What To Do If Your Flight is Canceled: 10 Top Tips

To help prepare for that next flight cancellation, we've got a few top tips to share. Take it from us -- there are ways to make your life a little easier. Read More

Flight cancellations are never fun. (Source: Shutterstock / OPOLA)

Ah, the joys of modern commercial aviation. While flying from point A to point B safely and on time is the norm for most of us, most of the time, we’ve all endured that dreaded flight cancellation that sends us into the throes of confusion and terrible humor. But a cancellation doesn’t have to be cause for undo anguish and handwringing. To help you better prepare for that next cancellation, we’ve assembled a few top tips that we’ve learned the hard way. Take it from us, here’s what to do if your flight is canceled.

1: Know what you’re entitled to.

Ok, a bit of bad news. If you’re flying domestically on a U.S. carrier, there is no federal requirement to compensate passengers if a flight is delayed or canceled, regardless of cause. (See the Department of Transportation’s Fly Rights for details.)

On the upside, however, most airlines (with the exception of some budget carriers) have policies that provide for passenger compensation when flights are canceled under certain circumstances. This typically depends on the cause of the cancellation and whether it was within the airline’s control (e.g. some mechanical failures), or not (e.g. bad weather).

To know what you can expect if your flight gets canceled, check your airline’s “contract of carriage,” the legal agreement to which you agree when you purchase a ticket. These can vary from carrier to carrier, but here is United’s Contract of Carriage as an example. You can also contact your airline directly for details.

2: Come up with a plan B – ahead of time.

Reduce cancellation stress with a plan in hand. (Source: Shutterstock / eakasarn)
Reduce cancellation stress with a plan in hand. (Source: Shutterstock / eakasarn)

While not strictly a “what to do if your flight gets canceled” tip, we would put this one under the “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” category. Who would you have to call? Where would you stay? Think ahead about what to do if your flight gets canceled. If your existing hotel is too far afield, identify a hotel or two closer to the airport. Check to see if they have rooms available for the night. Knowing ahead of time where to stay in a cancellation scenario saves you from having to locate a room while the canceled flight’s 200 other passengers are doing the same thing.

3: Also, check your flight before leaving for the airport.

We can’t tell you how many times we’ve dashed to the airport only to learn that the flight had been canceled – before we left the house. Save yourself hours of frustration (and maybe a few Ben Franklins) by checking your flight status before getting in that Uber.

4: Look for an alternate flight that fits your schedule, or request a refund.

Typically, when your flight is canceled, the airline will book you on the next flight that has an available seat – free of charge. The trouble is, that could be tomorrow, the next day, or “whenever the weather clears.”

If your new flight, scheduled for 5am tomorrow, for instance, doesn’t work for you and you’re willing to take a later flight, request to be rebooked on your flight of choice. Make sure there isn’t a cancellation, change, or other fee for changing your reservation. If there is, ask that it be waived. Most airlines will accommodate you.

On the other hand, you may want to cancel the reservation altogether and make alternate plans, like rent a car. In this case, the airline should provide a full credit or refund without penalties.

5: Get your airline to endorse a ticket transfer to another airline.

If alternate flights on the same airline don’t meet your needs, consider booking on a different airline. If you find a better flight, request that your current airline “endorse” your existing ticket to the new carrier. Otherwise known as “reciprocity,” this amounts to the existing airline covering the cost of your new ticket on the second airline. If your new ticket costs more than your existing ticket, your existing airline will lose the difference. Naturally, airlines don’t generally like to this and are not required to do so, but if losing a few dollars means keeping you as a customer in the long term, they might consider it.

For you, having your ticket transfer to a second airline is a lot simpler than canceling an existing ticket and purchasing a new one. It’s well worth asking, nicely.

6: Use the phone, app, or airline lounge to make flight changes.

