a refund from a foreign airline?

By The Way Concierge tackles getting ghosted by international airlines

( Cynthia Kittler/for The Washington Post)

Traveling has always come with complications, but the coronavirus pandemic has made it more challenging than ever. Our By The Way Concierge column will take your travel dilemmas to the experts to help you navigate the new normal. Want to see your question answered? Submit it here.

“We had to cancel a long trip when covid closed travel in March 2020 (one day before our scheduled departure). We have a TAP Air Portugal voucher that’s been extended to March 2022 for travel through March 2023. We are still uncertain about travel, so last week I asked for a refund. I have spent nearly eight hours on the phone — mostly on hold — no one can clearly tell me how to proceed. I am transferred to someone, somewhere for 45 minutes, who does not answer. Then I hang up, sick of the ‘music’ and waiting.” — Deborah, Ashland, Ore.

Trying to get in touch with airline customer service, particularly for an international carrier, can feel like a Sisyphean task — looping through mazelike websites, sending emails into an infinite abyss, spending eternities on hold. Just this morning, I had a two-hour wait trying to get through to American Airlines. I know your pain.

So does Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, who not only has received thousands of emails from travelers about refunds since the pandemic began, but also recently had to contact a European airline for his own trip issues.

“Unfortunately with foreign airlines, there’s no single silver bullet that’s going to get your case taken care of right away,” Keyes says. “But generally speaking, it’s persistence. It’s really just trying and trying and trying to get through.”

His advice is to tackle your problem with a full-court press. Continue trying to call the airline’s customer service numbers, but also reach out through every possible channel, including email, social media or the airline app.

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“It varies from airline to airline what is going to be most effective,” Keyes says. “So if you take a shot by calling, emailing and getting on social media, your odds of success are going to be a lot higher than if you just call or if you just email.”

Websites such as Elliott Advocacy and the not-so-genteel-named Pissed Consumer can help you find different ways to contact the airline and offer advice on dealing with your situation.

As for that on-hold burnout, Keyes recommends using GetHuman. This service will wait on hold for you, then alert when it’s your turn. You can also submit your problem through the GetHuman website to get more help with your issue.

Keyes was spared the pain of enduring hours of on-hold music, thanks to the Hold for Me feature on his Google Pixel smartphone. This service, available on Android devices, will notify you when a support representative gets on the line.

When you’re not having luck with the main customer service phone number, Keyes says it’s worth giving the airline’s other offices — such as their U.S. headquarters or a corporate line — a call and asking to be connected to customer service that way.

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Once you reach an agent, you are going to have a tough time getting a refund. Unless the airline canceled the flight on you, or you purchased a refundable fare, they are not obligated to return your money.

If you believe you are entitled to a refund, you can make your case with a customer service agent and also file a complaint against the airline (even foreign ones) through the Department of Transportation. The agency compiles complaints, “and in most cases, they’ll forward your complaint on to the airline,” Keyes says. “So ‘going to the principal’s office’ as it were and complaining really will get the airline’s attention and make it more likely that you’ll get the refund.” If you take a look at the Transportation Department’s latest Air Travel Consumer Report, you will find that the agency received 2,078 complaints against TAP Air Portugal regarding refunds in 2021.

The other way to salvage your cost is to get your voucher extended. Once you get through to an agent, you can try asking for more time.

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If they say no, try again with another customer service agent (yes, sorry, that means starting over and getting in touch again). Agents usually have discretion to approve this type of situation, so by trying a few different ones “maybe you’ll find somebody who will be sympathetic to your case,” Keyes says.

Should they remain firm and deny your request, Keyes recommends booking a trip sometime before March 2023 in the hopes you can take it or change later since many airlines are offering more flexible bookings. There is a sliver of hope that the airline cancels or significantly delays that flight, and in that case, you would be legally entitled to a refund.

Lastly, you could see if your voucher could be used by someone else.

Whatever you do, don’t quit without a fight.

“If you just give up … it’s not going to work,” Keyes says.

Have a travel dilemma for By The Way Concierge? Submit it here.