Your Flight Is Canceled or Delayed: What Can You Do?

All Flights Cancelled


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Young Female traveller napping as she waits forever at the airport terminal

Up in the Air

If you're planning to travel, be prepared to have your plans disrupted. Computer problems have led to the cancellation of thousands of airline departures this week. It's an example of how technology problems, sometimes coupled with bad weather and staffing problems, can leave travelers facing a challenging time getting to and from their destinations. No one wants to research worst-case scenarios, but having useful information helps if you need to quickly change your travel plans.  (A little good news: New federal rules aim to make it easier to get refunds.)

Happy Woman Packing her Suitcase for Winter Holiday while using her Mobile Phone at Home

Get Ahead of a Potential Problem

This suggestion might be overkill for some, but before booking a flight, cross-check with a flight tracker service like FlightAware (limited to the U.S. and Canada) and FlightView to see how timely your intended flight route is. Check the status of your flight 24 hours before a departure in case the flight is already delayed en route to the airport you’re flying from, so you can make alternate plans.

Insider Tip: Have your airline and also arrival/departure airport’s app on your phone and subscribe to flight notifications, so that you'll know if the airport is closed due to bad weather or your flight is delayed.  

COVID-19 worldwide borders closures.Traveler with face mask stuck in airport terminal after being denied entry to other countries. Passenger stranded in airport on his travel back to home country.
sam thomas/istockphoto

Be Ready to Deal with Delays

So far this year, nearly 20% of flights have been delayed, and that number isn't likely to improve given current woes. Since airlines don’t guarantee schedules and aren't liable for delays due to inclement weather, travel insurance that matches travelers' trip specifications is important. Travel insurance provides reimbursement expenses caused flight delays, missed connections, and sudden flight cancelations.

Traveling is a bit trickier these days

Know Your Rights to Compensation

Fact: New federal rules from the Biden administration now require airlines to refund passengers' money when their flights are delayed. “Passengers deserve to get their money back when an airline owes them — without headaches or haggling,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said. “Our new rule sets a new standard to require airlines to promptly provide cash refunds to their passengers.” Passengers are entitled to a cash refund if their flight is delayed more than 3 hours domestically and 6 hours internationally or canceled for any reason. Read more about the new requirements here.  


If you’re traveling to or from a European Union country, and your flight is delayed or you missed a connecting flight, you are entitled to financial compensation upwards of 250 euros per passenger if finding a replacement seat delays you by three hours or more. In the event the flight is canceled, you are entitled to a full or partial reimbursement of the full cost of your ticket or to be re-routed whereby you’ll be given meals, refreshments, two telephone calls, texts or emails, and possibly overnight accommodation if your rerouted flight is for the next day.  

Friends at the airport

Decode the Delay

Flights can get delayed for a variety (and often a combination) of reasons and knowing the lingo helps manage expectations and when seeking a refund or compensation. “It [delays] could be technical, operational, crewing, weather, air traffic control, or waiting for connecting passengers,” says Brett Manders, pilot and author of "Behind the Flight Deck Door."

Operational: "Sometimes busy airports can be constrained by the number of arrivals and departures they can process."

Crewing: "On occasions, the crew can 'run out of hours.' Pilots and cabin crew have very specific limits on the number of hours we are allowed to work. Whilst pilots have been called glorified bus drivers, and people think cabin crew is airborne waiters/waitresses, we actually have roles related to safety. You don’t want your crew suffering from fatigue should an emergency happen."

Weather: "Thunderstorms in and around an airport really put the brakes on operations. Pilots don’t want to fly near them. An airport could have multiple runways, but due to strong winds, only one is open for take-offs and landings. This will slow down departures and arrivals. It will also cause consequential delays down the line for airports that aren’t affected by the weather system." 

Airport lockdown, Flights cancellation on time table

What’s an Act of God?

Your flight is grossly delayed or canceled — but was it an act-of-God incident? If you read the fine print of your travel insurance policy, you might find that such an instance is not covered. “An 'act of God' is associated with natural disasters like severe weather or even civil unrest, and essentially refers to events that are out of human control that can neither be prevented or predicted,” says Brian Donovan, a frequent traveler and CEO of Timeshatter. “Travel insurance policies differ when it comes to covering these kinds of events, so it is important to look into the specifics of the coverage ahead of time. It is also important to note that any event that is 'known' does not fall under the category of 'act of God,' which includes forecasted storms and hurricanes that have already been named.” 

