While the airline industry has worked out a lot of its pandemic issues, that doesn’t mean it’s always smooth sailing for travelers. Air carriers canceled 3.2 percent of their domestic flights in the first six months of 2022, up from 2.4 percent in the first half of 2019, according to the Department of Transportation, and delayed about one-quarter of flights.
Then, at the end of 2022, , a winter storm threw an already busy holiday travel season into chaos, causing thousands of flights to be canceled or delayed before and after Christmas. Southwest Airlines drew intense scrutiny for its inability to get travelers to their destinations.
If you’re an unlucky flyer who ends up stuck, we compiled a guide for what to do if your flight gets canceled and how to get a refund you are owed.
If your flight gets canceled
The bad news is your flight has been canceled. The good news is the airline owes you a refund; Department of Transportation regulations entitle you to one, regardless of the reason your flight was canceled. DOT released an online dashboard last year to show travelers a quick view of what airlines offer for passengers affected by cancellations and delays.
But be warned: Accepting the canceled flight, getting your money back and starting from scratch may put you in a position of scrambling for a more expensive flight, if you can find one at all. Then there’s the risk that your new flight may be canceled or delayed. You may want to reschedule your flight with the airline instead of going for the refund.
More bad news if a flight is canceled: It may take a long time to get rescheduled, especially during peak travel periods when flights are already packed. Some small airlines don’t have multiple flights a day, or might only fly a few days a week.
“When they cancel one of those remaining flights, the number of empty seats on what remains in their schedule is small,” said Robert W. Mann, a consultant and former airline executive. He said travelers who do get on an alternate flight may end up having to stop or connect multiple times rather than flying direct.
While some airlines might be willing to put a passenger on another carrier, that’s not always a choice, Mann said — and some airlines don’t have the relationships with competitors to do that.
“It would cost them actual money to do that,” Mann said. “They’d rather have you take their travel voucher or their subpar alternate schedule that they offer you.”
If you want to request a refund, brace yourself for more delays. Getting a cash refund from airlines can be difficult — like, very difficult. In fact, DOT recently cracked down on wrongful denials and returned $600 million in refunds back to tens of thousands ofpassengers.
While the airline will likely offer you a flight credit or voucher first, stay persistent if you really want your refund; it’s your right.
If your flight gets delayed
You may not know your flight is going to be delayed or rescheduled until the last minute — maybe even after you have arrived at the airport. Katherine Estep, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Airlines For America, recommends downloading your carrier’s app to get immediate updates on your flight schedule.
Airlines are not required by law to refund travelers for delays; each airline has its own policy. But if your flight gets significantly delayed and you choose not to fly, you are entitled to a refund, per DOT regulations. However, every airline has a different definition of “significant.” You will have to check with your carrier to find out if you’re eligible, which can also depend on the circumstances of the delay. Even if you’re not, you may be able to get compensation for the disruption. Ask the airline if you are eligible for a meal voucher or a hotel room for the night while you wait.
Don’t like the rebooked flight? “Keep an eye on backup plans,” said Scott’s Cheap Flights founder Scott Keyes. “If your flight were to get canceled, what are flights that this airline has that would work for me and my schedule?”
Once you have picked a new flight that works for you, get on the phone with customer service and request it specifically.
“That’s going to be much more fruitful than saying, ‘My flight got canceled, what do I do?’ ” Keyes said.
If you want to be protected
There are a few things you can do to put yourself in a better position for this uncertain time of flying.
Protecting yourself starts when you book the flight. Brian Kelly, the founder and chief executive of The Points Guy, recommends booking your flights with frequent flier miles.
“Most airline frequent-flier programs will actually refund your points and taxes and fees, so it’s kind of like buying a refundable ticket,” Kelly said. “They give you maximum flexibility.”
Look for nonstop flights to your destination that depart earlier in the day. You will have fewer variables to deal with, and should something go wrong, you’ll have more rerouting options than if you were departing later.
Martin Nolan, a traveler rights expert at Skyscanner, recommends booking a flight with a flexible fare that allows for a free date or destination change. He also suggests booking travel with a credit card that offers extra protections. A good credit card company will go to bat for you if you are struggling to get a rightfully owed refund.
Adit Damodaran, economist at the travel booking app Hopper, says it is wise to prepare for the worst by padding your trip with some buffer time if you’re traveling for a special event. Don’t cut your arrival too close; find a flight a day before in case there is a delay or cancellation. Hopper also has “Rebooking Protection Services,” allowing travelers to fly on another airline if there is a disruption.
Keyes strongly urges travelers to skip checking a bag.
“If you have checked a bag and then you get to the gate and your flight gets canceled or delayed, it’s going to be more difficult to get switched to a different flight,” he said. “If there’s another flight that’s leaving 15 minutes from now or 20 minutes from now, your bag is not going to make it.”
Ian Duncan, Chris Elliott and Karen Schwartz contributed to this story. This story has been updated since it first published.
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