Here’s Everything You’re Entitled to if Your Flight Gets Canceled
Your airline might owe you up to $1,550. (Yes, actually.)
We're vaxxed, travel restrictions are all but gone, and those long-coveted trips are finally within our grasp—and boy, are we more than ready.
“The interest in travel right now is much closer to pre-pandemic,” says Scott Keyes of Scott’s Cheap Flights. Not just that, in some cases, like Labor Day this year, the number of flights have even exceeded pre-pandemic numbers. Delta’s CEO said that March 2022 was the company’s best month for sales ever.
But now, we have new hurdles to jump. A never-ending string of contagious variants, for one; the as yet unknown results of abolishing mask mandates in airports and planes; and the possibility that, after all that waiting and planning and dreaming, our flights might be canceled due to—among other things—airline staff shortages. Despite booming demand, major carriers are still slashing flights, and a glance at FlightAware's MiseryMap shows that daily delays and cancellations, while not hitting the thousands like they were earlier this year, are still frequent enough. It’s predicted that things won’t get back to normal until 2023—at least.
It might feel like we’re staring down a holiday season full of navigating flights—and crowds—that could easily again resemble the Wild West, but know that you're not entirely powerless. In fact, you can now get much more than a $10 voucher for a sad airport salad whenever cancellations, overbooked legs, and excessive delays screw up your travel plans.
Here’s what the airlines aren’t telling you, and what actions you can take to turn those lemons into lemonade.
General tips and advice for flying in our current state of travel
First, some basic rules of travel: Book through the airline if you can; that will make it easier to adjust plans to your liking should your flight be delayed or canceled. If you’re a money-bags, buy a fully refundable flight (nobody does this) or purchase it with a credit card that offers trip cancellation insurance (more feasible).
If you booked through a third-party site, download the airline’s app to make checking in and switching flights a breeze. In some apps, you can also do things like switch seats on the day of flight without having to get on the website or talk to an agent. (We recently switched from a middle seat to a previously-unavailable window seat on the subway on the way to the airport. A dream.).
Travel light with just a carry-on, avoiding checking bags (and don’t forget to pack some patience). Make sure you have your vaccine card or any Covid-19 test results within reach, depending on the requirements of your destination. Oh, and be kind—the airline workers are doing their best during a strange year in the skies.
What to do if your flight gets delayed or canceled
First things first: This summer, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg along with the US Department of Transportation did us a solid by setting up an interactive, easily navigable Airline Customer Service Dashboard to answer any questions you may have about your rights when flying. Just plug in your airline carrier and see all the amenities they’ll provide in the event of a preventable delay or cancellation. Use it to compare airlines before you book—a first glance tells you that American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and JetBlue all load up on the promises—and brush up on what they say they’ll compensate should something go awry. And if it turns out it’s just lip service on their part, tell Pete about it.
Now for the big stuff. The DOT also proposed a rule to strengthen protections for consumers seeking refunds for flights, but until that passes, here’s where it stands: If your airline cancels your original flight and you choose not to travel on your rebooked flight, you’re entitled to a full cash refund under federal law. If there were multiple stops involved, you would qualify for a refund for the legs you didn’t fly. You’re also entitled to a refund for significant changes or delays to your original schedule. What constitutes a significant delay is determined on a case by case basis, but a good rule of thumb is two hours or more. Check the airline’s website for specific details.
Note: This only applies if the airline cancels the flight. “What is frustrating [with this rule] is that it does not apply to things that many people might assume they ought to be able to get a refund for,” says Keyes. “Let’s say you’ve booked a flight to Switzerland, and now the CDC says with their strongest advisory, do not travel to Switzerland. If the plane that you have a ticket on still flies, then you’re not entitled to a refund.”
If you choose to fly after experiencing a delay or rebook after a cancellation, you won’t get a refund, but you can definitely ask for upgrades. Go ahead—shoot for the moon (or maybe just some extra legroom).
Say no to vouchers—you're entitled to cold, hard cash
Vouchers can sound like a great deal and probably make the gate attendants feel like Oprah (you get a voucher, and you get a voucher!). But don’t fall for it. If your flight is canceled, delayed significantly, or overbooked, airlines are required to tell you that you can get a check on the spot. It's basically your airport Miranda rights.
Let’s say you’re bumped from a flight, but the airline still manages to get you where you’re going within an hour of the original arrival time. You’ve got no cause to complain, really—and, in that case, you’re not going to see any compensation.
