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14 Things to Do When Your Flight Is Canceled or Delayed

Know your options when flight delays or cancellations threaten to ruin your vacation.

U.S. News & World Report

Things to Do If Your Flight Is Canceled

perspective view of jet airliner in flight with bokeh background

Flight delays and cancellations are bound to happen. If you act fast and use these tips, you can reschedule, rebook or get a refund easily.(Getty Images)

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

According to the Department of Transportation, 1.9% of scheduled flights were canceled and 21% were delayed by more than 15 minutes in 2019 – long enough to miss a tight connection. What's more, U.S. airlines are cutting 20% to 50% of their domestic flight schedules by April 1, 2020, due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Use these expert strategies to recover – and possibly receive compensation – if delayed or canceled flights alter your travel plans.

[Read from U.S. News Health: Travel in the Time of Coronavirus.]

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.

On your travel day, check your flight status online using the airline's app or a third-party app like FlightAware Flight Tracker 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. When coping with a flight disruption, timing is everything.

Know Your Passenger Rights on Domestic Flights

To rebound from travel delays, it's essential to know your rights. 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 a 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 within the next 12 months using a flight voucher. Travelers will need to pay any fare differential.

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.

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. According to Christian Nielsen, chief legal officer of AirHelp (a resource for air passenger rights), "Disruptions caused by extraordinary circumstances out of the airlines' control are not covered, such as weather conditions or political unrest."

However, Nielsen says a European law known as EC 261 requires that airlines reimburse passengers up to $700 for other delays lasting more than three hours. 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.

Act Quickly When You Learn of a Delay or Cancellation

Brett Snyder, president of the Cranky Concierge air travel assistance service, says, "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." 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 their Twitter or Facebook accounts to contact customer service.

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.

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)," Snyder says, "they will do everything they can to put you on that plane and reduce the number of stranded passengers later in the day."

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, 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.

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 $1,350. (Exact coupon values vary depending on how long after your original arrival time it'll take an airline to get you to your destination.) 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 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. According to AirHelp, the fewest flight cancellations occur between 6 and 11:59 a.m.

If you need to take more than one flight to reach your destination, reduce the risk of missing connecting flights by planning a city stopover. Turkish Airlines provides a free hotel room to connecting passengers who have a 20-hour layover, while shorter waits are eligible for a free Istanbul city tour. Keep in mind, though, that travel restrictions in effect due to COVID-19 may make it impossible to transit through certain countries at this time.

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. At Chicago's busy O'Hare International Airport, passengers can relax in a dedicated yoga room or at the Aeroponic Garden, a living green space some airport restaurants use to grow fresh produce.

In May 2020, the retailer Metsä/Skogen plans to bring the serenity and healing power of forest bathing (a Japanese therapy designed to help you reconnect with nature) to Helsinki Airport in Finland. Use the retailer's in-airport wellness shop, Mushroom Bar and seating area (which offers virtual reality goggles that transport you to the heart of Finland's forested Lapland region) to calm your mind during a flight delay. Not only will you pass the time in a more soothing setting, but you'll also see more of the country you're visiting.

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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