These days, all flights, domestic and international, are affected by numerous pressures that result in delays and cancellations. From weather to staff shortages with the FAA, airport, or airline, thousands of customers on most recent summer weekends have experienced flight delays. Setting realistic expectations and knowing what you’re entitled to can make the flying experience easier to navigate.
CANCELLATION VS. DELAY
The rules regarding cancellations are the clearest. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) states that "if your flight is canceled and you choose to cancel your trip as a result, you are entitled to a refund for the unused transportation—even for non-refundable tickets."
With a delay, the DOT language is open to interpretation. While the DOT states passengers are "entitled to a refund if the airline…significantly delays a flight, and the consumer chooses not to travel," the words "significantly delays" are not defined. This leaves the question of a refund subject to a case-by-case review.
Whether you get anything following a flight delay will depend on why your flight was delayed. The status you have with the airline and whether you ask for compensation are also likely factors. If your delay is weather related, you probably won't get anything. Depending on the airline, if the delay was in the airline's control, your chances of compensation increase.
Some airlines proactively offer bonus miles to apologize for operational meltdowns. If you don't get bonus miles or a travel certificate, or if you receive less than you wanted, it never hurts to reach out to the airline with a request.
OPTION TO CANCEL
When a flight is delayed more than two hours or if a delay will cause you to miss your connection, one option you may have is the right to back out of the trip entirely. For example, in such a situation, "Delta will (at passenger's request) cancel the remaining ticket and refund the unused portion of the ticket and unused ancillary fees in the original form of payment."
If you can't cancel your itinerary, know that various travel credit cards offer benefits that kick in when flights are delayed. How fast the perks kick in and how much the payout is depends on the credit card you used to buy your ticket. For example, an American Express Platinum Card may reimburse you for $500 of meals, hotel, and other costs if you're delayed six or more hours. Other credit cards may offer similar benefits, so it’s best to check with your credit card provider to understand your entitlements.
You can purchase travel insurance if you don't have a credit card that includes it. Insurance may cover lost prepaid trip expenses, plus meals and lodging in the location where you are delayed, up to the daily limit in your policy (e.g., $150).
When delayed overnight, United Airlines states it "will provide...one night's lodging...when a...passenger incurs a delay that is expected to exceed four hours between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. local time." This will likely be at select hotels of the airline’s choosing. Opting for a different hotel will forfeit compensation.
With this benefit and many other provisions, they may be put into effect "upon the passenger's request only." Therefore, the next time you’re flying, scan through a copy of your airline's Contract of Carriage, located in the seat pocket. You’ll find details on what the airline will give you and when. It pays to be prepared for future delays and know what types of compensation you may be entitled to, as well as which ones require a request from you.