It's the text message/email no one wants to receive from their airline. Or, if you're even more unlucky, you're already at the airport when your flight's status is changed from DELAYED to CANCELED. One glance at the 'C' word, and your anxiety response kicks in. Sweaty palms, loud heartbeat...your holiday is in jeopardy.
Fortunately, we’re here to help — we’ve collated some helpful tips and outlined what your next steps should be if you ever find yourself in this position. Don't worry, you can still have a stress-free vacation with the right preparation.
What to do if your flight is canceled on the day of your trip
If you’re still at home…
Picture this: You're all packed and ready to go for your flight, but then you get hit with a cancellation notification. Ugh, the worst! But don't stress, here's what you need to do:
- Take a deep breath and gather all the info you can about the cancellation. Check your email, text messages, or any notifications from the airline. Jot down the flight number, cancellation details, and reason provided by the airline.
- Then, give the airline a call and speak to their customer service. Be prepared for some hold time, and stay cool and polite with the rep. Explain your situation and ask about alternative flights or getting a refund. It's always good to keep an open mind and be flexible with your options.
- Lastly, make sure to document everything! Take note of the names of the airline reps you spoke to, as well as any confirmation numbers or reference codes. This will come in handy if you need to refer back to anything or file a compensation claim.
If you’re at the airport…
You've made it to the airport, and you're all set and ready to jet off on your adventure, but then you find out that your flight has been canceled.
- First things first, head over to the airline's customer service area or counter at the airport and explain your situation to the representative. They'll be able to assist you with rebooking or finding any other available alternatives.
- While you're waiting in line, make sure to stay informed by checking your smartphone or the airport information screens for updates on other flights or options.
- If you notice another flight to your destination departing from a nearby airport or operated by a partner airline, ask the rep about the possibility of rerouting through that airport. You never know, a little flexibility could go a long way.
- Lastly, depending on your circumstances and airline policy, you may be entitled to compensation for the inconvenience caused by the cancellation. So, ask about compensation options, and take note of the process for filing a claim if necessary.
What to do if your flight is canceled prior to the day of your flight
Getting hit with a flight cancellation at any time can be disheartening. But there are a few things you can do if you’ve got some time before your departure:
First, keep an eye on your inbox, as airlines often send out notifications about cancellations well in advance. Make sure to read all the details carefully to understand the next steps.
Then, reach out to the airline's customer service right away and discuss your options. Certain airlines, like American Airlines, have customer service offices in other countries, such as the Caribbean, which may be faster than contacting their US-based offices.
What happens when your flight is canceled by the airline
When you book through the airline rather than an online travel agent (or OTA), you may be owed a full refund if your flight is canceled, as long as the flight ticket isn't non-refundable (think basic economy.)
Sometimes airlines won't offer this option up-front, even when they know you are due a refund, and will begin by offering a voucher for future travel instead.
This makes sure they hold on to your funds while ensuring future travel, sometimes at an added cost to you if the rebooked fare is slightly more. You should know that this isn’t your only choice — you can always request a monetary refund, too, which will include any fees you paid for extra baggage or seats.
FYI: Choosing to book directly with the airline or with an OTA depends on what extras you want with your booking (and a few other factors). To read up on what is the best decision for you, check out our article here.
What are your rights when your flight is canceled
If you ever find yourself in a jam because your flight got canceled or rescheduled, you can count on the US Department of Transportation Aviation Consumer Protection Division (ACPD) to have your back.
They're the ones who'll let you know what you're entitled to so you don't have to feel stuck. If you ever have to file a complaint about your experience, the ACPD has a handy guide to help you out, and they take your concerns seriously.
In fact, they've even enforced consumer protections for flights affected by COVID-19 and air travel restrictions by sending out a notice that refunds were due to affected travelers. So if you ever run into issues, don't hesitate to speak up.
Just keep in mind that depending on where your flight was supposed to take off from, the level of protection can vary.
When you're not entitled to a refund for canceled flights
When it comes to refunds, it's always best to double-check the terms and conditions before booking. While airlines may sometimes offer refunds, here are some common situations where they typically won't provide them:
- Tickets that aren't refundable can only be refunded if the airline promises to do it (highly unlikely).
