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When Does an Airline Have to Pay for a Delayed or Canceled Flight?

In the booming post-pandemic labor market, airlines and airports have struggled to hire enough employees to serve all the travel-hungry passengers booking flights. All the while, they’ve kept issuing tickets for flights they may not be able to make. 

That’s led to thousands of canceled and delayed flights, snarled wait lines, and enraged passengers. Even reaching a customer service agent to ask for a refund often takes hours. 

But if the airline delays or cancels your flight, don’t they owe you something? The answer may be yes, depending on government rules and airline policies, but it pays to understand your rights and options as you navigate the infuriating world of delayed and canceled flights. 

When Does an Airline Have to Pay You for a Delayed or Canceled Flight?

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) requires airlines to refund you if you cancel your trip as a result of a canceled flight or they bump you from an oversold flight. You may also be entitled to a refund if there’s a significant delay. That refund includes not just your airfare but any fees you paid, such as checked baggage fees or seat selection fees. 

But that’s where clear-cut air passenger rights end. The DOT doesn’t even define what counts as “significant,” leaving plenty of room for interpretation. If you feel the delay was significant and want a refund but the airline won’t issue one, it falls to you to file a complaint with the DOT. They review it and make a judgment call, and both you and the airline have to live with their decision. 

Often, you’re better off opting for one of the airline’s compensation options. 

Airline Compensation Options for Flight Delays & Canceled Flights

Depending on the details of the delay or cancellation, airlines might bend over backward to help you. Or they might shrug and say, “Sorry; better luck next time.” It’s always worth seeing what the airline offers, though. 

But don’t forget all sources of money you may have wasted as you plead, negotiate, or harangue airlines over missed flights.

Booking an Alternative Flight

Airlines typically start by trying to put you on another flight. It’s a later, less convenient flight that might force you to miss your connecting flight, but it’s a replacement flight nonetheless. 

Sometimes, the new flight doesn’t ruin your travel plans. If you get to your final destination an hour or two later, it’s not usually worth hollering about. 

But if the replacement flight blows your connection or forces you to stay an extra night in your departure or layover city, it can throw off your entire trip. Roll up your sleeves and prepare to negotiate with the airline for Plan B.

Airlines first try to put you on their own next flight. But other airlines often offer alternatives that can prevent you from missing your connection or spending an unexpected night at the local airport hotel. Try pressing the airline to rebook you on another airline’s flight if it keeps your trip schedule intact. Just remember that airlines hate doing it because they have to shell out money to the other airline in that case. 

Hotel & Meal Costs

If a canceled or delayed flight forces you to spend an unexpected night in a layover city, sometimes, they’ll cough up money to help with your hotel accommodation and meal costs. Sometimes. 

Don’t expect them to reimburse you for 5-star hotels or Michelin meals downtown, though. At best, they’ll help you out with the bland corporate hotel next to the airport. 

When you contact the airline to ask them to chip in, take a few deep breaths first. Stay calm and pleasant despite the three-hour hold time. The airline doesn’t have to help you. They do so only to help preserve their reputation, and if they think you’ll still badmouth them all over social media, they have no incentive to help you. 

And hey, it doesn’t hurt to have elite status with the airline. Just sayin’. 

Airline Miles or Flight Credits

If you booked your flight with miles or points, you can usually cancel beforehand for a full refund. So if you see your airport experiencing nightmare delays and cancellations leading up to your departure, you can pull the plug and say, “You know, that road trip looks a lot better all of a sudden.” Just ensure you cancel before the refund deadline. 

If an airline cancels your flight, sometimes they offer a credit voucher or bonus points by way of apology. It works similarly to when they compensate a booted passenger for overbooking flights. Again, it helps to have elite status with the airline. 

Try asking for a flight credit or bonus points for your trouble, but remember to stay friendly about it, even as you press the point.  

Refund of Ticket Price, Upgrades, & Fees

If you booked your flight as refundable — usually for an extra fee — you can pass Go and collect your $200 (or $2,000, as the case may be) in refunds without much fuss.

