Air Travel Is a Mess Right Now—Here’s What to Do If Your Flight Is Canceled
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In case you missed it, air travel has been plagued with operational problems as of late—specifically, a significant uptick in the number of canceled and delayed flights. Although plenty of travelers have been unaffected by the chaos, growing demand, staff shortages and high gas prices mean that there is a decent chance you could experience a major hiccup in your itinerary. As such, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared with a solid plan of action for what to do if your flight is canceled.

1. Get flight status updates

There’s nothing worse than taking an Uber to the airport only to realize that your flight has already been canceled and you could be figuring out next steps from a more comfortable place, be it your own home or a hotel. This unfortunate scenario might be unavoidable if your flight has been delayed at the very last minute and eventually canceled—but often, a flight will be canceled with enough time before departure to spare you the trip to the airport. That’s why it’s a good idea to check the status of your flight several times before you head out the door. Many airlines also offer the option of having flight updates automatically texted to your phone.

Bottom line: The sooner you know about a disruption to your itinerary, the easier it will be to find a plan B. And here’s a not-so-fun fact: The last to know is also the last in line to speak to a ticketing agent.

2. Watch the weather

Keeping an eye on the forecast is a good idea for the same reason we suggest staying abreast of the flight status—the only difference being that, in the instance of inclement weather, you can make a judgment call before the flight is canceled or delayed and have a significant head start on making other arrangements. For example, thunderstorms have recently caused thousands of flights to be canceled—and while you might think of a thunderstorm as a relatively mundane summertime occurrence, they can pose a serious threat to safe travel.

Fortunately, many airlines are quite accommodating when it comes to making last minute changes, especially if there’s not a huge disparity in the fares. All this is to say that if you see afternoon storms are expected, there’s a chance you can simply get yourself a ticket on a flight that departs earlier in the day at little to no additional cost, and spare yourself the headache.

3. Do your research before you rebook

Once you get word your flight has been canceled, you’ll need to get yourself on a new one. Of course, you’ll be one of many people attempting to do the same, so whatever route you take to rebook will likely involve some waiting. That said, when you finally get to the front of the line—be it on the phone, at a kiosk, or face-to-face with a ticketing agent—the probability of getting on a new flight that’s even moderately convenient will be much higher if you’ve looked into the available options already.

The reason for this is that most airlines default to automated booking systems to address the passengers on canceled flights, and these systems have a habit of finding the worst flights ever. (Think: Your two hour direct flight was canceled, and you get offered a seat on a 10 hour red-eye with two connections instead.) To avoid this, find a few preferred flight options you can inquire into when you speak to a ticketing agent. It will make everyone’s life easier.

4. Inquire into expense reimbursement and save receipts

A flight that is delayed significantly might force you to hunker down in the airport for much longer than anticipated, or even book a hotel room. These additional expenses may not be covered by the airline, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Some airlines do have a policy of offering hotel vouchers to passengers whose flight has been canceled or delayed until the following day. Others will offer reimbursement for “reasonable expenses” like meals you purchase at the airport while waiting for your delayed flight to board.

You can call the airline and ask right away what their policy is on expense reimbursement and hotel vouchers, or you can hold onto your receipts and try to get your money back later—just keep in mind that any reimbursement you do get will likely be bare bones, so don’t go booking yourself a room at the Ritz with the expectation that the airline will cover it.

5. Look into credit card benefits

Rewards credit cards can offer a variety of travel-related perks that can come in handy when a flight is delayed or canceled, including trip cancellation coverage, car rental coverage and trip delay benefits. Of course, not all cards offer such benefits, but if you used a rewards credit card to book your flight then it’s certainly worth looking into it.

6. Cancel and request a refund

Maybe your flight was significantly delayed and the new departure time didn’t square with your plans, or perhaps your flight was canceled and the rebooking options available were unacceptable to you—whatever the case may be, you can always consider canceling the trip entirely and requesting a refund for the ticket. That said, whether or not you are eligible for a refund depends on a number of different factors, so make sure you know your rights before you choose not to travel. (More on that below.) 

Do airlines have to compensate for canceled flights?

Some good news: Yes, airlines are required to compensate for canceled flights. According to the Department of Transportation (DOT), “a consumer is entitled to a refund if the airline canceled a flight, regardless of the reason, and the consumer chooses not to travel.” When it comes to delayed flights, it’s a little less straightforward.

The DOT says consumers are eligible for a full refund if the airline makes a schedule change or significantly delays the flight, but there’s a caveat: The DOT has not specifically defined what constitutes a “significant delay.” Per the travel organization, “Whether you are entitled to a refund depends on many factors – including the length of the delay, the length of the flight, and your particular circumstances.” The DOT will determine whether you are entitled to a refund following a significant delay on a case-by-case basis. In other words, proceed with caution and contact the airline first. 

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