- If you purchase a nonrefundable ticket but are unable to travel due to personal reasons, such as being sick or running late, you are not entitled to a refund.
- You don't get a refund because you had a bad flight or airline experience.
- If your flight is significantly delayed or canceled, and you incur incidental expenses, such as a rental car, hotel room, or meal, you are not entitled to a refund of those expenses.
When can you get a refund for canceled flights?
The ACPD has a handy dashboard showing what major US airlines will cover when there’s a cancellation or delay. But here’s when you can generally expect a refund:
- If you booked a refundable flight and chose not to travel, regardless of the reason.
- If the airline canceled a flight, made a significant schedule change, and/or significantly delayed a flight (we'll talk about what ‘significant’ means in a bit)
- If you were unable to use the optional service (for example, baggage fees, seat upgrades, or in-flight Wi-Fi) due to a flight cancellation, delay, or schedule change.
- You were involuntarily denied boarding.
What if my flight is significantly delayed or the route is changed?
Most of the time, an airline won't outright cancel your flight if they can rebook it with a different route instead, or at a different time or date than your original flight. As long as your booking is made at least 7 days prior to your flight departure, you are protected if your booking is delayed or changed significantly.
There’s that word again: significantly. The ACPD explicitly says airlines don't need to provide refunds whenever there is a change on the itinerary, only when it is ‘significant', which ACPD alone determines. That means that, annoyingly, this is on a case-by-case basis.
The best thing you can do should you feel you're owed a refund for a significant delay or itinerary change by the airline is to file a consumer complaint with ACPD, and they will determine who is owed what.
Bottom line? If the airline cancels your flight, significantly delays, or drastically changes the schedule (ACPD determines what these last two mean), you're owed a full refund from the airline carrier.
What if my error fare has been canceled?
Error fares come up every once in a while for routes that are obviously priced much lower than typical—either due to a computer or human error. While most of the time these are honored by the airline and our members who book error fares go on to have successful holidays, sometimes these fares are canceled by the airline later on.
What ACPD says about these error fares is that “once you purchase and pay for the fare, and you've waited the 24-hour refund period, airlines are required to reimburse any other reservations made under the belief the airfare is valid and will continue on as normal.”
This means if you book an error fare and then book a hotel room, and the airline later cancels the flight, they are obligated to also refund the hotel room you invested in as well.
We'd still suggest waiting two weeks after booking an error fare before you book any hotels as a good rule of thumb, but if you spot an extra juicy accommodation in that time, you can have this to back you up.
What is the 24-hour rule?
One option that US airlines have that others don't is the 24-hour rule on bookings with the airline (it is thankfully becoming more mainstream across the industry, though!):
This means that if you pay for your ticket in full and then change your mind within 24 hours, you can get a full refund.
It's also possible to hold a ticket at the quoted price for a full day without having to pay the full ticket price. Just make sure to check with the airline beforehand to see which option they offer.
This can be really helpful if you're still deciding on your travel plans and don't want to invest too much money at once.
It's also worth considering if you're looking at a few different options or just want to double-check with other travelers. Plus, it's great for anyone who's an impulsive buyer and a big JFC fan ;)
What if I book with an online travel agent?
When it comes to travel agencies, not all of them are created equal (we've got the rankings to prove it!). Unlike the EU which has ABTA or ATOL, the USA doesn't have an agency that protects consumers in case a booking agent goes under.
So, to make sure you're protected when booking a new flight with an OTA, we've got a few recommendations to share:
Always use a credit card to book your flights. Not only do many credit card providers offer extra travel insurance for bookings made with their card, but you also have the option to dispute any charges on a credit card if services aren't rendered and get your money back. Your bank will fight for you, so this is an easy way to stay protected.
Make sure to purchase comprehensive travel insurance. While some basic protections are offered with credit card charges, comprehensive travel insurance can protect you from many issues that can arise during travel. Extra insurance can even cover things like sickness, medical care, hotel closures, or if you're unable to take your trip for certain reasons.
Honestly, your best bet is to book directly with the airline rather than an OTA. While OTAs may offer tempting prices and baggage policies, they have fewer obligations to return your money if you can't take your flight. If you think you might need to change your travel dates or if travel may not be possible, it's worth paying a little extra and booking directly with the airline.
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