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9 best moves when your flight is canceled

What do airlines owe you when they cancel your flight? Nothing. But there are ways to get better treatment.

By MSN Money Partner Jan 13, 2014 3:51PM

This post comes from Marilyn Lewis at partner site Money Talks News.

Money Talks News on MSN MoneyPost updated Feb. 14, 2013, at 12:26 p.m ET.

Air travel is once again back in the headlines as another massive winter storm caused nearly 16,000 flight cancellations in the South and on the East Coast this week. 

It makes you wonder: What exactly do airlines owe travelers when they cancel a flight?

You're not going to like the answer. In a word: Nothing. Zip. But they will make an effort to book you on the next available flight at no extra cost. That's the case if you are stranded midway through your trip or are just about to embark.

The federal site says:

If your flight is canceled, most airlines will rebook you on the earliest flight possible to your destination, at no additional charge. If you're able to find a flight on another airline, ask the first airline to endorse your ticket to the new carrier. This could save you a fare increase, but there is no rule requiring them to do this.

Airlines do have incentive to help you. Says USA Today:

Your airline ticket represents a contract between you and the airline; therefore, standard contract rules apply, leaving airlines open to a potential lawsuit if they don't make reasonable efforts to fulfill their side of the bargain. For that reason -- and to keep customers happy -- most airlines will try to rebook you as soon as possible, as space and weather permit.

However, some federal rules do apply. The U.S. Department of Transportation explains, "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 nonrefundable tickets -- and for any bag fee that you paid."

Airline policies

Each airline has a policy on cancellations. ABC News offers links to cancellation policies for larger airlines, including those of American Airlines, JetBlue, United, US Airways and Spirit.

When the weather is really bad, airlines often offer passengers more options. Says ABC News:

In the case of bad weather, airlines issue flexible policies that allow travelers to take their trips at a later date. These policies also waive change fees, even on the lowest-priced, most restrictive tickets.

Delta, for example, promised to refund the cost of tickets for canceled flights during an earlier winter storm. It also offered passengers whose flights weren't canceled a free, one-time ticket change if they were traveling to one of the East Coast destinations most affected by that storm.

747 plane landed, Miami airport, Florida © Juan Silva, Photographer

The days of freebies may be over

If your flight is canceled due to weather, you can ask for meal and hotel vouchers but don't get your hopes up.

Travelers' experiences vary. Money Talks News editor Karen Datko said she was on a flight to Philadelphia in 2012 that was forced to land in Pittsburgh instead, because of thunderstorms that were expected to last through the night. The airline provided hotel vouchers to many stranded travelers on the flight, and hired a bus to drive others to Philly at no extra cost.

But Frank Zurline, owner of Bellingham Travel & Cruise in Bellingham, Wash., said the days when airlines shelled out such goodies are pretty much over. "Believe me, when they start charging you for everything, it's a nickel-and-dime industry," he said in an interview.

Airlines may dole out food and hotel vouchers at their discretion, but that's usually when the carrier is at fault, not for cancellations due to weather. Travel expert Mark Murphy with Travel Alliance told us:

If it's weather they don't have to pay you for your hotel or anything else. On the other hand, if it's a mechanical or another issue, there may be more flexibility for you as a consumer to negotiate.
One exception: valued customers

There's an exception: If you're a valued frequent traveler, you're likely to get better treatment. That happened last year when Murphy faced a flight cancellation on a business trip.

His carrier, US Airways, offered a seat on its next available flight to his destination. But it was the following day, too late to make his meeting. He says he approached airline representatives pleasantly and pointed out that he'd flown with the airline 66 times that year. Could they please help him out? They found him a seat on another airline that same day.

To be fair, he says, feeding and lodging tens of thousands of stranded travelers would have been prohibitively expensive for airlines.

9 tips for coping with cancellations

You can take steps to reduce the inconvenience and stress of flight cancellations.

  • Buy tickets from a travel agent. You'll pay a small fee, perhaps $20 or $30. But a good agent watches your itinerary and, if your connection is canceled, re-books you on another flight while you're in the air, Murphy says. You can waltz off the plane and onto your next flight while your fellow passengers scramble to find new accommodations.
  • Consider trip insurance. But be realistic about the coverage. For example, American Airlines says on its website:
Trip cancellation coverage will only refund prepaid, nonrefundable payments if you have to cancel for an unexpected covered reason. Covered reasons may include sudden medical emergencies, death of a family member or traveling companion, certain terrorist acts, being called for jury duty, or bad weather that completely shuts down your common carrier.
  • Get early warnings. Download your airline's app onto your phone and sign up for flight alerts. Be sure the airline has your phone number and email address. Keep an eye on Flight Aware while traveling, to learn immediately if your flight's been grounded. The sooner you learn of trouble, the faster you can act.
  • Get re-booked. Line up at the customer service counter and, at the same time, call the airline's toll-free number. Try getting re-booked to fly out on your current airline or another. If you find a flight on another airline, ask your first carrier to endorse your ticket to the new airline.
  • Stay open to alternatives. When re-booking, try other airports or other cities near your destination. Try Amtrak, buses and even car rentals. (Before renting a car, ask about drop fees and mileage charges for one-way trips.)
  • Mind your P's and Q's. When asking overwhelmed airline personnel for help, remember that they didn't cause the problem. Try to be gracious, if for no other reason than it'll get you further.
  • Buy a one-day upgrade. If you're stuck in an airport and you don't belong to your airline's frequent-flier club, purchase a day pass for about $50. You get entry to a comfortable lounge and use of the loyalty program's hotline, advises The Associated Press. The main benefit, though, is that members get better, quicker access to help from airline personnel in the lounge.
  • Travel in Europe. European Union laws are more generous than those in the U.S., says USA Today. Your airline must provide meals and "a hotel stay when the cancellation results in an overnight layover and a full reimbursement when the cancellation delays the passenger for five hours or more."
  • Crucial last words. Don't leave home with a maxed-out credit card.