Instead of standing on line, try the phone or airline lounge. (Source: iStock / Sergiy1975)
Instead of standing on line, try the phone or airline lounge. (Source: iStock / Sergiy1975)

You know the story: As soon as your flight cancellation is announced there’s a stampede of frothing passengers charging to the airline customer service desk to get that last seat out tonight.

Join the line as necessary, but also contact the airline by phone or through its mobile app at the same time. Unless there are system-wide delays, you’ll probably reach a representative by phone before you make it to the desk. Additionally, the phone representative will have more time for you than the harried in-person rep who is feeling the pressure from 30 impatient passengers waiting to be rebooked.

Even better, if you’re part of the loyalty program (more on that below), or are willing to pay a one-off usage fee, head to the significantly less crowded airline lounge. Airline representatives there can help with rebooking flights, and you might get a free sparkling water out of it, too.

7: If you can’t reach anyone by phone, try Twitter.

If you can’t reach an airline rep on the phone, consider reaching out via social media – Twitter is usually best. While social media monitoring varies by airline, none of them wants a disgruntled passenger complaining about poor customer service to its gazillions of followers. #itsnotgoodbusiness

Make sure you’re following the airline in question, and when you tweet, be concise and to the point. Indicate that you are frustrated by extended phone wait times (or an inability to get through at all) and that you’re trying to resolve a cancellation rebooking. There’s a good chance you’ll quickly receive a message from an airline rep to help address your concern. Even better: You’ll get out of having to wait on the phone for a call center rep.

8:  Ask the airline if it will pay for meals or a hotel room.

Sometimes airline gate agents have some leeway when it comes to compensating passengers when flights are canceled. Don’t wait to be given anything – be proactive and ask for what you need – a meal or a free hotel room, or at least a distressed traveler hotel rate. Be polite and professional and underscore (if applicable) your loyalty status with the airline. Even if you’re not in their loyalty program, remind them that you are a valuable, paying customer.

Remember, too, that it’s better to ask while you’re in the midst of the situation rather than trying to claim reimbursement later.

9: If you don’t have access to checked luggage, get an amenities kit.

An amenities kit helps you stay fresh when stranded overnight. (Source: Shutterstock / anmbph)
An amenities kit helps you stay fresh when stranded overnight. (Source: Shutterstock / anmbph)

If you’ve checked luggage, sometimes you have the choice to retrieve it and re-check it on your rescheduled flight. That will depend on the airline and whether your luggage is still at the airport. For example, while there may not have been room for you on the next flight out, there may have been room for your luggage. Regardless, if your luggage ends up on a flight either before or after yours, the airline will coordinate a time for you to pick it up at the airport or have it delivered to your final destination.

Think carefully about retrieving your luggage if your flight has been canceled. If you choose to retrieve your luggage at a major airport expect this to take a while. The process usually involves asking the gate agent that your bag be pulled and then waiting at baggage claim for a baggage handler to wade through thousands of bags to locate yours. This can (and usually does) take at least an hour, if not longer. Make sure it’s worth the trouble.

If you end up spending an extra night in town without your luggage (for whatever reason), head to the airline’s baggage service office and request an amenities kit. These include the basics like a toothbrush, toothpaste, a sleep mask, lip balm, earplugs, and lotion.

10: If you’re stranded, ask for local recommendations.

If you’re looking to stay in town for the night and have no idea where to go for food and lodging, ask an airline representative, or at a visitor center if there is one. Chances are they will know the best options for reasonably priced hotels, transportation, and grub. Your airline may also offer distressed traveler discounts at particular hotels or restaurants.

BONUS: Join an airline loyalty program.

Not surprisingly, airlines will take care of customers who have better loyalty status first. If you fly frequently, try using the same airline as much as possible and join their loyalty program to get premium service. Not only will this give you all sorts of perks (read: upgrades, discounts, and free amenities), but it will put you in a preferred position for rebooking if/when your flight gets canceled. If there’s one seat left on the last flight of the day, the passenger with the better loyalty status often gets it.