13 Things to Do Before, During, and After Your Flight Gets Canceled

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The first clue may be the look of panic in the gate attendant’s eyes. Or perhaps it’s the buzzing whispers reverberating through the assembled passengers. Then again, you could just look outside the airport window and see there’s no airplane parked on the tarmac. That’s when you realize you’re going nowhere. Thousands of flights are canceled every year for reasons that are big and small, like a hurricane making landfall or the pilot not arriving on time. Beating the odds of having your flight canceled starts before you even arrive at the airport, and recovering the expenses from a rescheduled trip may continue long after you return home. With that in mind, here are 13 tips for what to do before, during, and after you receive the dreaded news that your flight has been canceled. 

1. Book wisely.

Ideally, you should book an airline that has more than one flight a day, in case of any trouble. Of course, many bargain airlines only have a single flight per day to certain destinations, so you may wind up balancing the risk against the price. Morning flights may also be a safer choice. Planes scheduled to depart in the morning from non-hub airports often arrive the night before, explains Chris Lopinto of ExpertFlyer, so you can check if your plane is ready to go at a site like FlightAware.

If you search an airline’s site, you can usually find the flight’s on-time percentage. However, that won’t always account for weather trouble and other potential problems. Note that some flights have a lower reliability score because of the flight time and typical weather conditions along the route.

When traveling internationally, you may have fewer choices if your destination is only serviced by smaller regional airlines with a slim number of flight options. Larger airlines usually have a better ability to get you where you’re going on time.

2. Give yourself extra time.

If you can, time your flight to arrive an extra day in advance, particularly if you’re participating in a tour, advises Jacquie Whitt of Adios Adventure Travel, which arranges trips to South America. Whitt has noticed more canceled flights recently than in past years. 

3. Opt for one carrier.

Choosing a flight with multiple legs? It may be tempting to combine the cheapest fares from different carriers, but you’ll be better protected if you stick with one company in case of trouble on any leg of the journey.

4. Consider travel insurance.

Does that travel insurance checkbox that crops up when you’re purchasing plane tickets give you pause? Of course, the need for trip insurance depends on the cost and reliability of your adventure. A half-hour commuter flight probably doesn’t demand extra coverage. However, it might be smart to snag insurance for a trek halfway around the world that will cost you hundreds or thousands of dollars if you don’t show up to the hotel on time.

Recently, Whitt was working with a couple flying from New York City to Machu Picchu. Their flight to Lima, Peru, was canceled and rescheduled for the next day. The two ended up buying brand-new tickets on another airline, but were able to recover some of their unplanned expenses with comprehensive flight insurance. She recommends finding travel insurance that covers 100 percent of the cost of activities or events missed due to delayed or canceled flights.

5. Double check your credit cards.

Still hesitant to take the plunge on travel insurance? You may want to check if any of your credit cards offer travel reimbursement, recommends Suzanne Wolko of PhilaTravelGirl. In the case of a valid delay (read the fine print beforehand and keep receipts), you may be able to get reimbursed for at least some unexpected costs.

6. Watch the weather.

Checking the weather before a flight may seem like an obvious suggestion, but it never hurts to also look at the conditions in your final destination, as well as everywhere in between. 

7. Get alerts and apps.

Signing up for text alerts may save you a trip to the airport and, in the case of a cancelation, give you an early tip-off to search for an alternative flight. Some airline apps make it easier to rebook a flight in case of an early cancelation.

8. Don’t panic.

Seriously, rage or tears will probably work against you. Instead, get in line to speak with a gate attendant or customer service representative and simultaneously call the airline to try and rebook the flight. Keep your flight number and any frequent flyer information handy. Focus on whichever person can help you first. For passengers with elite status, some experts recommend working with the company representative at the airline lounge. Theoretically, fewer people will be haranguing those employees than the gate agents. Some also say lounge reps are more apt to help high-priority customers. However, the success of this approach seems to vary greatly among airlines and lounges. “If you remain calm and polite, but firm, when requesting to be put on the next flight out, chances are you’ll get what you want,” says Hans Desjarlais from FlightList. “If you get emotional and make a scene, you’ll not only make a fool of yourself, but also upset the person trying to help you.” Sofie Couwenbergh of Wonderful Wanderings says she was able to get a refund on a non-refundable ticket to Iceland just by being nice. 

9. Understand your rights and options.

You’re probably wondering whether the airline must book you on the next flight out, even if it’s on another carrier. In the past, Rule 240 required booking reciprocity between carriers. However, companies typically charge each other the pricey walk-up rate for last-minute tickets, which makes the practice unpopular in the industry. Deregulation did away with Rule 240. Now, the customer expectation for reciprocity is just a holdover misconception.

If you’re booked on a domestic flight in the United States, the airline is not required to compensate you for delayed or canceled trips, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. For international flights, you may be able to receive a reimbursement for expenses resulting from a canceled flight under Article 19 of the Montreal Convention. You must file a claim with the airline, but if that doesn’t work, you can take the issue to small claims court.

Also consider the reason for the cancelation. If the flight was canceled for a reason out of the airline’s control, such as a thunderstorm, it’s likely that no airline is flying to the destination and no amount of shrieking will get you on a plane. If the flight was canceled for a reason within the company’s control (such as mechanical error), they are more likely to help with rebooking (even on another airline), offering food vouchers, and, if necessary, paying for a hotel stay. Keep in mind that the amount any airline will help varies on the company and situation. When you’re attempting to get rebooked onto a competing carrier’s flight, your chances will be improved if you’ve already done the research for the airline agent. If the airline doesn’t offer you vouchers for food and a hotel, don’t be ashamed to politely ask (the worst they can say is no). 

In Europe, passengers must be given a suitable alternative flight on the same or next day, or be booked onto another airline’s flight at no extra cost. However, if one of those options isn’t provided and you must find a new flight yourself, you may be entitled to a refund plus compensation for the new ticket. You may even qualify for some cash just for being a few hours late. Of course, there are a lot of potential variables that can impact that sweet deal, so read the fine print carefully.

10. Read the contract of carriage.

Carefully read the contract of carriage clause on your ticket. Most of these agreements are based on the idea that you want to get on the next available flight to your destination. That may mean switching to a higher class (at no extra charge) or dropping to lower one (with a refund). 

11. Think about a refund.

Many airlines allow passengers to get a refund on their flight with no penalty. Granted, booking an alternative last-minute flight is rarely cheap, but if you have to get to a wedding or business meeting on time, there may be no other option. On a multi-leg journey when one portion is nixed? Some companies offer a free flight back to your origin airport, if desired. When you decide to get a refund on your flight, don’t forget that your extra fees (like baggage charges) are also refundable. Some airlines might not remember to return everything.

12. Look for a lounge.

Stuck in the airport for an unexpected amount of time? If you have airport lounge access, you may want to camp out in the corner with a free power outlet before everyone else plugs in their laptop or phone. (Don’t hog it, though.) Don’t have elite status? Lopinto recommends checking out LoungeBuddy, which enables you to pay for access to airport lounges. Prices start at $25, but the fee may be money well spent if you’re going to be in the airport for more than a few hours. 

13. Get vouchers and keep receipts.

If you’re on a flight that gets canceled because of the airline’s fault, and you must stay overnight, expect the carrier’s customer service to supply you with hotel and food vouchers. You may also be able to recover money spent on taxis and other incidentals. Are you forfeiting the cost of a hotel stay or guided tour because of a canceled flight? Make sure to keep the receipts and be prepared to file for reimbursement within 30 days. Travelers who have trip insurance will also need to have organized receipts to file a claim.

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