Image: Buying an Airplane Ticket on the Internet © Don Farrall, Photodisc, Getty Images

You book your flight early, carefully comparing prices, and the next week the price plummets. Did you know that you may be able to recoup at least some of the cost difference in the form of a voucher for a future flight?

If not, you're not alone. A recent survey by MasterCard found that 71% of people hunting for airfares weren't aware such vouchers existed and 10% knew of them but didn't know how to use them, a MasterCard spokeswoman says.

"I don't think they know (about the refunds)," said Tom Parsons, the CEO of BestFares.com, a site that offers travel discounts and vacation packages. "It's in the contract of carriage. But how many people read that? It's a bunch of gobbledygook."

With that in mind, fare-tracking services have sprung up to make the job easier on consumers. In a variety of ways, they track fares and alert consumers to price drops to help let fliers know that they have the lowest possible price on an airfare.

How it works

Vouchers after price drops on nonrefundable tickets have been available for decades, but because most people don't read the fine print or don't have the time or energy to track the price fluctuations, getting a refund hasn't been on their radar.

To get a refund, you have to keep checking the price of your flights after your purchase and then pounce if you see that your trip is available for less. Fares change by the day and even by the hour, so you have to request a refund from the airline before the price goes up again.

To do that, follow these three steps:

  • Give the customer service agent your name and confirmation code or flight information.
  • Explain that you purchased a ticket and that a new fare is available on the Web.
  • Ask the agent to issue a refund in the amount of the difference.

"If, despite these instructions, it turns out that you get a customer service representative who is not familiar with their own policy -- which is rare, but it can still happen -- hang up and call again or ask to speak to a manager," says Jeff Pecor, a spokesman for the fare-tracking service Yapta.

However, a few caveats apply, including:

  • Change fees are likely. Even though you may be taking the exact same flight at the exact same time as you originally planned -- with only the cost having changed -- most airlines view the refund request as a ticketing change and will charge you their standard change fees. Those fees will then be subtracted from any possible refund. For domestic fares, that fee can be as high as $150. For international fares, fees can go up to $250. So the price drop has to exceed the fee to make the fare eligible for a refund.
  • You must buy directly from airlines. Getting a voucher doesn't work if you bought the tickets through a travel agent or through Orbitz, Expedia or Travelocity, for instance.

    But if your rate does qualify, you could recoup cash for a future trip -- and your chances for this may be higher than you think because of wide swings in airfares, particularly on international flights, Parsons says.

    He says tickets to European countries purchased in January of this year to be used this fall "have dropped a minimum -- almost anywhere in Europe -- of 600 to 700 bucks."

What are your odds?

Those most likely to benefit from refunds book the furthest ahead, says Pecor.

"According to our data, a traveler who books at least 60 days in advance of their flight is eligible for a refund about 11% of the time, so if you can hit that 60-day window, you have a pretty good chance of seeing some price volatility that you can take advantage of," he says.