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 of a delay or cancellation.
The U.S. and European Union (EU) have different regulations and policies regarding delays and cancellations for passengers on flights to/from/within their respective countries. When you read through the U.S. and EU guidelines, you’ll notice that air travel involving the EU offers more passenger protection than what’s available in the U.S.
This article will outline when you’re entitled to compensation as a passenger, what rights you have, and credit cards that provide travel coverage when flight issues occur.
Credit Cards That Offer Compensation or 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.
Rewards cards are a powerful resource to ensure you’re compensated fairly for problems that occur both within and outside of the airline’s control.
Hot Tip: We recommend digging into this in-depth article on credit cards with trip cancellation and interruption coverage to see which card would suit you best.
We recommend the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card because if your trip is canceled for a covered reason, you or a covered immediate family member could be reimbursed for the non-refundable amount of your trip. The limit for each coverage is $10,000 per occurrence.
See our other top picks for trip delay insurance:
U.S. Domestic and International Flights
Unlike the EU, the U.S. does not have an umbrella regulation protecting passengers with flight issues. While you don’t have as much protection in the U.S. as with the EU, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) does provide compensation in some instances including:
- Delayed and canceled flights
- Baggage damage, delays, and loss
Delayed and Canceled Flights
Delays or Cancellations that Don’t Require Compensation
Bad weather, air traffic delays, and mechanical issues can be difficult to predict and sometimes outside of the control of the airline. With that said, passengers are not required to be compensated by the airline if your flight is delayed or canceled for these bad weather, air traffic delays, or mechanical issues.
If you find yourself with a delayed flight due to one of these reasons, ask the original airline if it will pay for a ticket on another airline. The DOT does not require the airline to offer compensation, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
With no federal compensation requirement for delayed passengers, refer to the policies of the operating airline to determine what compensation the airline will offer. If a significant delay occurs, ask the airline if it will compensate you for meals during the delay.
If the airline doesn’t immediately offer you compensation for your meals or expenses incurred during the delay, you may be able to get reimbursed for expenses incurred under Article 19 of the Montreal Convention by filing a claim with the airline. If that claim is denied, you could also pursue reimbursement in court.
For travelers with a canceled flight, the airline should re-book you on its first flight with available space to your destination at no additional charge. If the rebooked flight requires a significant delay, ask the original airline if it will pay for a ticket on another airline.
Flights From/In Europe Delayed?If you’ve been flying within Europe, or have departed from the EU to the U.S (and other countries), you could receive up to $700 in compensation. AirHelp can help you with all of the paperwork to get your compensation. (This service cannot help you for delays within the U.S.)
Another situation that may arise that does not require compensation is a tarmac delay on a domestic flight. These can occur before taking off or after landing.
The DOT prohibits most U.S. airlines from remaining on the tarmac for more than 3 hours unless one of the following occurs:
- A safety or security risk occurs and the pilot determines the aircraft cannot taxi to the gate and deplane its passengers
- Air traffic control determines that there would be significant interruptions in airport operations if it allowed the pilot to taxi to the gate or another location to deplane passengers
If you experience a tarmac delay on an international flight operated by a U.S. airline, the DOT time limits do not apply. Any time limits and/or corresponding protocols are set by the airlines.
U.S. airlines must provide passengers on domestic and international flights with food and water no later than 2 hours after a tarmac delay begins. The airline is required to keep the lavatories operable and medical attention must be available.
Overbooking is a strategy airlines use to ensure a full flight and accounts for passenger “no-shows.” When a flight is overbooked, the DOT requires airlines to compensate for voluntary and involuntary bumped passengers.
To better understand these definitions:
- Voluntary bumping is when an airline asks passengers to voluntarily give up their seats in exchange for compensation
- Involuntary bumping is when an airline bumps passengers against their will but still compensates the passengers
The DOT requires airlines to ask passengers if they are willing to give up their seats in exchange for compensation before involuntarily bumping passengers. If you agree to be voluntarily be bumped, the airline will book you on a later flight and will likely provide compensation in the form of vouchers.
Before agreeing to be bumped, ask the airline the following questions to ensure you know what you’re agreeing to:
- When is the next flight that the airline is confirming your seat on?
- Will the airline provide free meals, a hotel room, and/or transportation between the hotel and the airport to cover your costs incurred by agreeing to take a later flight?
It’s important to ask these questions because there is not a standard form or amount of compensation that the DOT mandates. Airlines have the flexibility to negotiate with prospective volunteers so you should know what you’re agreeing to before giving up your seat. If the airline offers a free flight or free transportation as compensation, ask if there are any restrictions when redeeming these forms of compensation.
