What To Do if Your Airline Cancels or Delays Your Flight This Holiday Season – Your Rights On Getting a Refund and Compensation (September 2023)
From bad weather to staffing shortages, it feels like airlines are canceling and delaying more flights than ever. The good news is there are things you can do to protect your money and time in the event of a cancellation or delay. Follow these tips to increase your odds of surviving or potentially avoiding the next airline meltdown.
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Why Do Flights Get Canceled or Delayed?
Airlines cancel and delay flights for a variety of reasons. Air travel is back at pre-pandemic levels, and airlines are still understaffed after laying off thousands of pilots, crew members, and other essential workers. It takes time to train and hire new pilots, so this is likely going to be an issue during busy travel periods in 2023 and into 2024.
Bad weather is another major reason for cancellations and delays, and there is nothing airlines can do to prevent it. The Southwest Airlines meltdown of 2022 started because of poor weather. While the weather cleared after a few days, the damage was already done.
The company’s poor and outdated scheduling software could not keep track of where pilots and crew members were after the initial cancellations. That led to thousands of additional cancellations that lasted for an entire week.
Your Legal Rights
Am I Entitled to a Refund if My Flight is Canceled or Delayed?
Per the Department of Transportation, you are legally entitled to a cash refund if your flight is canceled or significantly delayed. This includes non-refundable tickets as well as extra costs such as seats and bags. Unfortunately, airlines are not always straightforward when it comes to your rights. They may only offer you a credit or voucher. You should demand a full cash refund if your flight is canceled or significantly delayed and you choose not to travel.
The Department of Transportation does not define “significantly delayed.” Instead, airlines define it on an individual basis. The flight length and the length of delay are considered. Some airlines consider two hours a significant delay, while others view delays of 12 hours or longer to be significant.
By law, airlines must refund your canceled or significantly delayed flight promptly. That means seven business days if you paid with a credit card. Airlines owe those who paid with cash or check a refund within 20 business days.
Am I Entitled to Compensation if My Flight is Canceled or Delayed?
Airlines have no legal obligation to compensate passengers whose flights have been canceled or delayed. Regardless, you should still ask. Depending on the length of your delay, the airline may provide compensation for lodging, food, and alternative forms of transportation. It may also provide future flight credits. Your odds are better if your delay or cancellation was caused by a controllable reason as opposed to an uncontrollable reason.
Be polite when asking. Clearly explain the situation and the hardship the delayed or canceled flight caused. Airlines are much more likely to provide compensation for lengthy and overnight delays.
The good news is airlines are getting better. See this table from the DOT showing current airlines’ commitments for flights canceled or delayed due to controllable reasons. This is defined as interruptions due to maintenance or crew problems; cabin cleaning; baggage loading; and fueling. It does not include uncontrollable reasons like poor weather.
If your airline does not offer compensation immediately, you should still save all of your receipts. Submit them all after your trip is over and explain the situation. It never hurts to ask more than once!
Avoiding a Delay or Cancellation Before Booking
Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do to 100 percent avoid a delay or cancellation. The good news is you can greatly minimize your odds of experiencing an interruption. Here are some tips. You can also see our complete How to Avoid Airline Flight Delays & Cancellations guide for more.
Book Nonstop Flights Departing Early in the Morning
Flights departing early in the morning have much better odds of taking off on time than those later in the day. Poor weather, staffing issues, and other factors often snowball throughout the day. While waking up before dawn is not fun, it is in your best interest to do it if your goal is avoiding an interruption.
Nonstop flight itineraries are better for many reasons. In addition to getting to your destination faster, they are also less likely to experience a delay or cancellation. Each additional leg in your flight plan increases your odds of an interruption.
If you do book a flight with a connection, ensure the layover is at least 90 minutes.
Further Reading: Best & Worst Times of Day to Fly
Book Direct with the Airline and Avoid OTAs
While online travel agencies (OTAs) like Expedia and Travelocity may offer cheaper flight prices than booking direct with the airline, there are numerous drawbacks. The major one is they essentially act as a middleman. If your need to change or cancel or flight, you deal with the OTA’s support team instead of the airline’s.
That becomes problematic when you need to quickly rebook your flight after cancellation or delay. Booking direct with the airline lets you quickly access its support team through the phone, chat, and social media. Time is of the essence, and every second counts when the rest of your flight is also attempting to quickly rebook.
