How to Get Compensation From Your Airline When Your Flight is Delayed or Canceled – Your Legal Rights (2023)
Flight cancellations and significant delays remain an unavoidable part of travel. Missed events, time, and money are part of the stressful experience. While you are legally entitled to a cash refund if your flight is canceled or significantly delayed, there are no legal requirements for additional compensation.
Regardless, many airlines have voluntarily committed to providing compensation for certain controllable delays and cancellations.
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Your Legal Rights for Flight Cancellations and Significant Delays
Per the U.S. Department of Transportation, customers are entitled to a full cash refund, including taxes and baggage fees, if the airline cancels or significantly delays their flight and they choose not to travel. This includes non-refundable tickets, and airlines are legally obligated to provide a full cash refund and not a credit. The DOT does not define what constitutes a significant delay, and it is decided on an individual basis.
What is Flight Delay and Cancellation Compensation?
While the guaranteed cash refund is helpful, there are many other potential expenses involved when your flight is canceled or significantly delayed.
- Lodging (for a new hotel room as well as missing a current booking)
- Food (multiple meals depending on the length of the delay or cancellation)
- Transportation (to and from the airport as well as other places)
- Missed Work (having to use PTO)
- Missed Events (weddings, shows, sporting events, theme park tickets, etc)
- Mental Load (while the stress is hard to quantify, it is a major factor)
Flight delay and cancellation compensation is payment for your lost time and expenses. There are two types of airline delays and cancellations.
- Controllable Delays and Cancellations (maintenance or crew problems; cabin cleaning; baggage loading; and fueling)
- Uncontrollable Delays and Cancellations (weather, security-related events, and air traffic control issues)
Airlines are much more likely to provide customers with compensation for controllable disruptions than uncontrollable ones.
What Compensation Am I Owed for Delayed and Canceled Domestic Flights?
Legally, you are owed nothing. The good news is most major airlines have committed to providing compensation to customers during controllable delays and cancellations. The DOT says it will force airlines to honor these commitments, which is great news for travelers.
Compensation for Delayed Domestic Flights (controllable reasons)
Here are a few key points.
- Every major airline will rebook you on its next available flight at no cost.
- Every major airline except Allegiant, Frontier, Hawaiian, Southwest, and Spirit will rebook you on a partner airline at no cost.
- Every major airline provides food vouchers for delays of three hours or longer.
- Every major airline except Frontier provides hotel accommodations/transportation for overnight delays.
- No major airline promises cash compensation for delays lasting longer than three hours.
- Only Alaska and JetBlue promise travel credits for delays lasting longer than three hours.
Compensation for Canceled Domestic Flights (controllable reasons)
Here are a few key points.
- Every major airline will rebook you on its next available flight at no cost.
- Every major airline except Allegiant, Frontier, Southwest, and Spirit will rebook you on a partner airline at no cost.
- Every major airline provides food vouchers for cancellations resulting in delays of three hours or longer.
- Every major airline except Frontier provides hotel accommodations/transportation for cancellations resulting in overnight delays.
- No major airline promises cash compensation for cancellations resulting in delays of three hours or longer.
- Only Alaska and JetBlue promise travel credits for cancellations resulting in delays of three hours or longer.
What Compensation Am I Owed for Delayed and Canceled International Flights?
Those traveling through Europe may be eligible for cash compensation if the delay or cancellation is covered under EU261. Here are a few eligible itineraries.
- Domestic European Union Flights (EU Country to EU Country)
- International European Union to Non-European Union Country (England to United States)
- International Non-European Union Country to European Union Flight operated by an EU airline (United States to England)
Those delayed three hours or longer are eligible for the following cash compensation.
- 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) or less (250 Euros Per Passenger)
- Between 1,500 and 3,500 kilometers (932-1,864 miles) (400 Euros Per Passenger)
- 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles) or more (600 Euros Per Passenger)
Depending on the length of the delay, passengers may also be eligible for food vouchers, lodging, and transportation.
Unfortunately, compensation is not available under EU261 for flight delays or cancellations because of “extraordinary circumstances. Examples include bad weather, air traffic control, security risks, and political issues.
How Do I Apply for Flight Delay and Cancellation Compensation?
For domestic flights, start the process as soon as possible. If you are at the airport, go to your airline’s customer service desk. Explain the situation, and ask for what the airline promises as well as further compensation. If you are stranded overnight, ask for a hotel, shuttle, and meal voucher (all major airlines promise these three things for controllable interruptions besides Frontier Airlines, which only offers a meal voucher.
If you are not satisfied with the compensation, ask for more as soon as you get home. Contact your airline through all channels, including over the phone, via email, and through social media. Do not wait.
For international flights, start the process as soon as possible. Contact your airline to request the required compensation under EU261. Use this Air passenger rights EU complaint form.
If your airline is slow to process your compensation or you feel you are owed more, you should contact the national authority of the country in question (see form).
Always Ask For More Compensation
It never hurts to ask for more compensation. While airlines have made certain commitments for controllable interruptions, it is usually the bare minimum. Ask for more food vouchers, traveler credits, miles, and even money back. While you are unlikely to get cash, airlines are likely to be more generous with travel credits and miles.