Hot Tip: Check out these credit cards that come with trip delay insurance as one of their benefits and perks!
If you are involuntarily bumped, the DOT requires each airline to compensate involuntarily bumped passengers via check or cash. The amount you receive from the airline depends on the price of the ticket you purchased and the length of the delay.
Update: As of April 13, 2021, a new DOT ruling will take effect that indicates that passengers may not be involuntarily bumped once their “boarding pass has been collected or scanned and the passenger has boarded.”
The amount you will be compensation is determined by the following factors:
- If you arrive at your destination within 1 hour of your original scheduled arrival time, you will not be compensated
- If you arrive at your destination between 1 to 2 hours after your original arrival time, you will be compensated for 200% of your one-way ticket price or a $775 maximum
- If you arrive at your domestic destination 2+ hours later than your original arrival time, international destination 4+ hours later than your original arrival time, or if the airline does not make substitute travel arrangements for you, you will be compensated for 400% of your one-way ticket price or a $1,550 maximum
- If you’re on an award flight or bought a ticket through a consolidator, you will be compensated for the price of your same fare class for your flight
- If you deny the airline’s rebooking flight and choose to book your own flight, you will be compensated for the price of the ticket you purchased
- If you paid additional charges for seats, checked baggage, Wi-Fi, etc., and did not receive those services on your rebooked flight or were required to pay for those services again, you will be compensated for the price of those optional services
Unfortunately, there are conditions and exceptions to the compensation rules above. You will not be compensated if:
- You do not have a confirmed reservation
- You miss your check-in deadline
- The airline must substitute a smaller plane than the one you booked
- The flight has 30 to 60 seats and bumps you due to safety-related aircraft weight or balance constraints
- You booked a chartered flight and are bumped
- You booked a flight with fewer than 30 seats
- You booked an international flight inbound to the U.S.
Lastly, if being bumped costs you more money than the airline will pay you at the airport, you can try to negotiate a higher reimbursement with the airline’s complaint department. If you decline the compensation and are unable to receive higher compensation from the airline’s complaint department, you can take the airline to court.
Baggage Damage, Delays, and Loss
It’s happened to us all — your bag is damaged, delayed, or even lost. While this is frustrating, it’s helpful to know how you can be compensated when one of the following occurs to your luggage:
The following situations are likely to result in compensation for your damaged luggage:
- If your luggage is smashed or torn, the airline will typically pay to repair the luggage
- If the smashed or torn luggage can’t be repaired, the airline will negotiate a settlement to pay you the depreciated value of your luggage
- If items inside your luggage are damaged as a result of the airline’s negligence, the airline might be liable for those damages
The following situations may result in compensation if your bags are delayed:
- If your luggage is delayed and you incur expenses for items that are missing, you will have to negotiate with the airline to pay for what you and the airline agree are “reasonable expenses”
- If the airline does not provide you a cash advance, it may still reimburse you later for the purchase of necessities
- If sporting equipment is delayed, the airline will sometimes pay for the rental of replacement equipment
- If clothing or other articles are delayed, the airline might offer to compensate you for only a portion of the purchase cost
- If an emergency situation occurs, most airlines have guidelines that allow their airport employees to compensate you for emergency purchases
- If food or perishable goods are ruined as a result of your luggage being delayed, the airline will not reimburse you
It’s important to keep in mind that if the airline is found liable for consequential damages, the airline’s liability limit is currently $3,500 per passenger on domestic flights and approximately $1,545 for international round-trip flights that originate in the U.S.
If your luggage is lost, you should submit a claim to initiate the compensation negotiation process. In the situation where you flew 2 airlines involving a connection, the final airline is traditionally responsible for processing your claim.
When you start the claims process, keep in mind that the airline is not required to pay you the full amount on your claim.
The claims process follows this generally timeline:
- First, the airline will use the information on your claims form to estimate the value of your lost belongings (up to a maximum of $3,500). It will determine the depreciated value of your belongings, not their original price or the replacement costs.
- Next, the airline will take between 4 weeks to 3 months to compensate you for your lost luggage.
- Lastly, the airline will pay you a settlement in the form of a cash payment or a free airline ticket in an amount that may be greater than the cash payment.
Every passenger’s situation is unique. If you find that your flight is canceled or delayed, your bag has been damaged, delayed, or lost, or the flight is overbooked, we recommend that you read the DOT’s Consumer Guide to Air Travel to familiarize yourself with the rules.
