You’re excited and ready for your trip. You get to the airport on time and are hoping to start your vacation, but then you look at the departures board to see your flight is canceled. What can you do now?
The answer might not be simple as it varies on a case-by-case basis, but I’ll try to give you an overview of your options.
While most airline passenger rights are established by government regulation (which are equal for all scheduled airlines), in the U.S. no federal law or regulation specifies what, if any, rights you have when an airline cancels your flight.
With cancellations, your rights are based solely on the airlines' contracts of carriage, in addition to relevant principles of general contract law. This means they vary from airline to airline.
One thing airlines have in common is that their contracts are designed not to guarantee schedules and not to be responsible for consequential damage – any loss you might incur if you arrive late to your destination or don’t arrive at all.
But in a routine cancellation, you have two basic contractual rights on any airline. While the details vary per contract, all airlines should offer a seat on your original airline's next available flight or offer a refund of the unused portion of your ticket. That is fairly basic, but some carriers do provide more for their customers.
It’s also important to understand the cause of cancellation. Usually, when the cancellation is caused by inclement weather or an "act of God," what you’ll get is the bare minimum, as explained. But, when the cancellation is caused by technical failure or something within the airline’s control, they might offer various forms of assistance above the minimum.
It’s almost universal that when an airline cancels your flight, you have the right to a full reimbursement of the remaining value of your ticket. The refund should be received in the same form of ticket purchase – credit to the credit card or cash.
Some airlines might even return you to your city of origin at no charge and refund you the entire value of the ticket should your outbound connecting flight from their hub get canceled and you wish not to continue the trip.
Next Available Seat
The assumption of the "next available seat" is that you want to get to your destination as quickly as possible. To achieve this, most airlines will offer an open seat on the next flight to your destination in the same class as the original flight. Some airlines might even allow a "next seat" at a higher class at no extra cost to you should there not be an available seat in your original class. Should the available seat be in a lower class, they will refund you the difference.
In some cases, the next available seat might be rerouted to a nearby destination (for example, arriving at Newark-EWR instead of New York-JFK) or to the same destination via an alternate route. Should the airline not have any availability, in some cases, they might offer the next seat on a partner airline or via ground transportation should it be the most convenient in the situation. This is all based on the airline’s discretion and contract.
As explained before, delay assistance will vary drastically based on the reason of the cancellation or delay. If the delay/cancellation happens for reasons outside the airline’s control (weather, strikes, government regulations, hostilities, slowdowns, labor-related disputes, unsettled international conditions, etc.), then your rights are limited to a refund or the next seat available. If the delay/cancellation happens due to a problem within the airline’s control (crew shortage, plane change, technical issues), then it is very likely they’ll tend to your needs in the event of an extended delay. Typical offers are meal vouchers for delays of four hours or more, hotel accommodation for delays of more than eight hours if overnight, and a free phone call should you not carry a working mobile phone.
In my years of travel I’ve experienced a few cancellations myself and they’ve been covered to varying degrees. For example, on a trip from Cancun to San Juan, my flight was canceled due to a potential hurricane hitting San Juan. The airline rightfully canceled my flight (safety first!) but didn’t offer anything other than a seat on their next available flight on that route (which unfortunately was four days later). I was responsible for my accommodation and everything else while in Cancun during those extra days. On the other hand, another airline canceled my flight from Miami to Sao Paulo due to technical failure. Since the delay was extended, they offered us a seat on the next flight, paid accommodation and provided food vouchers. Additionally, since I’m a frequent flyer with that airline, they offered me a 20,000 miles bonus in their program. See the difference?
How to Deal with a Cancellation
Let’s begin by saying that while there are rules and contracts; some benefits can be negotiated in the right situation.
- Should an airline change the flight schedule substantially well before the departure date, they will notify you by email. You can either accept the change or ask for a refund. Should the change be a cancellation, they will rebook you on an alternate flight which you can either accept, ask for a refund, or suggest an alternate route.
- If your flight was booked via a third party website or travel agent, contact the agency to arrange for the refund or substitution. Most airlines can’t make customer suggested changes to a booking if it was done via a travel agent or third party.
- It’s always best to call the airline also to discuss with them the alternatives (even if booked via a travel agent to then call them with the information and alternatives the airline gave you).
- Always stay calm. Cancellations can be frustrating, but yelling at a representative is likely to get you less assistance, not more.
Hopefully, you won’t go through a cancellation experience, but should you do, now you know your rights and what to expect out of the situation.
Remember to always take out the appropriate travel insurance coverage for your trip, check out the RoamRight flight cancellations policies and guidelines on this page.