The good news is you are still entitled to a cash refund if your flight booked with an OTA is canceled or significantly delayed.
Do Not Check a Bag
Due to staffing and other issues, checking a bag is riskier than ever. In addition to generally being more expensive than a carry-on, checked bags have the following issues.
- Long lines to drop off your bag
- Airlines are losing/delaying bags in record numbers
Even if your airline does not lose your bag, it is going to cost you time to drop it off and pick it up. Additionally, it can become a huge problem if your flight is canceled or delayed and you need to rebook with another airline. It could take a lot of time to get it back, and it could cost you your next flight.
Avoid Flying During Obvious Bad Weather Times
Southwest’s recent meltdown started because of bad weather in Chicago and Denver. Both cities typically experience cold and snowy conditions in late December, so it was not out of the ordinary. While weather can be tough to predict, there are trends you can follow. Think about if the city you are booking a flight to or from experiences extreme weather during your travel period. Is there likely to be a major winter storm? How about a hurricane?
Avoid Flying During Busy Holidays and Peak Times
Thanksgiving and Christmas are two of the busiest times of year to fly. If possible, consider alternative forms of transportation like driving or taking a train. If you do fly, target the best days to fly around the holidays.
With so many people flying in a short window, delays and cancellations are common. Unfortunately, even interruptions can occur on the usual best days due to airlines overbooking, bad weather, and unforeseen circumstances.
Fly on a Tuesday or Wednesday
While not a hard rule, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are usually the best days of the week to fly. In addition to cheaper prices, fewer people are flying. That lessens the odds of delays and cancellations. It also means you will have an easier chance of finding a same-day alternative flight with desirable available seats.
Further Reading: Best Days and Times to Book Flights
Check How Many Times Per Day Your Airline Flys the Route
Does your airline only have one flight per day to your destination? If so, you may be in trouble if your flight is canceled. Your airline will attempt to rebook you on the next possible flight. If your airline flies that route multiple times per day, it should not be a problem getting you on a flight later that day. If it only flies it once per day, you are probably going to be stranded overnight. In that situation, search for flights from competing airlines that have an interline agreement with your airline.
Low-cost carriers like Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines are more likely to only fly a route once per day. Consider paying a little more to fly an airline like Delta or United that flies the route more than once per day.
Monitoring for Delays and Cancellations
After booking, you should keep an eye on your flight’s status until it is time to check in. In most cases, it is easy to find out about a delay or cancellation before going to the airport.
Download the Airline’s App and Enable Push Notifications
Download your airline’s official mobile app and enable push notifications. That way, you will be alerted right away if your flight is delayed, canceled, or changed. While that should be enough, you still need to do more. During Southwest’s recent meltdown, many travelers complained about not receiving timely app alerts.
Enable Text and Email Alerts
After booking, enable both text and email alerts for your flights. I also recommend enabling alerts for the incoming flight. For example, if your plane is coming from Chicago in January, there is a real chance your flight gets delayed.
Text and email alerts along with push notifications increase your odds of quickly seeing the delay or cancellation.
Use Third-Party Flight Monitoring Services
Use websites like FlightAware to monitor cancellations and delays. It works as a backup if the airline does not alert you promptly. It also lets you quickly see how many flights your airline has recently canceled. If it is a lot, you should prepare for your flight to experience an interruption.
Monitor the Weather
You should monitor the weather from three places a few days before your flight.
- Your Departure City
- Your Arrival City
- Your Incoming Flight City
Poor weather in any of those cities could cause issues. If the weather is looking bad, consider changing your flight. Most non-basic economy tickets allow for free changes.
Check-in Online 24 Hours in Advance
I highly recommend checking in for your flight exactly 24 hours before takeoff. Doing so is another opportunity to see if there are any interruptions or changes. If there are, you get a head start to find a new flight over those who check in at the airport.
Actions to Take in the Event of a Flight Cancellation or Delay
You need to act quick after a cancellation or lengthy delay. Many of these tips can be done at the airport or at home.
Find a New Flight
Your airline will attempt to rebook you on the next available flight. Unfortunately, that flight may be less than ideal. It could be at a strange time or many days away. It could also only have less than ideal seats available.
For that reason, you should be proactive in finding a new flight. Use Google Flights to find cheap flights to your destination from multiple airlines. Many airlines have interline agreements with each other. That means American Airlines could book you on a JetBlue flight if that is your best alternative. Please note, some airlines like Southwest Airlines do not have interline agreements.
