What to Do When An Airline Cancels Your Flight
what to do when your flight is canceled

What to Do When An Airline Cancels Your Flight

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Southwest canceled 2,000-plus flights earlier this month. Before that, it was Spirit Airlines with a historic meltdown – and American Airlines had its woes just weeks prior. Even ultra-reliable Delta canceled hundreds of flights over Thanksgiving, Christmas, and then Easter 2021. And more recently it’s regional airline SkyWest, canceling close to 1,000 flights – affecting all the major carriers that it partners with.

Delays and cancellations are an unfortunate reality in air travel. But as airlines stretch themselves thin to carry more and more passengers as travel rebounds, these mass cancellations are all but certain to continue. This is going to keep happening. Airlines’ reputations may take a blow, but it’s much worse for us travelers. A canceled flight can mean missed time with family, skipping birthdays or anniversaries, and the stress (and financial blow) of trying to salvage a trip.

It’s never ideal, but we’ve cobbled together some tips to help you navigate the situation the next time you see the dreaded words “CANCELED” in red next to your flight.


Don’t Panic

We know: This stinks.

But all is not lost just because your flight gets massively delayed or canceled. A bit of patience and preparation goes a long way.

You know what else goes a long way? Kindness. As frustrating as airlines ruining your plans can be, it is not your gate agent’s fault that your flight was canceled. Nor can you blame the airline customer service employee on the other end of the phone. In many cases, they’re under just as much stress as you are trying to help hundreds of fellow travelers.

coronavirus news travel 

Want to get ahead of the curve and anticipate potential problems? In the days leading up to your flight, keep tabs on Flight Aware’s Flight Cancellations dashboard, which will show you airline-by-airline statistics on flight cancellations and delays from yesterday and today. If your airline has canceled hundreds of flights today, it’s a safe bet that some cancellations will stretch into tomorrow.

As you’ll see, there are still some options to make it to where you need to be if your flight does wind up getting canceled.


Explore Your Options

Every single time I get a notification about a canceled flight, I immediately turn to the same place before even picking up the phone: Google Flights.

Sure, you can call your airline or head to the airport and push your carrier to figure it out for you. But it can be much quicker – and better for you in the end – to research your options and proactively suggest a solution instead.

Google Flights is our #1 search platform for finding cheap flights, but it’s also a powerful tool to find alternate flights when plans change. You can filter by airline, zero in on specific departure or arrival times, and even search for flights into multiple airports at once.

google flights example 

Keep in mind: If your airline has canceled your flight, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stay with that airline to get to where you need to be. Sure, you’d much rather be on that nonstop Delta flight from Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) to Salt Lake City (SLC). But if that’s not going to work, what if you could hop on a one-stop United flight, connecting through Denver (DEN) and arrive just an hour or two later?

With few exceptions, most major carriers have “interline agreements” that allow them to place passengers on competitors’ flights – especially when schedule issues arise. It’s not a slam dunk, but it can be an option. And it’s much easier to pull off if you proactively suggest it.


Know Your Rights

We need to break some bad news to you: In the U.S., air travelers just don’t have many rights.

Over in Europe, all passengers are entitled to compensation for any cancellations or delays of just two hours or more. But here in the U.S., airlines don’t play nice. They make it clear in their terms and conditions: Just because you bought a ticket to go to a certain place at a certain time, it’s not a guarantee that the airline will get you there.

But there is one ironclad rule in the U.S. for us travelers.

You Can Get Your Money Back

When an airline cancels our flight, they owe us a refund. When the airline significantly delays a flight, they also owe us a refund. Not just a credit or voucher, but our money back. 

This is enshrined in U.S. law. Notably, it doesn’t matter if you’re flying on a U.S. airline or a foreign carrier: If your flight touches U.S. soil, these rules apply.

Here’s a snippet from Department of Transportation regulations:

If your flight is canceled and you choose to cancel your trip as a result, you are entitled to a refund for the unused transportation – even for non-refundable tickets. You are also entitled to a refund for any bag fee that you paid, and any extras you may have purchased, such as a seat assignment.



Read more: Can You Get a Refund Instead of a Voucher for a Canceled Flight?

Unfortunately, airlines have lots of wiggle room when it comes to what’s a “significant delay.” It’s not defined in U.S. regulations, so it’s up to airlines to determine what is a significant enough delay to trigger a refund. It varies from airline to airline, from 2 hours on most major U.S. carriers like American Airlines and Delta to as long as 24 hours on some budget airlines. It’s typically spelled out in each airlines “contract of carriage.”