EU Departing or Domestic Flights
EU 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 apply 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 27 countries, including special territories like the Azores and the Canary Islands and several non-EU European countries like Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
If you experience flight issues to/from/within the EU, the EU passenger rights do 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, check out the best ways to fly to Europe with points and miles.
Need to make a claim?: You could get up to $700 in compensation for a flight delay or cancellation.
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:
- A choice between rerouting, reimbursement, or rebooking
Compensation for denied boarding is as follows:
- For flights less than 1,500 kilometers: €250 (~$300)
- For flights more than 1,500 kilometers within the EU: €400 (~$475)
- For flights between 1,500 and 3,000 kilometers: €400 (~$475)
- For flights over 3,000 kilometers: €600 (~$715)
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 to 4 hours of your originally scheduled arrival. However, 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 — for example, if the airline denied you boarding on your first flight, causing you to miss your second flight.
If you are connecting on a different airline, airlines are not required to provide compensation if a delay on the first flight causes you to miss your connection. However, if your first flight is delayed for 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 the option that is best for you, you no longer have rights to the other 2 options. However, the airline may still be required to compensate you:
- 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:
- Reimbursement of your entire ticket
- 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:
- 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.
If the airline doesn’t pay your out-of-pocket expenses for assistance items directly, consider using the Chase Sapphire Reserve® Card. This credit card earns 5x points on air travel and 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards and 3x points on other travel and dining purchases. Since the airline is required to reimburse you, not only will you be reimbursed, but you’ll also earn 3x points on those purchases.
When a flight cancellation occurs, you are entitled to the same 3 rights as if you were denied boarding:
- A choice between rerouting, reimbursement, or rebooking
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 required 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:
- Depart no more than 2 hours before the originally scheduled departure time, and
- 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:
- Depart no more than 1 hour before the originally scheduled departure time, and
- Reach your final destination less than 2 hours after the originally scheduled arrival time
When a flight delay occurs, you are entitled to assistance and a choice between rerouting, reimbursement, or rebooking.
If you arrive at your destination more than 3 hours after your scheduled arrival time, you are entitled to the same reimbursement, rerouting, and rebooking structure as a denied boarding.
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 €1,300 (~$1,550) 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 it caused 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.
Middle East, Africa, or Asia Flights
Airlines that operate out of the Middle East (like Etihad Airways, Emirates, and Qatar Airways), Africa (like Ethiopian or South African Airways), or Asia (like ANA, Cathay Pacific, or Singapore Airlines) are not required to compensate passengers like the airlines regulated by the DOT and EU.
With that said, consider using a company like AirHelp or Service to receive compensation. Each company has pros and cons, so research each company to determine which 1 aligns best with your needs.
How To File a Complaint
Filing a claim depends on your specific situation, which is why it’s important to read through the U.S. rights and EU rights.
U.S. Domestic and International Flights
If you find yourself in a situation needing to request compensation, follow these steps:
- First, start with the airline agents at the airport. The airline agents should help provide you with your rights and the process to file for compensation.
- Next, reach out to the airline’s social media team to explain your situation. Airlines have social media teams ready to respond and react when the airline is mentioned. Some airlines are more responsive than others, so don’t lose hope if the airline isn’t quick to respond. Passengers have noted that Twitter seems to be the social media platform most utilized by airlines.
- Last, contact the claims department of the airline from which you purchased your ticket. Explain your situation and ask the department what the process is to submit a claim for reimbursement.
EU Departing or Domestic Flights
The EU provides more protections for its passengers. If you need to file a claim for reimbursement, follow these steps:
- First, file a complaint with the airline using the EU-wide air passenger rights complaint form.
- Second, file a complaint with the relevant national airline authority in the country where the incident occurred if either of the following applies. The national airline authority should provide you with a non-binding legal opinion on how to proceed with your claim.
- You don’t receive a reply from the airline within 2 months
- You are not satisfied with the reply from the airline and feel that your EU air passenger rights were not respected
- Third, file a dispute via an out-of-court procedure or an alternative dispute resolution. If you bought your ticket online, you can submit your complaint via Online Dispute Resolution. Alternative dispute resolution and Online Dispute Resolution are only open to EU residents.
- Lastly, file a claim for compensation in the European Small Claims court in the country where the incident occurred.
For help and advice related to your rights, contact your local European Consumer Center.
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 applicable policies can be very beneficial since passengers’ rights on EU vs. U.S. flights are significantly different.
Credit cards can also be an important component of your compensation strategy. Taking advantage of 3-hour delay reimbursements will save you money, time, and a headache.
Though delays are always frustrating, knowing that out-of-pocket expenses will be covered can make the problem seem much more manageable.
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