You’ve planned your trip and have everything set to start your next adventure or relaxing holiday. Then, once you get to the airport, you take a look at the departures board and see your flight is canceled.
What can do you do now?! Is your trip ruined?
It doesn’t have to be, and there are many ways to solve this situation. Flight delays and cancellations happen often, so it’s best you know your options to pick the best course of action based on your situation.
How you deal with a flight delay or cancellation varies on a case by case basis as it depends on the airline you’re flying with, where you’re flying from/to, and your fare class.
Below are a few of the best options to deal with flight delays and cancellations.
1. Understanding Your Passenger Rights
While all scheduled airlines have the same passenger rights established by government regulation, in the US, no regulation or federal law specifies what rights, if any, you have when an airline cancels your flight.
When it comes to cancellations, your rights are based solely on the airlines’ contracts of carriage and the relevant principles of general contract law. In other words, they vary from airline to airline.
Several airline contracts are designed not to guarantee schedules and not be responsible for consequential damage. In other words, they are not responsible for any loss you might incur if you arrive late at your destination or don’t arrive at all.
When it comes to routine cancellations, you have two fundamental contractual rights on any airline. All airlines should offer you a seat on their next available flight, or provide a refund for the unused portion of your ticket.
The details vary per contract, so some airlines might try their best to ease the inconvenience and keep you as a happy customer, while others will do the absolute minimum required per such contract.
2. Flight Cancellation Compensation
It’s essential to understand the cause of your flight cancellation. Typically, when the cancellation is caused by inclement weather or an “act of God,” the airline offers the bare minimum, like credit with the airline, a refund (if applicable), or a seat on the next flight.
But, when your flight cancellation is caused by a technical failure or something within the airline’s control, they might offer additional assistance and compensation.
What many airlines don’t mention is that you might also be entitled to a flight cancellation compensation, as well as additional services and benefits at the airport – if such cancellation happened right before the scheduled departure.
This compensation varies depending on the country from where you’re flying from. For example, in the European Union, according to the EU Air Passenger Rights Regulation, if the airline did not inform you of the flight cancellation 14 days or more before take off, you are due between €250 – €600 refunds for the inconvenience.
The US also has its own regulations, as well as most countries around the world.
Of course, there’s a lot of “small print” involving cancellations (surprise! You’re dealing with an airline) but sites like Flightright helps you get your flight cancellation compensation. Flightright is the market leader when it comes to enforcing your rights to receive the flight delay or cancellation compensation you’re entitled to.
They do the whole process for you, and if they don’t succeed, your case is closed free of charge.
Every flight and cancellation/delay is different, so you should check with Flightright whether your situation can be compensated.
3. Ask for a Refund
In addition to the potential compensation (if it applies), you could also ask for a refund.
Typically, when an airline cancels your flight, you’re entitled to a full reimbursement of the remaining value of your airfare. The refund should be given in the same form of ticket purchase – credit to your credit card or bank account, or cash.
Unless you’re open to it, you shouldn’t accept credit with the airline if they cancel your flight for reasons under their control.
If your connecting flight is the one that got canceled after you arrived at the layover airport, you could have a few options here.
You could get on the next available flight (with the same airline or alliance partner airline) via a similar route. Also, should you feel like you don’t want to continue your trip, some airlines might offer the next return flight to your departure city at no charge and refund the full value of the ticket.
4. Ask for The Next Available Seat
As mentioned before, the “next available seat” is one of the easiest and most common solutions to a canceled flight. Usually, airlines take this path to get you to your destination as quickly as possible.
Most airlines will offer an available seat on their next flight to your destination in the same class as the original flight. In some cases, they might offer a seat at a higher class at no extra cost should there not be an available seat in your original class.
If the available seat is in a lower class, they must refund you the difference.
Airlines could also offer a flight with different layover cities, or re-route you to another airport they service that is close to your original destination – should you be open to it. For example, you could arrive at Newark-EWR instead of New York-JFK.
Should the airline not have any availability, they might offer the next seat available on a partner airline or via ground transportation – should that be the most convenient option.
Airlines usually avoid changing you to a partner airline, but they could be open to it based on how extreme the situation is. But at the end of the day, it is all based on the airline’s discretion and contract.
My recommendation is to always discuss your options with the airline’s agent and be extremely patient. Many agents do try to help you in the best way they can but aren’t allowed to do certain things without jeopardizing their jobs.
From experience, being calm, patient, and understanding with the agent does wonders, and they usually help me to the extent of their limits.
Cancellations can be frustrating, but yelling at an agent is likely to get you less assistance, not more.
5. Delay Assistance and Other Compensations
As explained, the compensation you receive to assist your delay will vary depending on the airline and reason for the delay or cancellation.
If the delay or cancellation happens for reasons outside the airline’s control (such as weather, strikes, government regulations, labor-related disputes, slowdowns, unsettled international conditions, hostilities, etc.), then your rights are limited to a refund, a credit (if your flight is non-refundable) or the next seat available.
As an example, on a trip from Cancun to San Juan, my flight was canceled at the last minute due to a hurricane that was about to hit San Juan.
The airline rightfully canceled my flight, but didn’t offer anything other than a seat on their next available flight to San Juan, which was four days away! Unfortunately, I was responsible for my accommodation expenses and everything else while in Cancun during those extra days.
