Most people who travel frequently have been in this situation from time to time: You plan out your entire trip down to the most minute details, and then something goes awry during your trip. When your flight is delayed, cancelled or rerouted, you might be wondering if you’re entitled to compensation to offset the unplanned changes to your schedule.
As with many situations in the financial world, the answer is “maybe.” Check out the following specs about what might warrant compensation, and how to go about requesting money when you can. The information in this article covers the rules for flights in the United States – other countries maintain separate rules for their flights.
What the Rules Say
The United States Department of Transportation maintains a “Fly Rights” document that outlines which regulations govern passenger rights. First and foremost, the document busts one common myth:
Contrary to popular belief, for domestic itineraries, airlines are not required to compensate passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled.
In other words, your standard flight delays and cancellations will not allow you to collect any monetary “damages” to compensate you for the inconvenience. Typically, airlines will rebook you on the next possible flight when your flight is cancelled, but they won’t give you any money back.
Situations When You Can Compensated
However, there are some situations when you can get compensated, as follows:
- You are “bumped” from a flight. Often, you’ll hear an announcement in the boarding area saying that the airline is looking for volunteers who will accept a voucher to switch to a later flight. This is called a “voluntary” bump. However, if you are involuntarily bumped from a flight––which means you're told there isn't a seat for you and you'll have to rebook even though you have a ticket––you could be entitled to compensation in the form of a check or cash, with the amount depending on the ticket price and the delay length. You’ll get no compensation if the airline can get you to your destination within an hour of your originally scheduled arrival time. If you do get the monetary compensation, you can keep your original ticket and use it for another flight. Keep in mind that “airlines may offer free tickets or dollar-amount vouchers for future flights in place of a check for denied boarding compensation. However, if you are bumped involuntarily you have the right to insist on a check if that is your preference,” the DOT states.
- Lost, damaged or delayed luggage. In cases when you make it to your destination but your luggage doesn’t, you could be entitled to compensation in certain circumstances. “On domestic trips, the airline can invoke a liability ceiling that is regulated by DOT and that is adjusted for inflation every two years. That limit is currently $3,500 per passenger,” the DOT says. If you’re afraid your luggage may be lost or damaged and its contents are worth more than that limitation, you may want to purchase “excess valuation” coverage before your flight, which can increase the amount that the airline would pay you if the bags do end up missing; however, not all airlines will offer this feature.
The above situations are the ones that the airlines are legally bound to, but there can be other circumstances that may warrant an airline to pay you for your troubles, which your airline will likely determine on a case-by-case basis. For example, if your seats were broken, if a flight attendant spilled hot coffee on you, if the air conditioning was broken and the flight was inordinately hot, etc. – then you might consider approaching the airline about potential compensation. However, know that in these situations, when the law isn’t necessarily on your side, you may end up with a voucher for the airline instead of actual cash.
How to File Your Request
Typically, if you’ve encountered a situation like those described above, you’ll still be at the airport when you’re in the midst of being inconvenienced. If that’s the case, you’ll want to talk to a customer service agent for the airline that was involved in your issue. If you’ve already left the airport, you’ll have to reach out to the airline using either its online contact information, its toll-free number or its social media team.
Although you’re likely to be frustrated, exhausted or maybe even devastated when you’re in a negative travel situation, your best bet is to stay calm and rational when making your claim for compensation. Throwing a fit or screaming is not likely to get you any points with the airline staff, and you want the process to move smoothly and quickly.