If Your Flight Just Got Delayed or Canceled, Here's What to Do Next

Bad weather and staffing shortages have grounded thousands of flights over the past few weeks. Here's how to handle it if it happens to you.

If you traveled over the holidays, you probably saw a lot of canceled or delayed flights on the departure and arrival boards—even if you got lucky and weren't impacted. More than 20,000 flights were canceled, due to weather and staffing shortages.

"Airlines have always run on thin margins with tight turnarounds, and the pandemic has only made that worse," says travel expert Susan Moynihan of The Honeymoonist/Largay Travel. Airlines reportedly laid off some 90,000 positions in 2020, and they are still short-staffed a year later, for all of the reasons that we know. So there is even less room to rebound for unfortunate issues in the form of weather, mechanical issues, quarantining staff, or anything else."

But there are things you can do to minimize the impact of a flight delay or cancellation—and make getting through it a whole lot easier. Check out our best tips for ensuring you get where you need to go—and get help faster if you need it.

Prevent problems before your trip

Give yourself some flexibility

If you're traveling for an event with specific timing, like a wedding or a cruise, you might want to consider choosing a flight that's a day or two before your "have-to-be-there" moment. "You need to factor in delays when planning travel," Moynihan says. "I always advise padding in extra time—say, arrive a day early before a cruise—and now I advise padding in more."

Spring for the travel insurance

Even if you're the type of person who's never purchased travel insurance before, it's potentially more important now than ever. "Most airlines no longer have interline agreements," says travel expert Bobby Laurie. "You cannot expect them to place you on another airline to get you to your destination."

Essentially, a lot of the benefits that travelers have come to depend on over the years no longer hold up. Laurie says that in the case of a weather emergency, airlines are not required to provide customers with compensation or a hotel room.

"For reimbursement, your best bet is travel insurance," Moynihan says. "Companies like TravelEx and Allianz will offer reimbursement for expenses incurred by delays and missed connections."

Oftentimes, travel insurance is a quick add-on when purchasing your flight. While it's sometimes a bit more expensive if you're booking directly on the airline's website, it can be cheaper on discount sites such as Priceline, Orbitz, or Kayak. Spending extra may seem like an unnecessary splurge at the time, but you'll be patting yourself on the back if you find yourself standing in an airport with a canceled flight.

What to do when your flight is postponed or canceled

Try a few different strategies to rebook

When you have hundreds of people trying to rebook simultaneously, it pays to think outside the airline counter. "Call your travel agent, call the airline, go on the app—all while standing in line at the ticket counter," Moynihan says. "That way, whoever you reach first can get started and give you an edge on everyone else in line."

Laurie has a trick for avoiding the long lines at the service counters. "Avoid the lines at the airport customer service counters and tweet the airline," he says. "All airlines have dedicated customer support representatives available via Twitter."

According to Laurie, tweeting at the airline will result in a response asking for a direct message. When you send the message, make sure you include your flight number and a brief description of the incident occurring with your flight. This will typically result in them rebooking your flight—with no in-line wait time.

Document everything

"If you have insurance and run into trouble, document everything so it's easier to file the claim," Moynihan says. "I take photos of everything with my smartphone, from receipts to departure boards showing Canceled status." Take notes (including the names) of any customer service reps you speak to, including the time and date.

Ask for a hotel or food voucher

If it's a mechanical or staffing issue causing the delay, you may be able to score vouchers for free meals or a hotel room, rather than camping out on a chair overnight. There's no guarantee you'll get one for a weather-related delay, but it's always worth asking.

And don't forget to check your credit card for any passenger protection benefits—you might be able to score a hotel room or at least a taxi home for free.

Look for ways to make your stay more comfortable

If you know it's going to be a while, you might want to spring for some time in an airport lounge, which usually boasts more comfortable seating, free snacks and drinks, and a more private bathroom. If you have elite status with an airline or certain high-end credit cards, you might even have complimentary or discounted entry into the lounge, but if not, you can likely pay less than $100 per person for a much nicer waiting experience.

Don't forget your bags

Don't forget to grab your checked bags—even if you'll be traveling out the next day, Laurie says. "If you paid to check your bags and your flight is canceled, you may actually be due a refund," Laurie says. "Especially if you end up not going anywhere."

Try for a refund

Federal law requires airlines to provide refunds if flights are canceled or "significantly delayed." But since the law doesn't set down exactly what a "significant delay" means, every airline has its own interpretation. (It's all in those terms and conditions!)

You can say those magic words, "This new flight time does not work for me," and you should get a refund.

However, that doesn't mean it goes as smoothly as it should. "Most airlines are offering vouchers rather than cash refunds for canceled flights, and only when they cancel the flight," Moynihan says. "Complaints about lack of refunds are up some 400 percent over the last year."

But just because the airline doesn't want to provide you with a cash refund, doesn't mean that you have to settle for a voucher. "If you would like a refund instead of a voucher, follow up after the fact, and be persistent," Moynihan says.

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