What to Do When Your Flight Is Canceled or Delayed—and the Rights You Have if It Happens

If your air travel plans are less than smooth, use these tips and strategies to get your trip back on track.


This past week, storms across the United States caused airlines to cancel thousands of flights and delay countless others right at the start of a busy summer travel season. Unfortunately, this isn’t a one-off occurrence: whether it be a storm, a mechanical issue, or lack of staff, there’s always a risk that a flight could be delayed or canceled. If you happen to find yourself stuck in transit with a flight that has been canceled or delayed by your airline, here’s what to do.

First, you have a right to compensation or being rebooked on a new flight

In 2022, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) launched a new Aviation Consumer Protection website to help travelers track down what kind of refunds or compensation their airline should provide when there is a cancellation or delay (which includes a table of compensations broken down by airline)

Airlines aren’t required to compensate passengers when flights are delayed or canceled due to problems deemed beyond the company’s control, like bad weather. They also aren’t required to provide a refund when the passenger initiates the cancellation or flight change.

But a refund is required by U.S. law when the airline cancels, delays, or alters a flight, or passengers are involuntarily bumped from a flight that is oversold or due to issues originating from the airline, such as operational or staffing problems.

Additionally, after the federal government began cracking down on airlines this year, all of the major U.S. airlines vowed to provide meal vouchers for delays of more than three hours and to provide transfers and hotel stays to passengers affected by an overnight cancellation. They have all also agreed to rebook travelers on an alternate flight at no added cost due to a delay or cancellation and most will also rebook on a partner airline.

How to get rebooked on a different flight

If you want to continue with your travel plans, you will need to get rebooked on a different flight (unless your flight is delayed, not canceled, and you have decided to stick with it). In this case:

Use your airline’s app to select a new flight

If you have downloaded your airline’s app and have your flight information linked to your account, you may not need to deal with an actual human in the event of a flight delay or cancellation. As soon as your airline knows your flight will be delayed or canceled, they will send you an update within their dedicated app. Whether it’s delayed or canceled, they should give you the option to rebook on a different flight directly within the app (if they haven’t automatically placed you on a different flight). In this case, it pays to act quickly—after all, you have a whole plane full of travelers in the same situation.

If your flight is simply delayed and you’re not at risk of missing a connection, you might opt to stick with your current itinerary. In this scenario, you don’t have to do anything but it’s helpful to know if your flight is at risk of further delays. To do this, look up where your plane is coming from and then use an app like FlightAware (which is linked directly with some airline apps, such as United) to check if it’s en route or not. Your new departure time is much more likely to get pushed back again if your plane isn’t on its way to your departure airport yet.

If that didn’t work, talk to a gate agent or—better yet—call customer service

If you aren’t able to rebook via the app on a flight that meets your needs, then it’s time for plan B: getting in touch with a gate agent or customer service. Often, calling a customer service agent can be quicker than speaking to someone in real life.

Try to remain calm and friendly

You can only imagine the amount of frustration fliers have when flights get canceled or delayed. Good ol’ fashioned friendliness can help make headway with a weary gate, airline, or customer service agent who isn’t having an easy day (week? year?). If you’re on the phone with an agent who just does not seem like they want to help, don’t hesitate to make an excuse for ending the call and try back for another person who maybe is more willing. Yes, we know that could mean another prolonged period of sitting through lounge music while on hold.

Research alternate flights with the same airline, partner airlines, even competitors

Before you hop on the phone or talk to a gate agent, look up flight alternatives with the airline you are booked on, partner airlines (especially for international flights), and even with competing carriers. If you know of a specific flight that has empty seats, it can be helpful to bring that knowledge to your conversation—even if it’s not on the airline you have a ticket with.

Don’t be shy to “go to a different carrier and say, ‘How can you get me to [my destination]?’” says former airline pilot and FlightAware spokesperson Kathleen Bangs. In some situations, even competing airlines with a mutual agreement to do so can allow you to transfer over a ticket. Use Google Flights to see all the options available to you.

Use your fliers’ rights knowledge as leverage

According to Willis Orlando, senior product operations specialist at flight-deal tracking service Going (formerly known as Scott’s Cheap Flights), “Knowing [your] rights kind of gives you priority in getting yourself rebooked.” He notes that when you approach the airline agent via phone or text message, “and you say, ‘I understand under law that I can ask for a refund and go home, but I prefer not to do that. I found this itinerary that I would like to be rebooked on’—they are highly incentivized to help you out. You’re bringing something to the table that the other customers are not. They very often will go the extra mile for you.”

Lean on your travel advisor, friends, and family members

“If you used a travel agent, that is someone who can advocate for you. You paid for this person’s services, and when things hit the fan, this is the time to take advantage of those services,” says Orlando.

You can also contact a company that specializes in urgent air travel assistance, like Cranky Concierge, which has a staff trained in this kind of research and rebooking, for a fee.

Another strategy is to provide your flight numbers and travel details to a trusted friend or family member who can help keep flight status watch for you and provide helpful info via text or even do some behind-the-scenes research and rebooking while you are up in the air. Adds Orlando, “It’s not a bad time to call on favors.”

Getting compensated during or after your travels

As mentioned above, if you decide not to continue with your travel itinerary, you are entitled to a full refund of the flight. But even if you do continue with your travel plans, you are entitled to compensation for the inconvenience.

Always ask for miles

If an airline rebooks you onto a different flight after a flight was canceled, it can (and should) at least offer you miles “for the inconvenience” if it doesn’t offer you other compensation, such as payment for meals or an overnight hotel stay, says Bangs. “I would just say to the airline, ‘What can we do to make this fair?’”

If you are not given anything in the moment, you can request compensation by filing a complaint (usually online) with the airline you had a ticket with.

File a complaint with the DOT

If the airline wasn’t cooperative in providing a required refund or requested assistance, file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation, which can be done online. It can help ensure you (finally) do get a response from the airline.

Whatever you do, be kind

Most importantly, don’t forget to (hopefully) enjoy wherever it is you are going and to be kind to all the people who are helping to get you there often under trying circumstances. (We see all of you, tired airport staff, pilots, flight attendants, air traffic control crew, and everyone else working to make our travel dreams come true.) Travel is and will always be such a privilege.

Michelle Baran is the senior travel news editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, pandemic coverage, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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