But you have to know your rights – if you’re entitled to a refund, it’s up to you to ask. Even if you’re legally owed a refund, airlines will simply offer a credit or voucher for future travel instead, hoping that you don’t know to request your money back.

You could use this knowledge to your advantage to get your money back and try your trip again later. Or you could pocket the money and rebook a new ticket on a different airline that can actually get you where you need to be.

You may pay a small fortune for that same-day ticket (though that’s not always the case these days), but at least getting your money back will soften the blow. Just keep in mind that you probably won’t get that money back to your credit card or bank account for a week or so.

Your Airline May Cover a Hotel

There’s one other possible recourse, especially if you’re stuck somewhere overnight: Your airline may foot the bill for your hotel. Once again, this is laid out in your airline’s contract of carriage – and just what you might get varies. Here’s a look at what Delta says.

contract of carriage


Exhaust Your Options to Contact Your Airline

Don’t just stand in a long line to speak with a gate agent or employees at check-in. It’s time to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. Airlines are staffed by thousands of people who could help you.

Read up on other ways to reach Delta amid hours-long call wait times!

When an airline is in the midst of a meltdown, reaching an employee to help you can be the most stressful part of the situation. Getting as many irons in the fire as you can is crucial. You never know which method will pay off.


Book Your Travel to Protect Yourself

Preparing for the worst all starts from the time you buy your tickets.

Sure, you could buy a travel insurance policy that’ll help cover some of your additional costs if plans change. But if you’ve got the right travel credit card, you don’t need to. Just book your flight with a card that comes with travel protection and you’re set – plus you’ll earn some extra points, too.

Few are better than the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, as they have some unbeatable travel insurance coverage on any ticket purchased with the card. On the Preferred Card, for example, you get:

  • Up to $500 in reimbursements for expenses like airfare, hotels, meals etc. in the event of a delay of 12 or more hours.
  • Up to $100 a day for five days if your checked baggage is delayed more than six hours.
  • Unbeatable coverage for rental cars
  • And more…


Sapphire Preferred 100K 

Read more on thebest credit cards for travel insurance !

When it comes to accommodations from hotels to resorts to Airbnbs, there’s one simple solution: Make sure you’re booking fully refundable listings. That’s one of the best pieces of advice we can give for traveling these days, whether you’re worried about flights getting canceled or not.

Fortunately, it’s much easier these days. Major hotel chains always offer fully refundable bookings – often at a small premium over a nonrefundable rate, but that’s worth it. Meanwhile, Airbnb has made it much easier to find properties with flexible cancellation policies.


Wait for a Final Resolution

Trying to sort everything out in the hours leading up to your flight feels like a sprint – an incredibly stressful sprint. But the reality is that these situations are more like a marathon.

Sure, you want to get all your travel plans sorted and flights rebooked right away. That’s the first step.

But as airlines try to sort out their mess, it can take days – or even weeks – for them to address every passengers’ needs and make things right with additional compensation after cancellations. Refunds take time to process. Ditto for travel insurance claims, which can take a while to process and get you your money back for a covered expense.

So try to be patient, and remember that the initial answer you get from your airline or travel insurance policy likely isn’t the final answer. More compensation may be on the way, as we saw this week as Southwest began issuing “we’re sorry” vouchers to thousands of passengers.

Keep up the pressure to get what you want. Just be nice about it.


Bottom Line

This isn’t fun, but canceled flights and long delays are unavoidable. Unfortunately, that’s only likely to continue in this strange new normal for air travel.

Knowing your rights, exploring your options, and not taking no for an answer will help you weather a stressful flight cancellation. So will a lot of patience and some kindness.


Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

4 Responses

  • Air Alitalia cancelled all the flights out of Rome (and they were going out of business in October) and we were stranded there after our vacation out of Malta (we flew on air Malta to Rome ). They rescheduled us for the next day but we would miss work and we learned by a quick google search that they had cancelled for the past week so we didn’t want to wait. I quickly searched and all tickets were $2000+ but I was able to transfer some chase sapphire points to United and was able to book 2 tickets with points on the next flight out of Rome back home to Washington DC. 😊
    I filled out the online form for a refund but who knows if we will ever get it!

  • American claims they don’t have to provide refunds for weather-related delays and cancellations, but my Dallas to San Diego flight was delayed 12 hours because weather held up the plane coming in from Philadelphia. Isn’t everything a weather delay?

    • At a certain point, the gravity of these cancellations makes it clear that the problem is larger than weather. Then again, I wouldn’t put anything past AA or any airline…

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