Q:

My husband and I booked a Royal Caribbean cruise for March. But before we left, my sister was taken to the intensive care unit and put on a ventilator. I have power of attorney, and the family was called in and there were some decisions I had to make.

On March 7, I called the cruise line and United Airlines and asked for a refund. The cruise line refunded our fare (thank you, Royal Caribbean) but I just received an e-mail from United saying it would not do anything for me.

They told me my ticket was nontransferable and nonrefundable. I thought they might do something for me, considering this was a medical emergency. Is there anything else I can do?

- Patricia McConkey, Northfield, Ohio

A: I'm so sorry to hear about your sister. You could have certainly done without the additional stress of canceling your vacation and then worrying about a refund. It's a good opportunity for your cruise line and airline to show some compassion.

It was exceptionally generous - and, I should add, highly unusual - for Royal Caribbean to offer a full refund under these circumstances. Normally, if you're outside the cancellation window and you don't have any travel insurance, you're out of luck.

Nice work, Royal Caribbean.

I'm puzzled by United's response. Normally, an airline would offer a ticket credit if you cancel a flight before leaving, which you did. In reviewing your paperwork, it seems United was confused by the fact that you were asking for a full refund, and after it rejected the claim, it also tagged you as a "no show" for the flight. In effect, you lost your entire airfare because of it.

United should have said, "No, but you can get a ticket credit" when you asked for a refund. It appears the airline sent you the wrong form response.

In a situation like this, you can appeal to the airline, but you have to know what to ask for. A ticket credit might have allowed you to use the money (minus a change fee and fare differential) on a re-do of your cruise, if you have the time for it. You can find the names of United's customer-service managers online.

I contacted United on your behalf. It offered you a full refund.

chris@elliott.org. Christopher Elliott is the author of "How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler (and Save Time, Money and Hassle)" (National Geographic). He's also ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and cofounder of the Consumer Travel Alliance.