After finding your new flight, alert the airline’s customer service team.
Further Reading: How to Find Cheap Flight Deals
Use Multiple Methods to Contact Customer Service
Your airline’s customer service team is likely to be overwhelmed after a cancellation or major delay. If you are at the airport, get to the customer service desk as quickly as possible. While waiting in line, call the customer service phone number as well as attempt to contact them on social media. If the United States line is busy, try the international number.
Your goal is to get in touch with a customer service member as quickly as possible. This is important because limited seats will be available on upcoming flights. You want to have as many options available as possible when you eventually talk to someone. Ideally, you have already found your alternate flight and can quickly let the customer service agent know.
Consider Alternative Forms of Transportation
There may be no acceptable alternative flights available. In that case, consider renting a car or taking a train. Remember, the airline legally owes you a refund for canceled and significantly delayed flights, so they must give it to you if you decide not to fly or rebook. Unfortunately, airlines have no obligation to compensate for alternative forms of transportation, so you will be paying out of pocket. Regardless of the lack of law, you should still ask for compensation.
Further Reading: How to Find Cheap Car Rentals
Lodging Options vs. Sleeping at the Airport
In certain situations, it may make sense to spend the night at the airport after a canceled or delayed flight. Other times, you should probably go home or spend the night in a hotel. It depends on whether or not you have an early new flight or something later in the day. It also depends on whether you are departing from your home city or flying back home.
If you are flying back home, ask the airline for a hotel voucher. The airline does not have to provide you with a voucher, but you should ask. Delta Air Lines makes its policy clear. For interruptions from 10 pm to 6 am, it will provide passengers with a voucher for one night at Delta contracted facilities. The airline says space must be available. If there is no space, it will provide passengers with up to a $100 future Delta flight credit.
Just because an airline does not have a policy publicly available does not mean it will not provide lodging reimbursement under the right circumstances. You should always ask.
Further Reading: How to Find Cheap Hotels
Check Your Lounge Access Options
Check to see if your ticket has airport lounge access. You should also see if your credit card includes airport lounge access. In addition to being a place to get food and drinks, airport lounges often have showers and places to relax, which makes it a perfect place to go to wait out a lengthy delay.
While the Centurion lounges and Priority Pass lounges offer great food and amenities, they do have a drawback. Since they are not tied to a particular airline, they do not have any agents in them. For example, Admirals Club lounges have American Airlines agents inside them. In the event of a cancellation or delay, the agents can quickly help you rebook your flight. In many cases, this will be the fastest way to reach a support agent since many people either do not have lounge access or do not know they can receive support in them.
Further Reading: The Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® includes Admirals Club access.
Check Your Travel Insurance Benefits
Before booking your flight, you should read about various travel insurance policies. Look for things like trip delay insurance and trip cancellation insurance. These policies reimburse you for prepaid expenses due to unexpected interruptions in your travel. Here are a few examples.
- Ride to and from the airport
I highly recommend seeing if any of your travel credit cards offer insurance. The Chase Sapphire Reserve® and The Platinum Card® from American Express are my top two picks. Both cards offer up to $10,000 per person and $20,000 per trip for trip interruption and cancellation. Both cards also offer trip delay reimbursement as well as insurance for lost/delayed bags.
No. Airlines do not have to legally compensate you for such expenses.
Yes. Airlines must legally provide you with a cash refund if your flight is significantly delayed or canceled and you choose not to fly.
Here are steps to take to potentially avoid a flight delay or cancellation.
– Book Nonstop Flights Departing Early in the Morning
– Book Direct with the Airline and Avoid OTAs
– Do Not Check a Bag
– Avoid Flying During Obvious Bad Weather Times
– Avoid Flying During Busy Holidays and Peak Times
– Fly on a Tuesday or Wednesday
– Check How Many Times Per Day Your Airline Flys the Route
The Vacationer’s Final Thoughts
A canceled or significantly delayed flight is no fun, but you do have rights. Request a full cash refund if your flight is canceled or significantly delayed and you no longer wish to travel. While not required, ask the airline to compensate you for expenses. Download the airline’s app and monitor your flight’s status up to a week in advance. If you need to rebook, be aware of interline agreements and use Google Flights to find the best alternative flight. Use your airline’s international number as well as social media accounts to quickly receive support in high-volume situations. And finally, consider travel insurance to better protect yourself.
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