Businessman and woman at an airport checking in.

Getting Bumped Off a Flight

​Airlines are legally allowed to oversell flights, but they will compensate you if it happens that you’re voluntarily or involuntarily bumped from a full flight. As a general rule of thumb, the Department of Transportation notes that “Most bumped passengers who experience short delays on flights will receive compensation equal to double the one-way price of the flight they were bumped from, but airlines may limit this amount to up to $775. Passengers experiencing longer delays on flights will receive payments of four times the one-way value of the flight they were bumped from, but airlines may limit this amount to up to $1,550.” 

Insider Tip: If you volunteer to be bumped from a flight, airlines will compensate you for the inconvenience and are legally obligated to disclose “any and all restrictions that may apply.” This DOT link offers some useful questions to ask.

an asian chinese senior man having discussion with his colleague via online virtual meeting in a cafe
chee gin tan/istockphoto

Understand Your Travel Benefits

Seeing as airlines are presently having a challenging time dealing with weather conditions, staff shortages, and operational issues, you won’t be the only one asking airline staff for meal vouchers, or for assistance to get re-routed. Familiarize yourself with your travel benefits linked to your credit card or insurance plan, so you can take charge of any trip interruptions. Travel insurance typically kicks in for flight delays between six and 12 hours, however, some plans provide reimbursement for expenses as soon as three hours. 


“Let's say there's an airline strike and you can't get to your cruise departure on time. Missed connection and trip interruption benefits can reimburse you for expenses paid to get caught up with your cruise. But if you're experiencing a long delay due to bad weather, travel delay benefits can reimburse you for meals, accommodations, and local transportation. After all, who wants to sleep in an airport during a long delay if they don't have to?” advises Amanda Hand of G1G Travel Insurance.


Insider Tip: Keep a tab on timings (and document it where possible) to help get reimbursed for things like hotel stays, meals, and local transportation. Do not discard receipts, baggage tags and boarding passes as you will need them for the claims process.  

Lower your risk, travel alone

Rebook Yourself

If your flight gets canceled, it might be easier for you to find your own solution vs. standing in line to speak to airline personnel. Often, there’s a self-service kiosk to utilize. Or, use the airline’s website/app to source and book an alternate flight. As there might be limited options, be open to traveling from/arriving at a different — but nearby — airport. If you can’t find anything suitable online, call in, but do some research beforehand on preferred flights (get the flight number and times, potential partner airlines) so the call agent can quickly assist you. Also, don’t forget to check if the airline will charge you a fee to change your reservation. 


Insider Tip: Your flying and frequent-flyer status will come in handy in such scenarios, so have your frequent-flyer number ready. 

Personal protection during traveling

Explore Traveling From and to a Close-By Airport

If flying to/from your original destination is no longer an option, find out if you can drive/take a ride-share, train, or bus to an alternate airport. It may not be as convenient, but it beats waiting in limbo or canceling the trip altogether. And if your travel insurance covers such trip interruption scenarios, that always helps. 

Insider Tip: Have Rome2Rio downloaded and handy on your mobile phone. It gives a number of travel options (planes, trains, ferries, bus/car) so you can compare what makes the most sense, time, and money-wise. 

Young Asian tourist woman with mask using phone and sitting with distance at the airport
Ranta Images/istockphoto

Document What’s Happening

The last thing you may be thinking about when your flight has been delayed or canceled is to document what’s happening, but it is essential if you’re going to make a travel insurance claim. Aside from taking note of the time  and date of the incident, try and get a statement from the airline that your flight was delayed or canceled, and preferably with an official date and time stamp. Make sure to keep all boarding passes, baggage tickets, flight tickets, receipts for expenses, additional luggage, and so on until your claim is resolved. 

People with protective face masks standing in a row at the airport

Get a Refund Started

In general, if a cancellation occurs, most airlines will rebook you for free on their next flight. All airlines have different policies, but some targeted questions to ask are: Do they issue travel credits, and is there a time limit to use them? Do they refund only back to the original payment method? Will they refund for an unused portion of the trip? Can they provide you with a complimentary return to your original airport and refund the full cost of your ticket? 