Do you have a flight cancellation story or tips to share?

More on Money Talks News:

Jan 13, 2014 7:53PM
If they are allowed to charge you a fee if you change your flight, then they should be required to pay you the same fee if they change your flight.
Jan 13, 2014 7:43PM
Wait a minute. You charge me up to $125 to make any changes to my itinerary. If YOU change my itinerary you need to pay me up to $125!

Jan 13, 2014 7:58PM

When your flight gets cancelled (and it will) DO NOT yell at the people working the ticket counter. It is not their fault, they did not cancel your flight and probably wish you gone as badly as you wish that you were gone.

And yes, frequent flyers will get the best flights out, but nice people will get the almost as good.

Jan 13, 2014 7:34PM

I mailed the following to the CEO and the President of American Airlines and it's pretty self explanatory and we do not yet know what we being charged for our round trip to Chicago and in reading your article we could actually lose our entire $6,000 round trip airfare.

January 9, 2014


Dear Mr. Parker,

My 50th wedding anniversary is this Friday, January 10th.  This morning I was to wake up in Honolulu but instead am back home in St. Louis.   Yesterday, we got up at 2:30 a.m., drove to my friends house and she dropped us off at the airport at 6 a.m. for an 8:20 a.m. flight to Chicago to connect with a flight to Honolulu.  We were originally supposed to leave on Monday, January 6th, but that got cancelled on Sunday so we got everything reschedule, hotels, flights to the Big Island, etc.

Flight 1380 to ORD was first delayed 10-20 minutes and then the delay kept getting longer and longer till we could tell we would not make our connecting flight to Hawaii.  The gate agent spent 45 minutes rerouting one customer then another 45 minutes rerouting 2 ladies that were not even booked on our flight.  She finally made a general announcement that most customers had been rebooked and we should go to the red phones to see how we had been rebooked.  When I called there were no rebooking available for the flight to Honolulu because we might make it yet.

Finally, this agent told all 10 customers booked on that flight that they might yet make the flight and they should go to Chicago where there were more options available than at STL and placed all 10 customers on flight 1380.  At no time were we offered any other option.

When we got to Chicago we were told our Honolulu flight had left 2 hours before, therefore it was gone before we left St. Louis.  The agent in St. Louis had to know this wouldn’t you say.  I called our travel agent and she told me she could see we were in the air and the Honolulu flight had left on time and she called customer care to rebook while we were in the air and they would not talk to her, period.  They told her an agent would help us when we got to Chicago.  That is not true.  Not one agent would help us, they insisted that we go to the rebooking phones only.  Our options there were:

1)      We could stay at O’Hare and they could get us on the Saturday flight.  Tell me, sir, would your wife like to spend her 50th wedding anniversary in the airport for 3 days?

2)      We could fly to Vegas and spend the night and fly out Coach on Thursday via Hawaiian Airline.  We had purchased 1st class tickets for about $6,000 or so and my husband is a big man and has leg cramps when cramped up so that was not a viable option either.

3)      We could fly standby. ….Really

4)      We asked if they would fly us back to STL and they said sure…at our cost.


We chose that because we felt we had no other choice and we cancelled our entire trip to Hawaii.  It looks like this cost us about $1400 for our round trip to Chicago.  Is this really how your customers are treated?  Would you have been treated in that manner?


It is my opinion that the gate agent in St. Louis should be fired.  All she had to say was “we are sorry , but you have missed your connecting flight and let me help you rebook for another day”.  Instead she cost us a round trip fare to Chicago.  At no point were any of the gate agents helpful or acted like they cared anything about the customer.


The only one who seemed to care were the baggage handlers who managed to pull our bag and get it back to St. Louis on our return flight.


I do hope that you will decide to address this situation and I have enclosed copies of our Boarding passes.