Thankfully, my travel insurance covered it. (more on that soon)
Now, if the delay/cancellation happens due to the airline’s fault (technical issues, crew shortage, plane change), then they’ll typically offer meal vouchers for delays of four hours or more, free hotel accommodation for delays of eight hours or more (if they happen overnight), and a free phone call should you not have a working mobile phone at the moment.
6. Sometimes It Pays to Be a Frequent Flyer
Are you on the airline’s frequent flyer program? You could also be “rewarded” with frequent flyer miles/points to compensate for the situation.
Once an airline canceled my flight from Miami to Sao Paulo due to technical issues, and since the delay was for more than 12 hours, they offered us a seat on the next flight, paid accommodation, and food vouchers.
Additionally, since I’m on their frequent flyer program, they also offered me 20,000 miles.
What you shouldn’t accept is the miles in exchange for all the other compensations.
7. What if You Booked Your Flight Through a Third Party Website?
But, sometimes, one of the disadvantages of booking a flight through a third party website is that it can limit the airline on the changes it can do to your ticket since the third-party website could have imposed an extra set of rules and fees to your fare.
If your flight was booked via a travel agent or third-party website, and you need to make a cancellation or change, contact the website or agency to arrange for the refund or substitution. This will be based on their rules and fees – which are in addition to the airline’s regulations and fees.
Most airlines can’t make customer suggested changes to a booking done via a third party or travel agent (like, canceling your trip a week before departure due to work or changing your flight to another date).
The only changes the airline can make on these third-party bookings are done right at the airport in the event of their own delay or cancellation.
Still, it’s always recommended to call the airline to discuss your alternatives (even if you booked via a third party). Then call such third party with the information and alternatives provided by the airline.
As a tip, whenever possible, book your flights on the airline’s website. This takes out any other middleman and eases the change/cancellation process. For more tips for finding the cheapest airfare, I recommend reading this post.
8. What if Your Flight is Non-refundable?
Usually, the cheapest flights are non-refundable. Still, non-refundable flights can be refunded under certain circumstances and extreme scenarios.
As mentioned before, if the airline is the one canceling for reasons under their control, they will issue you a full refund in the original form of payment should any other flight alternative offered not be acceptable to you. If it’s outside the airline’s control, it will be an airline credit.
Now, if you’re the one who needs to cancel your flight, your options will vary depending on when you cancel and why:
Canceling Within 24 Hours of Purchasing Your Flight
The US Department of Transportation requires airlines operating flights within or to the US to give customers a full refund if the cancellation is made within 24 hours of booking on a reservation made more than seven days before departure.
You can cancel for any reason, no questions asked. The refund will be made in the original form of payment.
If you book via a flight aggregator or third party website, make sure they honor that 24 hours risk-free cancellation policy.
I recommend booking directly with the airline, when possible, as it removes the third party, which often complicate things when you have to make changes and cancellations.
Canceling Outside the 24 Hours
Canceling a non-refundable flight outside of the 24-hour grace period is more complicated and varies on a case by case basis, but here are a few cases in which you can get your money back, in one way or another.
Death in the Family
One of those special exceptions that airlines respect and cancel your flights, no questions asked. But, you will be asked to provide proof that a family member passed away through a death certificate or funerary certificate of assistance.
Depending on the airline, your refund will be in the original form of payment immediately after you call to cancel your flight or held until you show proof of death.
A few airlines, like JetBlue and Delta, will offer an airline credit – to be used only by the original passenger within a year of issue.
In case you need to make new last-minute travel plans to assist with funeral arrangements, some airlines do offer discounted bereavement fares to family members of the deceased.
Other Special and Extreme Situations
If we learned something in 2020 is that the world can change and shutdown in a matter of weeks. As a result of the pandemic, the airline industry suffered a huge loss that was out of their control.
Based on the severity of the situation, most, if not all airlines, offered full refunds on all refundable flights and airline credit on all non-refundable flights without charging a change or cancellation fee.
This has been one of the most extreme cases in aviation history. Still, there have been other smaller special or extreme situations in which the airlines have waived their fees to accommodate the situation.
My recommended course of action is to visit your carrier’s website to read its change and cancellation policies. See if there are special exceptions that waive change/cancellation fees based on your particular circumstance.
Should you not find your specific circumstance on their website, then I recommend calling the airline to speak with a customer service representative.
Travel Insurance Flight Reimbursement
Last but not least, you could get your non-refundable flight reimbursed by your travel insurance if your insurance policy covers the cancelation reason.
I think this is the most recommended course of action (whether it is a refundable or non-refundable flight) as it’s essential having travel insurance to cover you in case of accidents or travel mishaps.
While each travel insurance policy is different, many offer cancellation refunds for unexpected events like sickness, terrorism, bankruptcy, having to work during your vacation time, revocation of military leave, pregnancy, hurricanes, moving to a different state, and so on.
Make sure you read the cancellation details on your travel insurance policy to know what is covered and what not.
I always recommend WorldNomads travel insurance to travel with peace of mind in case of sickness of any covered cancellation. And as mentioned before, Flightright for that flight cancellation compensation.
Some insurances, like RoamRight, offer a “cancel for any reason” policy in which you can cancel your flight for literally any reason not usually covered by insurance policies and still get a refund.
Hopefully, you won’t have to go through a cancellation experience, but should you do, now you know your rights, your best options, and what to expect out of the situation.