Senior Black Businessman on Phone at the Airport Wearing a Mask

Give Your Accommodation a Heads-Up

Unless you’ve booked a hotel with a very flexible cancellation policy, a flight cancellation or long delay may result in paying for unused nights at the property. Once you’ve sorted out what’s going on transport-wise, get in touch with your hotel or Airbnb / Vrbo host, and explain what’s going on to either cancel, delay, or seek understanding in avoiding an unwanted added charge. A lot of it will depend on their goodwill, so be nice. If you are stranded at the airport, U.S. airlines aren’t on the hook to provide you a hotel room or meal voucher. (It’s a different story if it concerns a European Union country.) However, you should still try and ask a customer service representative if they can help you, and if they do make a promise (hotel, meal claims, etc.), get it in writing, that way when it’s time to make a claim, there’s a paper trail to follow. 

seniors on a plane

Sit Tight If It's a Tarmac Delay

Count yourself lucky if your delay occurs before you’ve stepped into the plane. In 2019, passengers of Delta 2385 flying from New York to Miami were stuck on the tarmac for eight hours due to bad weather and a host of other issues. So why didn’t the passengers just get off at some point? Even though the Department of Transportation mandates that carriers are not allowed to hold a domestic flight on the tarmac for more than three hours and an international flight for more than four hours, barring safety exceptions, deplaning brings a whole additional list of complications, such as passengers being separated from their checked bags and passengers having to contact the airline to sort out a replacement flight. And if the flight eventually takes off, and you’re not on it, you’re on your own, including finding a solution to be reunited with your luggage


Insider Tip: Always have some water and snacks on you. If there is a tarmac delay, the airline technically has to provide food and water but only after two hours.  

Airport check-in counter employee attaching tag on luggage

Your Check-In Baggage May Arrive Before You

Frequent travelers often prefer to travel with just a carry-on to avoid unnecessary baggage issues. “When it comes to your luggage after a delayed/canceled flight, the following procedure depends on the airline. However, the most common thing to happen is, if your luggage has already been checked, airlines will ship your luggage to your original destination and then ship it back to you. Sometimes you could also be entitled to compensation for your expenses if the airline isn't capable of returning your luggage after a flight's delay or cancellation," say Torben Lonne, frequent traveler and co-founder of DiveIn.


Insider Tip: If there’s damage to your baggage, photograph the baggage and its contents, then go to the airline's baggage service office or check-in counter to lodge a report and start the claim process.  

changi jewel

Pass the Time in Style

No one enjoys being stuck in a longer than expected layover or to be waiting it out till the next flight becomes available. If you’re at an airport where there’s stuff to do, it can become part of the trip. Enjoy live music performances at Austin-Bergstrom International, Seattle Tacoma International Airport, and ​​Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. San Francisco International Airport has a 24-hour kids play area and free yoga studio rooms with loaner mats. Philadelphia International Airport offers stationary bikes, while Phoenix Sky Harbor International and Minneapolis-St. Paul International have walking trails to work off some energy. Art fiends can admire a model of a Brachiosaurus skeleton, and the awe-inspiring "The Sky’s the Limit" 745-foot-long kinetic light sculpture at Chicago O’Hare, while Pittsburgh International Airport has an artist-in-residence program with exhibits scattered around the different terminals. 


Insider Tip: Plan ahead and research your home or layover airport so you won’t be bored (or at a loss) if there’s a delay. You’ll know where rest areas are (before everyone else does), stuff to keep the kids entertained, and if there are free/paid shower amenities.  

Woman entering to business lounge at the airport

Make Use of Your Loyalty Perks

Depending on which credit card/airline loyalty you might hold, a flight delay will likely mean quality time at the airport lounge. The Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card grants access to Priority Pass lounges worldwide, while the Platinum American Express gives access to its swish Centurion Lounges where they serve food by James-Beard-awarded chefs and serve creative libations by top mixologists. If you’re traveling internationally, it almost pays to do a long layover in places like Doha just to check out Qatar Airways Al Mourjan Business Lounge with its game room featuring an F1 race-car simulator machine, or Dubai where the Emirates First Class Lounge has a cigar lounge, wine cellar and on-site spa. 


Insider Tip: While some of the higher-end lounges require a certain level of airline status or to be holding a business or first-class boarding pass, some do offer lounge access for a fee that can be purchased in advance. 

Family going for boarding their flight during pandemic

Make a Vacation Out of It

You’re better off rolling with the punches than taking it out on a gate agent or customer service rep. If you do find yourself stranded at an unplanned destination, make a trip out of it. Search for tourist destinations near the airport — you’re in luck if it’s Honolulu, Dallas, Las Vegas, and San Diego — see if an airport offers free/discounted city tours, or just catch an Uber into the city and squeeze in some impromptu sightseeing. 


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