When your flight is canceled or delayed, any rights you may have are determined by the airline’s contract of carriage. This will vary from airline to airline. There are no federal regulations in the U.S. regarding compensation for canceled or delayed flights.
However, for international flights within the European Union, you may be entitled to cash compensation as well as additional assistance.
Canceled Flights within the U.S.
Here’s what you can typically expect when your flight is canceled within the U.S.:
The airline will automatically rebook you on the next available flight. If there are no flights for an extended period of time, or if you choose not to fly at a later time, you can usually request a refund for the unused portion of the ticket, including any optional fees you may have paid (i.e., baggage fees or upgrades).
With many airlines, if your travel includes a connection and you’ve arrived at the connecting airport, but no flights are available, you can request a flight back to your original destination at no cost.
If the cancellation is within the airline’s control (i.e., a shortage of staff or mechanical issues), some carriers will cover the expenses (or provide vouchers) for a hotel room and meals if an overnight stay is required. If the airline fails to offer this option, feel free to request it.
Find out if there are any alternate flights available. Check online, utilize the airline app, or call the airline or your travel agent rather than waiting in line at the airport. If the only flights available are on another carrier, ask the airline representative if they would endorse your ticket to the other carrier so you won’t have to pay the additional airfare. Even though this isn’t a requirement and is outside the norm, they may accommodate you.
When cancellations or delays are outside the airline’s control (i.e., weather conditions or air traffic control problems), the passengers are usually responsible for any added expenses like food, hotel, and transportation. However, feel free to ask the airline for assistance. You may get a representative who is responsive to your needs.
For example, United’s contract of carriage states that when a flight is delayed or canceled, it will automatically rebook you on the next available flight. If the delay is two or more hours, you have the option of accepting the rebooked flight, finding an alternate United flight, or requesting a full refund for the portion of the unused ticket. The refund would include payment for any added services, but ticketing fees would be nonrefundable. You can request a refund at United.com/refunds.
Flight Delays within the U.S.
When a flight is delayed, it’s up to the airline to determine what you’re entitled to, and it’s usually based on the length of the delay.
When a delay is substantial (usually over two to three hours), the airline may offer the option of flying standby or provide a travel waiver for an alternate flight on another date, both without change fees. You may also be given the option to fly out of a nearby airport if flights are available. Transportation costs to the alternate airport may not be covered.
If the airline doesn’t have any flights available for a long period of time, again, see if you can find an alternate flight on another carrier, and ask if it will endorse your ticket to that airline.
Some airlines may also offer credits toward future flights when there are lengthy delays.
For free flight tracking and status of delays, check out FlightAware Flight Tracker or download the app.
Delays Affecting Connecting Flights:
Delays are especially a concern when you have a connecting flight. If you booked a single ticket, the airline will put you on the next available flight connection to your final destination.
However, if you made two separate bookings, you will be considered a no-show if you miss your connection. That means you would lose the money spent on that flight and would have to book another flight and pay the additional airfare. Being proactive when a delay occurs can increase your chances for a positive outcome. In other words, inform the connecting airline of the delay and ask if it will rebook you on a later flight at no cost. This is especially important if you have a tight connection.
If you keep the airline informed, many times it will try to accommodate you on another flight.
Delays may Affect your Hotel/Rental Car Reservation:
If the delay will cause you to be late for your hotel check-in or picking up a rental car, be sure to contact them. Even if your room is guaranteed, hotels have been known to give rooms away if guests have not arrived by a certain time. Car rental agencies may do the same by giving your rental to another customer if you are substantially late.
Keep the hotel and rental agency informed of your expected arrival time.
Look into an Airport Lounge Day Pass:
For substantial delays, it may be worth it to purchase an airport lounge day pass (if you’re not already a member or flying in First or Business Class). You can usually purchase a day pass from any lounge, even if you’re not flying on the airline that operates the lounge.
The average cost of a day pass is around $40 to $50. If traveling as a family, check to see what the guest policy is. Some will admit children under a certain age for free, while others may charge each person. That could get expensive.
The benefits include a quiet place to rest or work, free food and beverages, Wi-fi, comfortable chairs, restrooms and oftentimes showers, and a customer service desk to help you with any flight needs.
Check if your Credit Card has Trip Interruption Insurance:
Several credit cards offer trip interruption coverage. If your flight is delayed or canceled for an eligible reason, you could receive compensation if you charged your flight to that card.
European Union International Regulations – Canceled or Delayed Flights
Passengers flying within the European Union have rights to compensation under EU Regulation 261/2004 (oftentimes referred to as EU 261 or EC 261). These regulations apply to any passengers that are:
- Departing from an airport in one of the EU member states
- Traveling to an EU member state on an airline that is based out of one of the EU member states
If your flight is canceled, regardless of the reason, you are entitled to the following options:
- Being rebooked on the next available flight
- Asking for a seat on a flight to the same destination at your convenience
- Requesting a refund, including the cost of all flights if on a multi-flight itinerary. The airline is also responsible for getting you back to your original departure destination at no cost if required.
You are also entitled to free refreshments, accommodations, lodging and transportation to another airport or hotel.
Cash Compensation under EU 261
The airline is also required to pay its passengers compensation of €250 to €600 (depending on the flight) when a flight is canceled. However, compensation is not required if it has given passengers a one to two-week advance notice, or if passengers can be rebooked on another flight that will arrive within a specified time frame of the original departure and arrival times. This is usually two to four hours, depending on the flight.
If the cancellation is because of extraordinary circumstances that are outside the control of the airline, additional compensation would not be required.
Flight Delays under EU 261
If a flight is delayed more than two to four hours (depending on the type of flight), passengers are to be given free refreshments. The airline is required to provide hotel accommodations if the flight is delayed until the following day.
When a flight delay exceeds five hours, the passengers have the option of requesting a refund for all flights (if it’s a multi-flight trip) and a free ticket back to their original departure location. Cash compensation is to be offered to passengers.
Requesting a Refund or Compensation under EU 261
Not all airlines will inform passengers of their rights under EU 261. It’s important to know what your rights are and feel free to request additional assistance or a refund and compensation.
Know What Your Rights are as a Passenger
If passengers miss a flight or need to change their itinerary, they pay a hefty fee or even forfeit the entire amount they paid for their ticket. But if the airline fails to transport passengers to their destination in a timely manner, it’s usually the passengers that feel the pain.
Flights are delayed and canceled every day — most travelers get that. It becomes a problem when passengers are on the losing end, no matter which party is responsible. It’s like gambling: The cards are stacked in favor of the casino, and the house wins. The airlines have figured out how to win the game — at the passengers’ expense. It’s important to know what your rights are, so you can be on the winning end.
For more travel insight, check out my book,
Know Before You Go: Traveling the U.S. and Abroad