But if you arrive between one and two hours past your original arrival time on a domestic flight (or between one and four hours for international travel), the airline must pay you, at minimum, 200% of the one-way fare to your destination, up to a maximum of $775. And for domestic flights arriving more than two hours after the originally scheduled time, the minimum compensation doubles. You are then entitled to 400% of your one-way fare—the US Department of Transportation (DOT) requires they compensate you in cash, up to $1,550. For more information, take some time to peruse your Fly Rights.
If it looks like the delay is going to cost you more than the airline is offering—say, if you have a non-refundable hotel reservation or miss a private helicopter ride (look at you!)—you’ve got 30 days to try and get as much money out of them as you can. But once they cut you a check, it’s a done deal and you’ve essentially agreed to accept whatever you were offered.
If you do opt for the voucher or re-booking, negotiate
Say you’re a frequent flier and, for you, the voucher is basically equivalent to cash. In that case, make that voucher count. They may tell you that you’ll get $250, but tell them no dice unless it’s $600. And you don’t have to get stuck on the first number and watch other people get more: if they need multiple volunteers to re-book in an oversold situation, Scott Keyes suggests saying that you’ll take as much as the highest bidder.
And it’s not just monetary compensation you can get: in this case, you can finagle some other perks. Like, say, a business-class seat. “If an airline is really in dire straits, they are willing to upgrade you in those situations,” says Keyes. “It’s not often something that they’re going to proactively tell you. They’re not going to be like ‘oh, you can get a $1,000 voucher to get bumped and get business class seats on your return flight.’ It’s almost like the secret menu at In & Out. There’s all sorts of things they’re willing to play ball on: give you lounge access, give you restaurant vouchers, and give you an upgraded seat for your next flight. But you have to be the one to ask.”
You can cancel within 24 hours of booking for no charge
Now, there are caveats to this, so don't go booking an entire planeful of tickets for shits and giggles. With most airlines, you can cancel/change your ticket within 24 hours of booking up to seven days before your scheduled departure and still get a full refund. (The notable exception is American Airlines, which instead allows you to hold a ticket up to 24 hours at the price you see.) Some airlines—like Southwest—have even more generous refund policies that let you change plans up until right before you take off.
For the most part, you’ll need to book directly through the airline's website to get this perk, and not through a third-party booking site (although big ones like Expedia or Hotwire offer policies similar to those of airlines). And though the window disappears online after 24 hours, Keyes says that if you’re at 25, or even 27 hours, it’s worth calling the airline directly to see if they’ll do you a solid. “They call it a ‘one-time exception’ for those just beyond [the time limit],” he says. “It’s not a guarantee, but it’s worth asking. And that’s something where an actual human agent will have to make an exception for you.”
Thanks to the pandemic, there are currently no fees for switching (most) flights
So you didn’t make the 24-hour refund window. Never fear: that doesn’t mean you’re stuck with your flight. Due to the pandemic, most major airlines have implemented flexible flight change policies, benefiting both us and them. So switch away. This, however, does not extend to Basic Economy flights, except on United and Delta for any economy ticket booked between July 28, 2021 through December 2021 for trips departing before December 2022.
If you're delayed, they can book you a seat on a competitor's flight
Back in the golden age of flying, there was this thing called Rule 240, which forced an airline that delayed you significantly or canceled your flight to rebook you at no extra cost, even on a competing airline. That ended with deregulation in 1978, but airlines will still do it if you ask nicely or if you have elite status.
Don’t expect the gate agent to scour the interwebs to find you a seat, though. There are likely 100 other people trying to get out as well, so if you make their job fast and easy you’ll get better results. Look up the flights you want, calmly stroll up to the counter with two or three options ready, and see if they can do anything for you. If those options include flights on their airline, all the better.
If your itinerary gets changed, they pay the difference...
If you’re massively delayed and the airline arranges alternate transportation with another carrier, they will cover all the expenses and extra fees the new airline might assess. So if there's only a first-class seat available, it's yours, and it won't cost you an extra penny. Pass the complimentary Champagne.
... and, in that case, you get to keep your original ticket for later
That unused ticket for the delayed or canceled flight? It’s still good to use another time; think of it like an airline credit you got for your aggravation. If you’ve had it with that (expletive) airline and vowed never to fly them again, even for free —you have principles, dammit!— you can also request an “involuntary refund” for the flight from which you were bumped.
One point of warning: There have been instances of airlines trying to cancel your original ticket onsite, and confused passengers often assume this is normal procedure. It’s not. Politely tell the reservations agent you do not want to cancel the existing reservation.
Non-refundable tickets can become refundable
If a flight is canceled, severely delayed (generally over two hours), faces a schedule change in advance of takeoff, or faces a route change (like a nonstop flight changing to one with connections), you can get a full refund on a non-refundable fare. If the airline’s actions significantly affect your schedule, it likely owes you money.