Cc:  Scott Kirby


Jan 13, 2014 8:22PM
When I buy a ticket I expect to get 100% of a seat.  I was recently on two 5.5 hour flights where I was squeezed out by the large persons seated on the side of me. I wish the airline would reimburse me for the part of my seat I couldn't use.
Jan 13, 2014 7:03PM
I just  gvae up  flying all together.   No  need to  do  it for work anymore  so  why stress  myself anymore  when   my  RV  gets  me there  just fine?
Jan 13, 2014 7:34PM
if things don't go well at the airport  the worst thing to do is get IRATE  with the staff . you will find yourself in  black hole . I always speak softly firmly and express my concerns  also offering ideas $ it usually works. if the airport is shut down due to weather either in the vicinity or at your destination your just stuck plain and simple .it is for your own safety as well as the crews.   would you rather crash on time or  arrive late?
Jan 13, 2014 7:13PM

Dec  2012 , I was booked on United Air lines with confirmed reservations, the flight was over booked, counter staff made announcement that who gives up the seats voluntarily, will be awarded $ 400 gift voucher in addition to rebooking the same ticket on next day . 4-6 people got benefits of voluntary scheme.


Then came my turn, I was not ready for re booking and insisted that I have confirmed reservations without seat numbers, and asked for rebooking by any route or any flight , it was not possible as my flight was the last one at night 11:40 to leave airport, there was no option until next morning.


I was rebooked free of cost on another flight next morning 6:00 am, got hotel voucher for $ 200, $ 80 food voucher to spend at Air port and $ 941 per passenger total $1882 cashier check from United, which I deposited in to my bank account.


It is rule, when Air line is at fault. they will be required to reimburse you 4 times the charge they have      received from you for that section of Air ticket. $ 941 was the 4 times of $ 235.25 which I paid at the time of booking.

Jan 13, 2014 7:30PM
Booked a flight to Cozomel  for Oct. 26, 2005. Hurrican Wilma destroyed a lot of the island a couple of days prior to our flight and shut down power including to the airport. No flights in. Unfortunately I booked with Mexican Airlines and they are not subject to US laws. It took me one full year in court to get a refund. Traveling companions booked on Continental and were refunded if full immediately. Lesson: be careful when booking with foreign airlines.
Jan 13, 2014 7:18PM
And than airlines wonder why people are sick of them and finding other travel alternatives..

Jan 13, 2014 7:32PM
Jan 13, 2014 9:27PM
What a royal pain. This is why I have not been on an airplane since 2007, and I don't care if I never get on one again. I used to travel all over the world. Now it's "been there, done that."
Jan 13, 2014 10:31PM

About 10 years ago (2003), my family and I were flying on America West with a flight leaving at midnight out of Las Vegas. The flight was somehow overbooked by 12-13 passengers, so they were desperate to get people to reschedule for the next day. They offered each passenger one free round-trip ticket in the Continental US (up to $400) as well as a hotel stay and 2 free meals. They couldn't get enough people, so they upped it to 2 tickets ($400 each) and hotel stay, and 2 meals.

My family (of 5) took them up on the offer. We stayed at a decent hotel, had a typical Vegas 1000-calorie breakfast, then squeezed in another enormous lunch 2-3 hours later (to catch the flight). We then had 2 family vacations to Florida and California with all airfare paid :)

Now, I just do the sign-up for credit card for air miles game. There were some awesome deals for those back in summer 2012 (AMEX/BritishAirways/etc). Those are long gone as well.

Jan 13, 2014 9:19PM
Airlines are run my ruthless corporate jerks and employees are underpaid and overstressed. 
The results are evident.

Jan 13, 2014 10:52PM

When you're on a flight, no 2 people on the plane paid the same amount for the flight.  I'd like to see those who paid the most get out of the airport first, not counting first class fares.  Also on the top of the list would be pleasant passengers flying for a family emergency.  Last on my list would be the better-than-you-self-important jerks who overstuff the overheads and don't follow the cell-phone rules. We'd see how much better than us they are after 2 days of no sleep or showers.  We'd find them to be quite ordinary. 

Jan 14, 2014 2:51PM

The ability to tell a paying customer "go f*^%k yourself" and fear little, if any retribution.

Jan 14, 2014 1:20AM
Hey in my mind, no service means no money. It's like saying oh btw...we cancelled on you, would you happen to have more money to give us? No? hmm we did our part of the bargin and sold you the ticket. Does that sound fair? Nope. I didn't think so.
Jan 13, 2014 9:39PM
This is why I do NOT fly during the winter time. If I have to be somewhere that there are snow, I drive there. Saves me the BS with the airlines.
Jan 13, 2014 11:44PM
The airlines owe you nothing if it's Mother Nature causing problems. That's out of their control.

Do you sue General Motors because the roads are icy and snowy, which somehow becomes their fault because you can't drive your Chevy?
Feb 16, 2014 8:28PM
2 weeks ago I was trying to fly out of Ft Lauderdale to Atlanta.  Flight was cancelled so I rebooked a flight to Jacksonville.  That flight was cancelled.  I asked the ticket agent how close you can get me to Jacksonville?  She was able to get me a flight to Tampa & then rented a car & drove to Jacksonville.  She could not have been more accommodating & very nice. 
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