How to Get Compensation When Your Flight Is Delayed or Canceled

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Flight delays and cancellations are regular occurrences in air travel. When one or the other happens, it’s important to understand your rights and what compensation you are entitled to as a result.

The European Union (EU) and the U.S. have different regulations and policies for passengers on flights to/from/within their respective countries. When you read through each country’s guidelines, you’ll notice that air travel involving the EU offers more protection than what’s available to passengers in the U.S.

In this article, I’ll outline what rights you have and the compensation you’re entitled to as a passenger, as well as which credit cards provide coverage when flight issues occur on your trip.

Knowing your rights as a passenger in Europe can ensure you are compensated fairly.

EU 261

European Union Legislation 261/2004 is the regulation you’ll turn to with issues traveling to/from/within the EU. The regulation establishes rules and a compensation structure for passengers who experience travel issues, like denied boarding or flight delays.

As a passenger on flights to/from/within the EU, the passenger rights kick in if:

  • Your flight is within the EU and operated by an EU or non-EU airline
  • Your flight arrives in the EU from outside the EU and is operated by an EU airline
  • Your flight departs from the EU to a non-EU country operated by an EU or a non-EU airline

The EU covers 28 countries including the Azores, the Canary Islands, and Iceland. However, note that the EU excludes the Faeroe Islands, the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands.

If you experience flight issues to/from/within the EU, the EU passenger rights will not apply if:

  • Your flight arrives in the EU from outside the EU and is operated by a non-EU airline
  • You have received benefits for flight-related problems under the laws of a non-EU country

(Speaking of Europe, if you need help making an award booking then see our guide on the best ways to fly to Europe with points and miles.)

Denied Boarding

If you arrive at your flight on time with the correct boarding documents, but you’re denied boarding due to overbooking or operational reasons and you don’t voluntarily give up your seat, you are entitled to all of the following:

  • Compensation
  • Choice between rerouting, reimbursement, or rebooking
  • Assistance

Compensation for denied boarding is as follows:

  • EUR 250 for flights less than 1,500 km
  • EUR 400 for flights more than 1,500 km within the EU (and all other flights between 1,500-3,000 km)
  • EUR 600 for flights more than 3,000 km

It’s important to know that your compensation may be reduced by 50% if you are rerouted by the airline and arrive at your destination within 2-4 hours of your originally scheduled arrival.

If you meet the qualifications above, you should always receive compensation!

Hot Tip: The airline must also offer compensation in the case of a missed connection — e.g., if the airline denied you boarding on your first flight, which caused you to miss your second flight.

For separate reservations on connecting flights, airlines are not required to compensate you if a delay on the first flight causes you to miss your connection. However, if your first flight is delayed more than 3 hours, you may be entitled to compensation from the airline that caused the delay.

In addition to compensation, the airline must offer you a choice between:

  • Reimbursement of your ticket (and a return flight to your departure airport if you have a connecting flight)
  • Rerouting to your final destination
  • Rerouting at a later date under comparable transportation conditions

Once you have chosen 1 of the 3 options, you no longer have rights to the other 2 options — but the airline may still be required to compensate you under these scenarios:

  • If the airline does not provide rerouting or comparable return transportation to your departure airport, the airline is required to reimburse your flight cost.
  • If the airline unilaterally reimburses your flight cost and does not offer a choice between reimbursement or rerouting, you are entitled to the price difference of the new flight cost.
  • If you booked separate outbound and inbound flights with different airlines and the outbound flight is canceled, you will only be reimbursed for the cost of the canceled flight.

If the outbound and return flights are operated by different airlines but part of the same reservation and the outbound flight was canceled, you have the right to compensation and choice between:

  1. reimbursement of your entire ticket, or
  2. rerouting on another flight for the outbound flight.

Assistance is another item you are entitled if you’re denied boarding. “Assistance” provided by the airline includes:

  • Refreshments
  • Food
  • Accommodation if your flight requires an overnight stay
  • Transportation to/from your accommodation
  • 2 phone calls, text messages, or emails

If the airline does not provide assistance and you pay for these expenses out-of-pocket, the airline is required to reimburse you (as long as the expenses were necessary, reasonable, and appropriate).

Hot Tip:
If the airline doesn’t pay your out-of-pocket expenses for assistance items directly, consider using the Chase Sapphire Reserve®. This credit card earns 3x Ultimate Rewards points per $1 spent on travel and dining purchases, which are items the airline will be required to reimburse you for. 