Your additional fees are refundable, too
Though common decency would dictate that the money you paid to check your bag, get some extra legroom, or board early would also be refunded in the case of you getting bumped or severely delayed, airlines don’t always offer it up. Make sure to mention the fees you paid when negotiating any compensation or refund. If you’re nice, and your agent isn’t having a bad day, they’ll sometimes give you that stuff gratis on your rescheduled flight as a gesture of goodwill. Again, the keywords here are “if you’re nice.” Be nice.
In Europe, you're entitled to even more
Ah those zany Europeans, always making pesky “rules” that inconvenience large corporations but benefit the public. These include what they require of airlines, so if you find yourself delayed on a Madrid to Stockholm flight you’re entitled to even more than you are back home.
If your flight is canceled because of something the airline did (as opposed to the weather), they are required by law to feed you and put you up in a hotel. You also receive a full refund for a canceled flight within seven days. The EU has its own set of delay compensation guidelines as well, ranging from 250 euros for short flights delayed under three hours up to 600 euros for flights between EU and non-EU airports that originate in Europe. That means if your flight home to the US is delayed, you’re still entitled to compensation. These rules still apply for many European-held islands in the Caribbean, like Martinique and Guadeloupe.
They owe you way more for delayed luggage than they'll offer to pay
If your bag is delayed, not lost, airlines will try to placate you with $25 or $50 each day. But the DOT says that’s not enough to salvage a wedding, a ski trip, or an important business trip. These companies can owe you up to $3,500 in liability for a domestic US trip, so long as you've got receipts -- you’ve gotta prove to the airline the relative value of what you had in the bag, and why you needed it before the luggage could be delivered. That’s not to say this isn’t your big chance to upgrade your suit collection. It’s just that if there wasn’t an event you needed the suit for before your bag showed up, you might not get full reimbursement.
If your bag is small, you can gate check it for free
Don’t go lugging an oversized suitcase filled with a whole semester’s worth of clothes (or weird contraband) through TSA, but if you’ve got a small- or medium-sized bag you’re willing to part with for a few hours, taking it to the gate and volunteering to gate check it can save you a bag fee. It also earns you goodwill with the flight crew, as you appear to be sacrificing something for the good of the plane, even though you’re just being cheap. Of course, this doesn’t apply to airlines that charge for carry-ons to begin with, and you’re probably out of luck (meaning, there’d be an administrative fee of around $50) if you’re flying Economy Plus on a legacy carrier, too.
If the plane sits for three hours, you can hop off
During a lengthy tarmac delay in the US (upon either arrival or departure), the DOT says an airline can’t keep you on a plane for more than three hours (on a domestic flight) or four hours (on an international flight) without allowing you to get off if you wish. Even listening in on what your pilot is saying to air traffic control probably won’t keep you entertained for that length of time. Also, the airline is obligated to get that food and water cart running down the aisle after two hours of delay.
Buying multiple tickets at once can be more expensive
It might seem more efficient to book a big block of airline tickets for your big bachelorette blowout rather than suffer through a week of group texts to make sure everyone is on the same flights. It might also mean you end up spending a lot more money.
Airlines sell tickets at different price levels, much like tickets are sold for sporting events. If there are two tickets left for $99 and you try to book four tickets — but the lowest price level with four tickets available is $299 — ALL four tickets will be $299. Those two cheap ones stay on the market. So book tickets individually: it’ll ultimately save more money for the folks who book first.
You can get premium seats for free... if you wait
If you have status with an airline — or even if you don’t — ask for exit-row seats when you arrive at the gate.
Those seats cost extra, and are most frequently the only ones left empty, even on so-called “extremely full” flights; they’re often filled by traveling flight attendants and pilots (known as Dead Heads or Non-Revs) assigned available seats at the last minute. If you ask nicely and are super polite (which, frequent flyers will tell you, is a big factor in getting free stuff) the gate agent has the power to give them to you.
Asking at the check-in counter, however, is a much lower-percentage shot. They’re dealing with every person on every flight, and won’t have time to give you the attention a gate agent might.
Credit cards might cover travel insurance and bag fees
Airline credit cards generally lure you in with promises of free bags, but other credit cards may offer this perk, too—take five minutes and call your credit card company to see if this applies. Many companies also automatically offer travel insurance, which means you won’t need to buy that from the airline either. Just remember travel insurance isn’t “I decided to sleep in” insurance, and only applies in situations stipulated in the policy. So maybe consider reading up on that.