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Flight Delays: Your Legal Rights

Published by Anne McDermott on May 27, 2011

Arrival and departure board

We've all experienced flight delays or cancellations due to bad weather or malfunctioning aircraft, and an unlucky few have been stuck at airports for hours. What are your rights? [See video below]

LISTEN: One of travel expert Rick Seaney's favorite topics.

Few Rights, Few Amenities

Unfortunately, travelers on U.S. domestic flights don't have many rights. In fact, U.S. airlines have no legal obligation to provide delayed passengers with compensation. This includes vouchers for hotels and food. It can be different for European Union countries/airlines as shown in the International Travel section below.

That's not to say U.S. travelers get nothing, just don't count on it.

What Airlines Will Do for You

Airlines will do everything in their power to get you on the next available flight – in some cases, even a competitor's – but that is an airline's main obligation to passengers. If delays or cancellations have made a trip impossible,  the U.S. Department of Transportation says you can get at least some of your money back.

"If your flight is canceled or diverted or experiences a lengthy delay 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 – and for any bag fee that you paid." DOT Air Travel Tips

Note: In most cases, you must file a claim to get these refunds. Check with the airline.

Watch message boards for updated information (another airline obligation is to keep you informed). Also, don't stray far from the gate area unless directed to another gate to catch a flight. Above all, be patient; yes, it's a mess, but it's no fun for the gate agents, either.

Airline Contracts of Carriage

An airline's 'contract of carriage' (sometimes called 'conditions of carriage') is the legal document posted to airline websites that spells out exactly what a carrier will and will not do for passengers. These documents can be hard to follow since many are packed with legalese and conditions.

For example, contracts of larger airlines frequently note that in some cases they will make hotel accommodations for passengers, but only "subject to availability" (American) or "if overnight accommodations are available at contracted facilities" (Delta) or "at its sole discretion" (Southwest). See what we mean?

Here are some links to airline contracts of carriage, followed by some tips that will make delays and cancellations a little easier.

Click the airline name for its contract of carriage:

Rick Seaney's special advice for delayed or canceled flights

International Travel

Travelers on international flights may be entitled to some kind of compensation, depending on the country and the airline. The European Union, for instance, requires airlines to provide food and hotel vouchers to delayed passengers in certain circumstances.

  • Learn more about the EU passenger rights here.

Check for further information on airline sites or on a country's official government site.

What to Do for Delays, Cancellations

Act fast. These days, many passengers are vying for just a few empty seats.

  • Get in line immediately: Go to the first available gate agent you see. If the line is already long, go to another (try getting into a VIP lounge where there won't be lines). The passenger who gets to the agent first gets first chance at any available seats.
  • Get on the phone, get on social media: Increase your chances of being heard and getting served.
  • Use your phone for research: Look up alternative flights, even on other airlines – it could save time with the agent, and saving time is what it's all about.
  • Don't be afraid to ask: And be polite when you say, "Is there any chance of getting a voucher for a hotel room or even some food?" If you're nice, you may get something but don't get your hopes up.

Before You Travel

Delays and cancellations are not just wintertime phenomena. Just ask anyone in the Midwest or the Dallas area; summertime thunder-and-lightning storms cancel plenty of flights! Before you head to the airport, be sure you pack:

  • Food: Snacks and sandwiches (why pay airport prices). As for beverages, remember no large amounts of liquids can go past security so bring an empty bottle from home to fill at a drinking fountain near the gate or buy a drink after you get through secruity.
  • Entertainment: Got movies, books, games? If you're traveling with kids, be sure you've got their needs covered, too.
  • Chargers: You don't want your phone to die, so be sure you have the charger on your person, and consider investing in a portable re-charger (we've seen them for under $30).

VIDEO: FareCompare has more tips for delayed travelers.

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