Canceled Flights

When a flight cancellation occurs, you are entitled to the same 3 rights as if you were denied boarding:

  • Compensation
  • Choice between rerouting, reimbursement, or rebooking
  • Assistance

The airline is required to compensate you for a canceled flight if you were notified less than 14 days before your original scheduled departure date. However, compensation is not due if the airline proves that extraordinary circumstances (e.g., weather) caused the cancellation.

Here’s yet another wrinkle! If your flight is canceled, you are not entitled to compensation if:

  • You are informed more than 14 days in advance
  • You are informed between 2 weeks and 7 days before the scheduled departure and you are offered re-routing that would allow you to:
    1. depart no more than 2 hours before the originally scheduled departure time, and
    2. reach your final destination less than 4 hours after the originally scheduled arrival time
  • You are informed less than 7 days before the scheduled departure and you are offered re-routing that would allow you to:
    1. depart no more than 1 hour before the originally scheduled departure time, and
    2. reach your final destination less than 2 hours after the originally scheduled arrival time.

Delayed Flight

When a flight delay occurs, you are entitled to assistance and choice between rerouting, reimbursement, or re-booking.

If you arrive at your destination more than 3 hours after your scheduled arrival time, you are entitled to the same reimbursement, rerouting, and re-booking structure as a denied boarding.

Hot Tip:
Before you get stranded in the airport with a delayed/canceled flight, consider applying for a credit card that provides lounge access like The Business Platinum® Card from American Express or the Platinum Card® from American Express

Lost, Damaged, or Delayed Luggage

If the luggage you checked is lost, damaged, or delayed, you are entitled up to EUR 1,200 in compensation from the airline. However, if the damage was caused by a product defect, you are not entitled to compensation.

The airline is also responsible for any damage if they cause any damage to your carry-on item.

If you decide to file a claim for your luggage, do so in writing to the airline within 7 days, or within 21 days if your luggage was delayed in getting back to you. You need to file the claim directly with the airline, as there is no standard EU form to use.

Having a grasp of the DOT’s Fly Rights will help make your flight problems less painful.

U.S. Department of Transportation

Unlike the European Union, the U.S. does not have an umbrella regulation protecting passengers with flight issues. While you don’t have as much protection as within the EU, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) does provide compensation in some instances including:

  • Tarmac delays greater than 3 hours
  • Getting bumped from your flight due to overbooking
  • Delayed, lost, or damaged luggage

Tarmac Delays

The DOT prohibits most U.S. airlines from staying on the tarmac for more than 3 hours, unless:

  • The pilot determines it is not safe to return back to the gate
  • Air traffic control advises the pilot that returning to the gate/other area to deplane will significantly disrupt airport operations

If your flight is prohibited from de-planing, the DOT rules state that food/water must be provided no later than 2 hours after the tarmac delay, lavatories must remain operable, and medical attention must be available if needed.

Involuntary Bumping

When you are bumped involuntarily due to overbooking, you are entitled to compensation with a few exceptions. Compensation for involuntary bumping is broken down as follows:

  • If the airline arranges substitute transportation scheduled to get you to your destination within 1 hour of your original arrival time, you are not entitled to compensation.
  • If the airline arranges substitute transportation scheduled to get you to your destination between 1-2 hours of your originally scheduled arrival time (between 1-4 hours on international itineraries), you are entitled to 200% of your one-way fare to your final destination up to $675.
  • If the airline arranges substitute transportation scheduled to get you to your destination more than 2 hours later than your originally scheduled arrival time (more than 4 hours on international itineraries), or if the airline does not make substitute transportation arrangements for you, you are entitled 400% of your one-way fare to your final destination up to $1,350.
  • If your ticket does not show a fare (i.e., award ticket), you are entitled to the lowest value paid for a ticket in an equivalent class on that flight.
  • If you paid for additional services like seat selection and did not receive that service on your substitute flight, you are entitled to compensation for the service you paid for.

Delayed, Lost, or Damaged Luggage

As the language is currently written in the DOT Fly Rights, if flying domestically, the airline has a liability limit of $3,500 (adjusted every 2 years for inflation) for baggage that is delayed, damaged, or lost on domestic flights.

If you are flying internationally, the Montreal Convention sets the liability limit for:

  • Round-trip flights that originate in the U.S.
  • Round-trip flights between countries that ratified this Convention
  • One-way flights between the U.S. and such country that ratified this Convention

Bottom Line:
There are many different scenarios to be aware of! Review the DOT’s guidelines to determine which Fly Rights pertain to your specific situation. 