Be persistent. Ask in person at the airport, and continue asking when you get home. Contact your airline over the phone, via email, and through social media. Clearly explain how the delay or cancellation impacted your life. I have gotten more compensation numerous times by being persistent.
Can I Get Compensation for Uncontrollable Flight Delays and Cancellations?
Maybe, but it depends on the situation. As with controllable delays and cancellations, airlines have no legal obligation to provide compensation for uncontrollable reasons. Regardless, it never hurts to ask. As a reminder, here are reasons that airlines consider out of their control.
- Bad Weather
- Security Related
- Air Traffic Control
If you are stranded for the night, ask for a hotel, airport shuttle, and food voucher. If you experience a lengthy delay, ask for a flight credit or miles. Your odds of getting something are not great, but you never know.
What if I Miss a Connection Due to a Delayed Flight?
Every major United States airline has committed to rebooking passengers on its next available flight at no cost for controllable disruptions. The following airlines have agreed to rebook passengers on another airline at no cost for controllable disruptions.
- Alaska Airlines
- American Airlines
- Delta Airlines
- Hawaiian Airlines (only for controllable cancellations)
- United Airlines
In many cases, your airline will rebook you on its next available flight if it becomes obvious you will miss your connection. This is sometimes not the best flight. I recommend using Google Flights to find the best alternative flight for you.
Search for flights from your airline and other airlines. Often, the next best flight is with another airline. Find it quickly, and contact your airline through multiple means, including the customer service center at the airport, over the phone, and through social media. Time is of the essence, and it is essential to book before the flight sells out.
Further Reading: What To Do if Your Airline Cancels or Delays Your Flight
Am I Entitled to Compensation for Lengthy Tarmac Delays?
Passengers are entitled to food and water for tarmac delays of two hours or longer. Beyond that, you are not entitled to any additional compensation. Regardless, you should still ask.
How to Avoid Flight Delays and Cancellations
There is nothing you can do to completely avoid a flight delay or cancellation. Compensation is hit-or-miss for each airline, so it is best to try to avoid it. Do these things to minimize the risk.
- Select the Earliest Flight Possible
- Select Nonstop Flights Over Those With Connections
- If You Can’t Avoid a Layover, Ensure it is at Least 90 Minutes
- Consider the Typical Weather at Both Airports
- Fly During Less Busy Times of the Year
- Make Sure Your Airline Flies Your Route Often
- Fly From Hubs
- Fly on Less Busy Days
- Avoid Airlines That Struggle With Frequent Delays & Cancellations
- Avoid Airports With High Levels of Delays & Cancellations
Further Reading: How to Avoid Airline Flight Delays & Cancellations
Should I Buy Travel Insurance to Guarantee Compensation for Delayed and Canceled Flights?
It’s not a bad idea. Travel insurance may provide you with reimbursement for covered expenses incurred during a flight cancellation or significant delay. Before purchasing your policy, read what it offers regarding the following.
- Trip Delay
- Trip Interruption
- Trip Cancellation
Most policies do not kick in until you are delayed a certain number of hours, such as six or more. Additionally, you may need to exhaust your airline’s compensation first before receiving benefits. Keep all of your receipts and document everything for your insurance claim.
Further Reading: How to Buy the Best Travel Insurance
Credit Cards Offering Travel Insurance for Flight Delays and Cancellations
I recommend booking your trip with a credit card offering travel insurance. Many travel-focused credit cards reimburse for expenses associated with delays, interruptions, and cancellations. Here are my top recommendations.
|Credit Card||Trip Interruption and Cancellation||Trip delay reimbursement|
|The Platinum Card® from American Express||Up to $10,000 per person and $20,000 per trip.||Up to $500 per ticket after 6 hours of delay.|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card||Up to $10,000 per person and $20,000 per trip||Up to $500 per ticket after 12 hours of delay|
|Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card||Up to $2,000 per person||Up to $500 per ticket after 6 hours of delay|
|Chase Sapphire Reserve®||Up to $10,000 per person and $20,000 per trip||Up to $500 per ticket after 6 hours of delay|
Document everything and keep all receipts to submit to your credit card company for reimbursement.
Legally, you are not. Many airlines do provide compensation for controllable delays and cancellations, however.
Bad weather, political issues, and air traffic control problems are considered uncontrollable delays and cancellations, and airlines do not guarantee compensation for them.
Probably not. No airline guarantees cash compensation for delayed or canceled flights, and that includes for controllable reasons.
The Vacationer’s Final Thoughts
Passengers are at the mercy of the airline when their flight gets delayed or canceled. While you are entitled to a refund if your flight is significantly delayed or canceled, there are no laws guaranteeing further compensation. Regardless, your airline is likely to provide at least a hotel room and meal voucher if you are stranded overnight due to controllable reasons for the cancellation or delay. Many airlines will also book you on a partner airline for free. Either way, always ask for more compensation, including miles, travel credits, and even cash.
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