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What to Do If Your Flight is Canceled

US News & World Report - Travel logo US News & World Report - Travel 1/11/2022 Kyle McCarthy
Canceled flights © (Getty Images) Canceled flights

Whether you're flying for work or leisure, getting to your destination on time is something most travelers take for granted. However, severe weather, COVID-19 staff shortages, airport construction and security issues make flight disruptions more common than you may think.

According to the Department of Transportation, U.S. airlines cut domestic flight schedules by 41% in 2020. Air travel began to rebound in 2021, however the delta and omicron variants and airline staffing shortages caused cancellations and delays throughout the year, with more than 18,000 canceled flights during the holiday season from Dec. 24, 2021, to Jan. 3.

For vacation planning in 2022, air travelers will want to continue to prepare for the uncertainty of COVID-19 impacts, including unidentified variants, staffing shortages and potential travel restrictions. Use these expert strategies to recover – and possibly receive compensation – if delayed or canceled flights alter your travel plans.

[Read: Where Can Americans Travel Right Now?]

Stay Alert for Flight Notifications

Late flight departures can have ripple effects on connecting flights or cruise ship embarkations, so sign up for airline alerts when you purchase a ticket. The DOT requires that airlines notify passengers of any schedule changes, such as those being made as a result of COVID-19 concerns, on their websites and telephone reservation systems within seven days of departure. For the latest flight information and delays, visit your airline's website.

On your departure date, check your flight status before heading to the airport. You can check for flight cancellations and delays online using the airline's app or a third-party app like FlightAware Flight Tracker (which also offers a website) or TripIt Pro. The latter of these two stores your travel itinerary for added convenience. Delays of 30 minutes or longer will show on the airport's flight status displays, but these apps often send real-time alerts sooner and help keep you informed wherever you are at the airport. When coping with a flight disruption, timing is everything.

Act Quickly When You Learn of a Delay or Cancellation

"In the event of a delay, the best thing to do is everything. Get in line to talk with an agent; while waiting, pick up your phone," said Brett Snyder, president of the Cranky Concierge air travel assistance service. Call your travel advisor or travel insurance provider if you have those resources. If not, try to rebook yourself through the airline's app, by phone or by using your Twitter or Facebook account to contact the airline's customer service team.

Typically, if your flight is canceled the majority of airlines will rebook you on the next flight available to your destination with no change fees or additional charges. However, depending on why your flight is canceled, finding seats on a new flight may be difficult and your arrival time may be delayed significantly. As a traveler, you'll need to decide if the timing will work for your plans, or if you'll need to request a refund for future travel.

Know Your Passenger Rights on Domestic Flights

To rebound from travel delays, it's essential to know your rights. In the event of a cancellation, the DOT states airlines are required to provide a refund for unused transportation. In the event there are flight delays, Chris Elliott, founder and chief advocacy officer of Elliott Advocacy (a nonprofit that offers free consumer advice), explains that options depend on the reason for the flight disruption. "If the delay is caused by a mechanical issue," Elliott says, "check your airline's contract of carriage, the legal agreement between you and the airline, for details on your rights."

If the delay or cancellation of a domestic flight is due to an extraordinary circumstance or situation beyond the airline's control, there are no federal regulations that require an airline to accommodate you. However, Elliott says, "Even if it's a weather issue or an act of God, many airlines will still help."

One example is the unprecedented flexibility being offered to customers who want to postpone or cancel trips as destinations shut down to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Most airlines are waiving penalties and change fees for customers who rebook future travel within the next 12 months using a flight voucher. Travelers will need to pay any fare differential.

Review the Flight Cancellation Policies by Airline

Depending on the airline you booked with, your options will vary in the event of a flight cancellation. Use the links below to find out more information on the cancellation policies and passenger rights details for each of the top U.S.-based airlines.

Since there is a more robust Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights currently under consideration by Congress, stay up to date on passenger rights by visiting the DOT's online Fly Rights guide.

[Read: 7 Ways Hotels Are Changing Because of the Coronavirus.]

Understand Your Passenger Rights on International Flights

Robust regulations protect travelers who are flying to Europe on a European Union carrier or out of the EU. "Disruptions caused by extraordinary circumstances out of the airlines' control are not covered, such as weather conditions or political unrest," according to Christian Nielsen, chief legal officer of AirHelp (a resource for air passenger rights),

However, Nielsen says a European law known as EC 261 requires that airlines reimburse passengers up to about $700 depending on how long the flight has been delayed and the expected distance of the flight. The law also ensures passengers are compensated if they're denied boarding. Additionally, passengers will be reimbursed for cancellations that occur within 14 days of their scheduled departure that cause them to get to their final destination two-plus hours after their original arrival time.

Services like AirHelp make it easy for travelers to file complex compensation claims and follow up with legal action. As payment, the company takes a percentage of the compensation recovered as their fee. But remember, flight cancellations due to COVID-19 are not eligible for additional compensation. Instead, airlines will issue refunds for any flights canceled due to the coronavirus.


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Use Pro Tips to Get Rebooked on Your Preferred Itinerary

Experts agree that being prepared with a choice of alternate options is the best tool for successfully rebooking a flight. Use sites like Google Flights or Skyscanner to research all airline schedules, including alternate airport options depending on your location.

Also know your airline's partner carriers, especially if you're traveling internationally. "Take American Airlines [as an example]," Snyder says. "If you are going to Europe and there's a problem on one of their flights, you can say they should put you on British Airways."

Maintain a Positive Attitude With Customer Service Personnel

Be polite and respectful to those trying to assist you, whether in person, on the phone or through social media. Doing so will increase your chances of being accommodated and may even lead to an upgrade on your next flight.