Understanding the process of filing a complaint will ensure your situation is evaluated properly.

How to File a Complaint

Filing a claim will depend on your specific situation, which is why it’s important to read through the EU rights here and the U.S. rights here.

U.S. Domestic and International Flights

If you find yourself in a situation needing to request compensation, start with the airline agents at the airport. Handling the issue at the airport will help ensure you both understand and receive anything you’re entitled to.

The next option is to reach out to the airline’s social media team. As many people know, airlines have social media teams ready to respond and react when their name is mentioned. Start with the airline’s Twitter team; I’ve found them to be the most responsive.

If you are unable to resolve the issue at the airport and the social media team is unresponsive, consider filing a complaint through the airline’s online form option. This will likely not yield the best (or fastest) results, but it can be used a last resort.

EU Departing or Domestic Flights

The EU process is different from the U.S., so it’s important to read through the EU information here for your specific situation. The site covers everything you need to know, including how to file your compensation claim.

Credit Cards That Offer Compensation / Insurance

Paying for flights (or just the taxes and fees on award flights) with the right credit card can alleviate many of the problems noted above. Credit cards are a powerful resource to ensure you’re compensated fairly for problems that occur, both within and outside of the airline’s control.

We recommend focusing on credit cards with travel delay insurance — the shorter delay required for this coverage to kick in, the better! The Citi Prestige® Card and the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard® both have trip delay coverage that starts when your flight is delayed at least 3 hours.

Other credit cards like The Ritz-Carlton Rewards® Credit Card and the Chase Sapphire Reserve® provide coverage when your flight is delayed at least 6 hours.

Credit CardDelayCompensationAward FlightsMisc
Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard® (Learn More)3 hours$500Yes
Citi Prestige® (Not Accepting New Applications)3 hours$500Yes
The Platinum Card® from American Express4 hours$250NoMust enroll in protection
The Business Platinum Card from American Express4 hours$250NoMust enroll in protection
The Ritz-Carlton Rewards® Credit Card6 hours$500Yes
Chase Sapphire Reserve®6 hours$500Yes
Chase Sapphire Preferred®12 hours$500Yes

Final Thoughts

Understanding your rights as a passenger is one of the most important things you can do to ensure you’re compensated fairly. Reading through the policies can be very beneficial, since passengers’ rights on EU vs. U.S. flights have significant differences when you experience a flight problem.

Credit cards can also be an important component of your compensation strategy. Taking advantage of 3-hour delay reimbursements (like on the Citi Prestige® Card) will save you both money and headache!

Though delays are always frustrating, knowing that out-of-pocket expenses like your hotel and food will be covered when you experience a flight issue can make the problem seem much more manageable.


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How to Get Compensated if Your Flight is Delayed or Cancelled

FAQ

How long does a flight have to be delayed for compensation?

For flights to/from/within the EU, if you arrive at your destination more than 3 hours after your scheduled arrival time, you are entitled to the same reimbursement, rerouting, and re-booking structure as a denied boarding.

For flights within the US, if you are delayed on the tarmac more than 3 hours, you are entitled to compensation per the DOT guidelines.

Can I claim for delayed luggage?

For flights to/from/within the EU, if the luggage you checked is lost, damaged, or delayed, you are entitled up to EUR 1,200 in compensation from the airline.

For flights within the US, the airline has a liability limit of $3,500 (adjusted every 2 years for inflation) for baggage that is delayed, damaged, or lost on domestic flights.

What happens if you miss a connecting flight because of a delay?

For flights to/from/within the EU, if you arrive at your destination due to a missed connection more than 3 hours after your scheduled arrival time, you are entitled to the same reimbursement, rerouting, and re-booking structure as a denied boarding.

For flights within the US, if your delay on the tarmac causes you to miss a connection which results in you arriving at your destination more than 3 hours after your original arrival time, you are entitled to compensation per the DOT guidelines. For non-tarmac caused delays, the compensation rules are set by each airline.

What do I do if my flight is canceled?

For flights to/from/within the EU, when a flight cancellation occurs, you are entitled to the same three rights as if you were denied boarding.

For flights within the US, when a flight cancellation occurs, each airline sets their own compensation rules.

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14 comments

  1. I’ve had a case flying from Paris to Budapest where Transavia canceled my flight and tried to get around the EU regulations by saying they had an adjustment to their flight schedule so they don’t have to compensate me.

    • Michael McHugh · April 24, 2018 · Reply

      Hi Bo

      I would recommend using the “Check Your Rights” option here to determine the compensation option available for your specific situation.

