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What to Know if Your Flight Gets Delayed or Canceled

By Bennett Kleinman
Read time: 6 minutes

Dealing with delays at the airport is a far-too-common headache for travelers, and the situation can quickly escalate if the flight ends up being canceled. These unexpected snags are often an unavoidable risk with flying these days, and there’s little you can do to prevent them from happening. But you can arm yourself with knowledge — as you may be entitled to some compensation, depending on the circumstances. Before taking your next trip, be sure to read up on the facts so that you aren’t misled or taken advantage of by the airlines. Here are some of your essential rights as a traveler in case of delays or cancellations.

Rights for U.S. Domestic Flights

Passenger at airport ticket counter talking to agent
Credit: d3sign/ Moment via Getty Images 

In May 2023, the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed a new series of rules in an effort to better hold airlines accountable for travel delays. While efforts are ongoing to make these laws universal no matter the airline, travelers are currently subject to the will of each individual airline. This means that your rights may differ from flight to flight, but you can learn more specifics by using this helpful dashboard provided by the U.S. Department of Transportation. 

Keep in mind that many of these benefits only apply to “controllable” delays and cancellations. These are delays caused by issues such as maintenance problems, crew scheduling issues, and cabin cleaning delays — in other words, problems that the airline is capable of preventing. On the flip side, you won’t receive compensation for delays that are out of the airlines’ control, such as events related to safety and security, air traffic delays, and weather.

If the delays are ultimately deemed controllable, here are some benefits that you’re entitled to:

Free rebooking on the same airline: All major U.S. carriers will rebook you on the first available flight to your destination at no additional cost.

Free rebooking on a partner airline: Airlines including Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, and United will rebook passengers on a partner airline at no additional charge.

Meal voucher: If your flight is delayed for three or more hours, all major U.S. airlines will provide you with a complimentary meal voucher at an average of $12 per voucher.

Complimentary hotel accommodations: All major U.S. airlines (except for budget airline Frontier) will provide passengers with complimentary hotel accommodations in the event of an overnight delay or cancellation.

Complimentary ground transportation: All major U.S. airlines (except for Frontier) will provide free ground transportation to the free hotel in the event of an overnight delay.

Travel voucher: If your flight is delayed for more than three hours, some airlines (such as Alaska and JetBlue) will provide you with a complimentary credit or travel voucher towards a future flight.

Free frequent flyer miles: Other airlines provide passengers with bonus miles to use toward their next flight in the event that their flight is delayed for three or more hours.

Unfortunately, there’s currently no standard for cash compensation at any major U.S. airline for passengers who suffer delays or cancellations. However, cash compensation is part of the U.S. DOT’s proposed initiative to make the requirements for U.S.-based airlines more traveler-friendly. And passengers who are involuntarily bumped from a flight due to overbooking are entitled to significant compensation.

The DOT has also established rules for lengthy tarmac delays at U.S. airports (when the aircraft is taxiing after leaving the gate but before taking off, or after landing before reaching the gate). Airlines are not allowed to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours (domestic flights) or four hours (international flights) and must provide water and snacks no more than two hours after remaining on the tarmac.

European Rules and Regulations

Travelers sitting at airport gate waiting area, seen from above
Credit: AzmanL/ E+ via Getty Images 

Traveling to Europe soon? A consumer-friendly law known as the European Union regulation EC 261 — or EU 261 for short — provides protection for all flights departing from the European Union. (It also offers protection for flights with a destination in the EU, but only if they are operated by an airline based in an EU country.) This applies to flights that do business in any of the 27 EU countries, as well as Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, and most outlying territories. The law even applies to domestic U.S. flights that are booked on an EU-based airline, even if the actual flight doesn’t touch down on European soil.

Meals, refreshments, and two complimentary telephone calls are provided for passengers depending on the duration of their delay and the distance of the flight. This applies to the following set of circumstances:

• Flights traveling a distance under 932 miles that are delayed for two or more hours

• Flights traveling a distance between 932 and 2,175 miles that are delayed for three or more hours

• Flights traveling any distance that are delayed for four or more hours

• If your flight is delayed until the following day, then you will receive complimentary hotel accommodations and transportation to and from the hotel

Where European consumer protections most heavily differ from American airlines is with a concept known as the “right to compensation.” In the event a flight is delayed three or more hours, European travelers are entitled to cash back in their pocket, though the airline has a right to reduce compensation by 50% if they offer rerouting to the final destination. The reimbursement amounts are as follows:

€250 for flights of 932 miles or less

• €400 for flights of 932 miles or more within the European Union, or flights anywhere between 932 miles and 2,175 miles in length

• €600 for all other flights

Keep in mind that there are circumstances where you are not protected under EU 261. This includes situations where you’re notified of a cancellation two or more weeks before departure, or if you’re offered a rerouted flight between one to two weeks before your departure. Lastly, you aren’t covered if your flight is canceled within a week of departure, so long as the airline rebooks you on a new flight that departs no more than one hour before your scheduled departure and arrives less than two hours after your scheduled time of arrival.

The most time-consuming aspect of EU 261 is that you need to file a claim in order to receive cash payments, and airlines may try and deceive you into thinking that you aren’t entitled to any money. Keep in mind that all EU airlines are legally required to provide cash reimbursements, so don’t settle for a travel voucher if they offer you one. Before filing a claim, compile any evidence you have available regarding the delay or cancellation. Then consult the EU website for specific information about how to successfully file your claim. There are also companies that, for a fee, will file the paperwork for you and chase your rightful compensation.

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