Airline Fine Print That’ll Save You Money When You Fly

And maybe even score you an upgrade or free cash.

woman at airport
Turn that delay into your advantage. | MiniStocker/Shutterstock
Turn that delay into your advantage. | MiniStocker/Shutterstock

Traveling—especially in the madness following the pandemic—is less than glamorous. Flight cancellations this year are worse than they were pre-Covid (American Airlines just slashed 30,000 flights in November alone), and prices keep skyrocketing. But just because you get bumped off a flight doesn’t mean you’re stranded at the airport (or, hopefully, in the airline lounge) for hours.

This is where, as a consumer, you may be entitled to more than a business class seat on the next flight out. If you didn’t read the itty-bitty fine print before clicking your rights away while purchasing a flight or reserving a car rental (don’t worry, we’re also guilty of this), you may not be aware of what companies are (and are not) responsible for if things go astray.

We spoke with some of the experts to help navigate refund procedures, fees you’re required to pay (or companies are required to pay you), and what happens when your bag has gone MIA (and you didn’t think to put an AirTag inside). Here’s how to save time, money, and unnecessary frustration next time you fly.

Overbooking—and forced bumping—is totally legal. But you can get cash for it.

Airlines regularly overbook flights, and even if you don’t want a free upgrade on a later flight (or $10,000 to take another flight), airlines have the right to deny you entry to your flight. What they cannot legally do is take you off that flight once you’re seated—unless you act up.

The good news is the US Department of Transportation requires airlines to compensate you based on how much later you get to your destination. If you’re placed on a flight that gets you to your destination within an hour of your original reservation, you don’t get squat. If the flight arrives between one and two hours of your original schedule, you’re entitled to 200% of your one-way fare (up to $675). For flights arriving more than two hours later, you are entitled to 400% of your one-way fare (up to $1,350).

Most importantly, while airlines may attempt to give you a travel voucher, legally you can demand straight cash to spend on whatever you please. So if 2,700 Wendy’s Frostys sounds sweeter than a round-trip ticket to Bali, go for the gold.

If you miss or skip one of your flights, your whole ticket could be nullified

If you miss (or decide to skip) the outbound portion of a round-trip ticket, often it effectively cancels the entire trip. Meaning, even if you somehow end up at your destination, your return ticket probably won’t be valid. This is also true of connecting flights. If you miss a flight, call the airline and let them know the situation. They’ll often charge a fee to rebook the return ticket, so you’ll need to do some math to see if that fee is less than the cost of a new, one-way ticket home.

No, your travel insurance won't cover a missed flight

Some people are under the impression that travel insurance is also “I changed my mind” insurance, as if it covers the cost of your flight if you just wake up and don’t feel like going. This would be like your car insurance paying for your car if all of a sudden you realized you looked ridiculous in a yellow convertible.
Travel insurance covers trip delays and interruptions, so you can rebook easily without fees in case your flights don’t take off when they’re scheduled to. It also covers lost luggage, and some policies cover people traveling with you, as well. It does not cover you missing your flight because you slept in. Take the time to figure out what it covers and what it doesn’t before booking a ticket.

You can hold a flight (and get a refund) within 24 hours of booking

A lot of travel search engines like to brag about their 24-hour money-back guarantee, but few people realize this is actually standard practice in the airline industry. If you notice you booked a ticket for the day OF the wedding instead of the day before, all is not lost. If you see the error (or have second thoughts because ugh, weddings) within 24 hours, nearly every airline and travel booking site will give you a refund.

Along the same lines, most will hold a ticket for you for 24 hours without payment if you’re booking through the airline’s website. This is another reason why it pays to use an online search service to find your flight, and then book directly through the airline.

luggage on conveyor belt
You may never need to pay to check a bag again. | Travel man/Shutterstock

Your credit card may provide travel insurance and cover your bag fee

Many credit cards include automatic travel insurance when you use those cards to pay for the trip. That means even if you declined insurance when you booked your airfare, you can still get the price of the trip refunded in the case of illness, emergency, and other situations. Call your credit card company before booking any travel to see what they cover. A ton of cards also offer credits for stuff like bags, meals, and even airport lounges. The Bank of America Premium Rewards credit card, for example, offers $100 in airline incidental credits per year for those and other travel-associated fees.

Airlines will pay you for lost luggage

Obviously, the airline will pay you if they completely lose your bag. Though that’s almost unheard of these days, they’ll still give you money to buy clothes, toiletries, or whatever else you need while you’re waiting for your bags—within reason, of course. Don’t go nuts on expensive new sneakers or a designer dress and expect full reimbursement. The amount you get is typically negotiated with the airline, so be reasonable about what you’ll need.

rent a car sign
All your reservation guarantees is a car—not necessarily the one you hoped for. | asiandelight/Shutterstock

There's no guarantee you'll get the rental car you reserved

Your rental reservation guarantees a car, of some kind, just not necessarily the one you reserved. This is why sometimes when you reserve a Ford Focus and end up with a Mustang, you aren’t charged extra. The reverse is also true—if you reserved an SUV and all they have is hatchbacks, you’ll be practicing your creative car-packing. (The rental company will give you a discount, at least.) And if they’re completely out of cars, they’re required to find you one from somewhere, even if it’s another company. But at that point, it may be faster to just rent elsewhere.

You're agreeing to let the rental company track your location

Many rental car companies have GPS in their cars, partly to help you navigate a new city, but also to make sure you’re not illegally taking it on road trips to Tijuana. Your rental agreement often has geographic boundaries for where you can take the car (as well as included mileage), and if the GPS shows you’ve gone outside those boundaries, they might charge a fee. It’s all in the fine print, but if you’re planning a road trip across state or international lines in a rental car, ask before you sign.

Turning on the toll transponder comes with a big daily fee

Many U.S. cities are now crisscrossed by toll roads, and rental car companies are nice enough to “lend” you a toll transponder to make driving through them easier. However, they often charge a daily flat rate of around $5 (even if you don’t go through a toll), on top of whatever tolls you accumulate. So if you see that little box attached to the windshield, and you activate it, you’ve just agreed to at least that daily flat rate. One way around this is bringing your own EZ-Pass, or going the old-school way and waiting in line to pay the toll.

Are there other things hidden in the fine print you might want to concern yourself with? Of course, though many instances are rare or deal only with international travel. Starting here will make your trip calmer, and most importantly, keep you from rage-tweeting at an airline that can simply reply, “It was in your contract.”

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Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer to Thrillist who once spend $85 in administrative fees to get gas near the Tampa airport. Ask him out how to get a SunPass on his Instagram.