For many frequent flyers in 2023, functional Wi-Fi has become a critical in-flight amenity. Many travelers demand access to the cloud while they’re, well, in the clouds.
But sometimes, the Wi-Fi is no good. It takes three tries to reload a page, or the connection cuts out right when you’ve found what you were looking for.
That’s frustrating enough for passengers on airlines like JetBlue that offer complimentary Wi-Fi, or for those who get free in-flight Wi-Fi through their airline elite status or an airline-branded credit card. But it’s most brutal for the people who pay specifically for in-flight Wi-Fi yet receive a service that hardly serves them at all.
I had a faulty Wi-Fi connection on a United Airlines flight in September from San Francisco to Orlando. On U.S. domestic flights, United sells Wi-Fi service for either $8 or 800 miles for MileagePlus members and $10 for everyone else. I opted to fork over 800 miles (NerdWallet values 800 miles at $9.60) for what’s officially labeled as “In-flight Wi-Fi Premium Full Flight.”
What I got wasn’t premium, nor did it last the full flight.
And it didn’t affect just me. Shortly after takeoff, the pilot announced that the internet wasn’t working and that the crew would reset the system. Even after the reset, the service kept cutting out intermittently throughout the five-and-a-half-hour flight. When it did work, the speed was slower than 1990s dial-up. Simply checking emails became an exercise in frustration.
Can you get a refund for bad Wi-Fi?
I contacted United customer service through the airline’s website to request a refund. I sent a brief email outlining my experience, including a screenshot of the poor connection, plus my flight number and date.
Within a day, a United customer service representative responded, and my miles were redeposited in my MileagePlus account within 48 hours.
Poor onboard Wi-Fi aside, my experience with United was pretty easy, and the airline hardly masks your ability to request a refund. United’s FAQ page even includes a link to a refund form (it’s the same page you’d use to request any sort of United refund).
United says that it monitors flights for low connectivity and that if it can tell you were on an affected flight, it will automatically refund you the next day. That didn’t happen in my case — probably because I booked my flight through a travel portal rather than directly with the airline — but United explicitly recommends that you request a refund if you don’t get one automatically.
But that doesn’t mean every airline will treat you the same.
Some airline customer service departments might be slower to respond. Some might try to offer you compensation in the form of miles, even if you purchased Wi-Fi in cash. Some might completely ghost you.
Making your case
To better your odds of getting a refund for bad in-flight Wi-Fi:
Provide documentation: Take screenshots of the poor connection quality or keep a log of the times when you tried to connect to the Wi-Fi and the specific errors you encountered. Include that information when you contact the airline.
Be specific: Provide as much detail as possible, including the flight you were on and the date.
Be polite and professional: Even if you’re frustrated, maintain a courteous tone when communicating with customer service. The customer service employee didn’t break the Wi-Fi.
Advocate for yourself: While you should be courteous, be explicit about what you want (assuming it’s a reasonable request). If you want a $8 refund for your $8 internet, state that. If the airline tries to offer you, say, 800 miles but you’d rather have the cash, be firm in how you want the refund.
Be patient: The airline may need to investigate your claim before issuing a refund. From there, it can take some time for the payment to process.
Also, be realistic about how good the Wi-Fi will be before purchasing. Most airlines are upfront about the fact that streaming video or downloading large files probably won’t work. Alaska Airlines says internet service slows during torrential rains, while the aircraft is banking or if there’s snow or ice on top of the plane. It also says to expect spotty service in certain places, such as north of the Arctic Circle.
In most cases, buying Wi-Fi doesn’t have to be a gamble. If the connection is bad, a refund might be easy to claim. Then again, you’ll need a good Wi-Fi signal to request it.
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