"If agents have an airplane leaving with an empty seat during IROPS (irregular operations), they will do everything they can to put you on that plane and reduce the number of stranded passengers later in the day," Snyder says.

Get an Airfare Refund When It's Your Best Option

The DOT says if a flight is canceled for any reason and the traveler chooses not to be rebooked on that airline, regardless of if you booked a refundable ticket, the passenger is entitled to a full refund. You may even be entitled to a refund for a flight delay, depending on the circumstances.

Accept a refund and rebook when it works for you. To decrease the chance of paying more for your rebooked flight, reschedule your trip during an off-peak travel time when seats are readily available. Or, choose a competitive route with similar airfares.

Check Credit Cards for Travel Perks

Premium credit cards often provide complimentary travel perks, such as access to an airport lounge with food, drinks and Wi-Fi access for staying productive during delays. Some credit cards also offer concierge service to help rebook flights or built-in trip insurance to cover unforeseen expenses.

The Platinum Card from American Express offers travel insurance that reimburses some nonrefundable expenses like hotel accommodations, meals and other essentials as long as the trip was purchased using that card. The Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card has similar protections. Always check the credit card contract's fine print for details on the card's coverage terms and conditions.

Count on Your Travel Advisor's Assistance

"In the event of a flight delay or cancellation, travel advisors have a number of tools to assist," says Peter Vlitas, senior vice president of airline relations at Travel Leaders Group (one of the travel industry's largest travel agency companies). "If we anticipate flight delays due to weather, for example, travel advisors receive advance waivers so they can select alternative flights before they sell out."

If you didn't purchase flights through a travel advisor, Cranky Concierge's Urgent Assistance plan – which costs $100 per one-way journey – helps travelers recover from flight changes within 24 hours of departure and assists with compensation claims.

Consider Using Travel Insurance to Cover Additional Nonrefundable Costs

Travel insurance is a must for travelers who want to protect their investment. Daniel Durazo, director of marketing and communications for Allianz Global Assistance USA, says that depending on the length of your delay and your coverage, "[travel insurance] may reimburse you for lost prepaid expenses, as well as costs you incur because of the delay, including meals, accommodations, communication and transportation." Covered reasons include a travel carrier delay and loss or theft of travel documents, among other scenarios. Coverage varies with delays due to COVID-19, so it is important to check with your provider.

Strategically Apply for Compensation From the Airlines

In the U.S., one of the few events that triggers airline compensation is involuntary denied boarding (or "bumping" a passenger from an oversold flight). Compensation ranges from meal vouchers to flight coupons valued at up to $1,550. (Exact values vary depending on how long after your original arrival time it'll take an airline to get you to your destination. Find more info on the DOT website.) But remember, there are many loopholes.

Before accepting a voucher or another non-cash offer, understand its face value and the terms and conditions for use, especially during international travels. Ask what caused your flight delay or cancellation, keep a written log of events and save boarding passes, travel itineraries, receipts and any other documentation to file a claim.

Keep in mind that future flight vouchers – not cash – are currently being offered for cancellations initiated by travelers and U.S. carriers due to the coronavirus. Tickets purchased through third-party sites, such as Expedia and Travelocity, will be handled the same way.

Avoid Checking Luggage to Remain Flexible

Travelers who haven't checked luggage and only travel with a carry-on and/or personal bag will have the most flexibility in rebooking. Some carriers, such as Southwest Airlines, will try to move checked luggage to a later flight for you and will make every effort to keep you and your belongings together. However, when airlines don't have interline agreements with other carriers, you'll have to allow enough time to retrieve and recheck your own luggage.

Minimize the Chance of Flight Delays and Cancellations

Try to reduce the likelihood of travel disruptions by making several strategies part of your trip-planning process. Check the delay and cancellation histories for your preferred flights before booking, only reserve nonstop flights (when possible), fly on off-peak days (like Tuesday and Wednesday) and choose morning departures. Historically, fewer flight cancellations occur between 6 a.m. and noon.

If you need to take more than one flight to reach your destination, book a flight with a longer layover to provide time to make your connecting flight. Keep in mind, at some airports you may need go through security or customs. For longer journeys, you could reduce the risk of missing connecting flights by planning a city stopover. Icelandair offers Iceland stopovers for no additional airfare. Keep in mind, though, that travel requirements and restrictions in effect due to COVID-19 may make it impossible to transit through certain countries at this time.

[Read: The 15 Best Face Masks for Travel.]

Don't Let Flight Delays Ruin the Journey

Major airports have invested heavily in waiting areas, dining outlets and shops because they earn approximately 40% of their revenue from passenger spending, according to the 2017 ACI Economics Report.

Regardless of which airport you fly into or out of, all are trying to improve the travel experience. Many airports have branches of popular local restaurants and boutiques to provide travelers with access to regional favorites. For added comforts, such as Wi-Fi access and an escape from the crowded concourses, airport lounges offer additional amenities. Travelers can gain access to various airport lounges with certain credit cards, specific boarding passes (typically first or business class) or for a daily fee, depending on the lounge.

At Chicago's busy O'Hare International Airport, passengers can relax in a dedicated yoga room. Meanwhile, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and Houston's two commercial airports showcase art exhibits travelers can explore. The Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport has Ottobots (fully autonomous robots) that deliver food, beverages and retail items, and Denver Airport's Canine Airport Therapy Squad helps travelers calm nerves by petting and interacting with affectionate volunteer dogs and cats.

Unexpected flight delays and cancellations can cause stress for everyone from first-time flyers to seasoned travelers. But with the help of these expert tips and tricks, you're bound to minimize the impact these temporary setbacks have on your travels.

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