But even if you didn’t, the airline must refund you by law if you cancel your entire trip because of a flight cancellation. But if you don’t cancel your trip or the flight was merely delayed rather than canceled, you enter a gray area.

Ideally, try pursuing alternative flights, hotel and meal costs, or flight credits rather than a refund. But if you just want to forget the whole thing and get your money back, you can try for a refund. 

Start by contacting the airline and asking politely but firmly for a refund. If they refuse, you can threaten to file a consumer complaint with the DOT to force it. If they don’t blink, you can follow through on that threat, but the DOT may still decide the length of the delay wasn’t “significant” enough to warrant a refund.  

Additional Protection for Delayed Flights & Cancellations

If you’re booking a flight and worried about delays or cancellations, you have a few options at your disposal if you’re willing to pay for them. 

Credit Cards With Trip Delay Insurance

Some elite travel credit cards offer trip delay insurance, covering your expenses if your flight gets delayed. 

For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve covers “reasonable expenses” beyond what the airline or other insurance policies cover. It kicks in if your flight gets delayed by six hours or overnight and covers up to $500 per ticket. The Chase Sapphire Preferred offers similar protection but requires a delay of 12 hours or overnight. Likewise, the Capital One Venture X card provides up to $500 per ticket in protection if your flight is delayed six hours or more. 

But these cards all come with annual fees. The cheapest is the Chase Sapphire Preferred at $95 per year. 

Trip delay insurance covers the cost of accommodations, meals, and transportation (such as a taxi). But as with airline reimbursement, think bland corporate airport hotels, not the St. Regis. 

As with all credit card perks, you have to pay with the card to get the benefit. In this case, that means buying your flight with your travel card. 

Travel Insurance

Alternatively, you can buy travel insurance for each specific trip. 

Coverage varies based on the company selling it, but travel insurance typically covers costs you incur from canceled or delayed flights or flights you miss for medical reasons. Covered costs include:

  • Hotel rooms
  • Meals
  • Transit
  • Missed nonrefundable tours
  • Medical evacuation
  • Costs from lost, stolen, or delayed luggage 

You can buy travel insurance protection when you book your flight or after the fact through third-party companies. As a premium add-on, you can sometimes buy flexible coverage that lets you cancel your trip for any reason if you change your mind before traveling. But even these put time limits on cancellation, typically letting you cancel up to 48 to 72 hours before departure. Don’t expect to be able to cancel by the time you can check in and get your boarding passes. 

Like all types of insurance, you must decide for yourself just how much peace of mind is worth to you.  

Final Word

Not all airlines are the same. Some rarely cancel or delay flights, while others can never seem to do anything right. And when they do mess up, some airlines are far more generous than others when reimbursing you for your trouble. 

Airlines tend to offer better reimbursements, credits, or bonus points when they’re the ones at fault for the delay. For example, if mechanical issues cause a long delay, airlines often offer compensation in some form or another. But if something outside the airline’s control, such as bad weather or air traffic control bottlenecks, causes the delay, don’t expect as much help. 

If you don’t have much room for error in your trip, book with better airlines rather than just booking the cheapest airfare. A slightly cheaper flight won’t make much difference if your entire trip gets ruined by delayed or canceled flights. 

Lastly, if you’re traveling on an EU airline, the European Union does impose strict rules on airlines reimbursing passengers for flights delayed three hours or longer. Read up on the rule known as EU261 if you run into air travel delays on EU flights. 

If you flew an American airline and it just won’t help you, you can file a consumer complaint with the DOT if you cancel your trip based on a flight delay and the airline refuses to refund or otherwise compensate you to your satisfaction. The DOT reviews complaints on a case-by-case basis, usually contacting the airline to hear their side of the story and decide whether to order the airline to refund you or not. 

G. Brian Davis is a real estate investor, personal finance writer, and travel addict mildly obsessed with FIRE. He spends nine months of the year in Abu Dhabi, and splits the rest of the year between his hometown of Baltimore and traveling the world.