  2. Booked a flight for my friend from Europe, used miles for her flight tomorrow. Do these rules apply to miles usage too from Europe to US and vice versa?

    • Michael McHugh · April 24, 2018 · Reply

      Hi Maria

      The EU passenger rights will apply if the flight is departing from Europe. If the flight is departing from the U.S. to Europe and operated by an EU airline, the EU passenger rights apply. If the flight is departing from the U.S. to Europe and not operate by an EU airline, the U.S. DOT rules apply.

  3. Hey Michael, does the trip delay from credit card consider inbound and outbound flight as two different trips?
    Also, do they consider infant as passenger as well? Does that mean infant is also eligible for credit card compensation?

    • Michael McHugh · August 15, 2018 · Reply

      Hi Henry

      Per the language on the Chase website, trip delay insurance covers:
      – Cardholder
      – Cardholder’s spouse or domestic partner
      – Dependent children under age 22

      As far as coverage amount, the language states coverage:
      – Up to $500 for each purchased ticket
      – Coverage is limited to one covered hazard per trip

      The way that I understand the coverage is that if you booked two one-way tickets, the $500 covers each segment (inbound and abound). Regarding infants, the terms state dependent children under the age of 22 are covered.

  4. Hi,
    I had a flight with Norwegian airline from Helsinki to Oakland (California) via London Gatwick. My connecting flight (London-Oakland) was delayed more than 3h due to aircraft problems. The Norwegian airline is an EU airline but the delay happened in London airport. Given that UK is not part of EU, is the “EU complaint form” that you kindly uploaded under the “How to File a Complaint” title works?
    Thanks

    • Stephen Au · September 26, 2018 · Reply

      Hi Malie,

      You’re most likely out of luck. The EU compensation guidelines are for flights that involve the EU. It doesn’t matter the nationality of the carrier in these claims. Sorry about that!

  5. Hey Michael,
    Thanks for the great information.
    I have a question regarding my flight from Seattle to Munich via Detroit. I bought my ticket through KLM but the operating airline was Delta. I had a delay of more than 5 hours in Seattle. After 5 hours and 30 min we were able to take a Delta flight to Munich via Paris. Is it still possible to claim a compensation under European rights through KLM or what compensation would Delta offer me in that case? How would you recommend I pursue this matter?
    Thanks so much in advance.

    • Stephen Au · October 8, 2018 · Reply

      Hey Stefan,

      We would recommend going through KLM AND Delta. If you explore both ways, you’ll have a higher chance of getting it right the first time.

  6. Hi,
    Can you please tell me if I would be eligible for compensation in this case:
    I purchased 2 separate flights. My flight out of Kishenev, Moldova to Istanbul, Turkey was delayed by an hour and a half. The airline was Turkish Airlines. The delay caused me to be late for check in by 10-15 min for our next flight out of Istanbul to Dan Francisco. We were denied check in and boarding, missing our flight, and having to rebook different tickets for the following morning (at over $1000 out of pocket). We also spent the night at a nearby hotel and incurred expenses there also. I booked both flights through Expedia. Any luck for me being able to get back the money we spent for having to change our flight? Who do I contact? Expedia? Or Turkish Airlines because of their delay? Are they part of the EU? Any insight would be helpful. Thank you.

    • Michael McHugh · October 15, 2018 · Reply

      Hi Albina

      Did you put this expense on a credit card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve that provides trip delay reimbursement? If not, it will be up to the airline, not any third party like Expedia, to refund your out-of-pocket spend.

  7. Mingbih Hsu · November 5, 2018 · Reply

    Our trip was delayed by 12hrs due to weather, then routes changed completely; luggages were stuck with the original route. Everything was ok if just one or two days of delayed, We later realized no one was attending our delayed luggages in Chicago by United for 3 days after 2 days of delay. Through social media, finally we got the attention and luggages is coming our way to Asia after 5 days of delay. My questions are: do we only file claim with United if Airline will pay all the reasonable expenses ?! I used CSR to pay the airfare, so I am also qualify for $100/day up to 5 days of luggage insurance. Do I only file claim with CSR of the unpaid charges from Airline ?!

    • Michael McHugh · November 9, 2018 · Reply

      Hi Mingbih

      I’d file the claim with Chase being that you used your CSR for the flight. Chase has been good to me about reimbursements on items like this. For example, I booked a flight with my CSP that caused an overnight stay. 6-8 weeks after filing the claim I received $500 in compensation.

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