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.
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?
Let’s begin by saying that while there are rules and contracts; some benefits can be negotiated in the right situation.
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.
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Norbert Figueroa is an architect who hit the pause button on his career in 2011 to do a round the world trip. He's been blogging for over three years at globotreks.com, where he shares his travel experiences, budget travel tips, and a good dose of world architecture. From hiking Mount Kilimanjaro to diving with great white sharks, he is always on the search of adrenaline and adventure. Norbert is originally from Puerto Rico and he is currently based in Milan, Italy... when not roaming around the world, that is. He has traveled to more than 80 countries in 5 continents and his goal is to travel to all 193 U.N. recognized countries. Follow Norbert on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google Plus.
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