What to know when travel goes bad: Flight delays, lost luggage, airline reimbursements

You’ll likely receive a refund if the airline cancels your flight. 


James Martin/CNET

Air travel is surging again, and along with it, the usual travel pain points: lost luggage, flight delays and cancellations. Luggage that’s delayed for days can threaten to ruin your vacation and rack up big costs as you rush to replace your toothbrush and underwear. And hours-long delays can make nerves fray and tempers flare. The same goes for broken bathrooms, entertainment systems that never start and a whole host of travel headaches. But how much hassle do you have to simply put up with, and are there times when you can be paid for airline headaches that made you miss a flight or go home without your bags?

The answer can be complicated. While airlines typically can’t and won’t cater to every minor upset, sometimes they will compensate you for bigger ticket items, like missing bags or very long delays. And even if you’re not automatically entitled to refunds or credits, you can always file a case with the airline if you think travel credit or additional frequent flier miles are called for. 

There’s no “one-size-fits-all” policy for airlines when it comes to travel troubles (scroll to the end for the latest from popular airlines). But there are some similarities to help you know what you can expect if an airline cancels your flight or your luggage is lost. And you’ll need to know your rights if delays stretch on (for both domestic and international flights). Plus, there’s an update on how new vaccine and cancellation policies can impact your flight. But rest assured, there are a few ways to claim vouchers, refunds and other accommodations for luggage or flight troubles. Here’s what you need to know about travel tickets, overbooked flights, lost luggage and how exactly to make a claim. 

When am I entitled to a travel refund from my airline?

In the US, you’ll typically have more luck receiving a refund on your ticket price if:

  • The airline cancels your flight.
  • There’s a “significant delay,” according to the Department of Transportation (it isn’t clear how long that would be).
  • You’re involuntarily moved to a lower service class from the one that you paid for, like being moved from your First Class booking to an economy seat.
  • You can’t use a service you paid for, like a seat upgrade you didn’t get, or if you paid $50 to use in-air Wi-Fi, but it’s broken.

Your checked bag fees are also refundable if the flight is canceled. But if you pay for checked bags that you don’t end up checking, you might wind up eating the cost.

When will the airline have to pay me back?

If the airline owes you a refund, it must pay you within seven business days if you paid by credit card and 20 business days if you paid by check or cash, according to the DOT. If you booked your flight with a travel agency, they’d issue the refund instead of the airline. 

Will the airline refund my money if I need to cancel my flight?

It depends. The DOT’s “24-hour rule” requires airlines to hold a flight reservation for 24 hours without making you pay. If you change your mind after you’ve paid, the airline must give you a full refund. The catch is that you only have 24 hours after buying a flight to cancel it. And if you book a flight that departs in less than a week, the 24-hour rule won’t apply to your ticket.

Sometimes, airlines are flexible. Take United Airlines, for example — you may be able to change your flight for free (or a lower fee) with a specific type of ticket and destination. But here’s the catch: If you bought a Basic Economy ticket on or after May 1, 2021, your flight isn’t covered under the no-fee policy unless you choose a same-day standby option. But oftentimes, you can expect to pay a fee to change flights and you may have to cover the difference in the new ticket price. It all depends on the airline’s policies for your ticket type.

You can often use the airline’s app or website, like Southwest Airlines, to initiate a refund for a delayed or canceled flight. 

Will airlines reimburse me for flight delays, cancellations or ‘acts of God’?

They can, but they’re not required to. The DOT says that even if you miss a connecting flight the airline is not required to cover your prepaid trip expenses — such as a hotel room or cruise. However, airlines may cover your hotel stay and free meals through gift certificates for your inconvenience, but there’s no federal law mandating either.

But suppose the airline rebooks you on a new flight that doesn’t work for you. In that case, the airline may be able to offer you a flight from a different airport from the same airline. You’ll get faster service than calling if you rebook online, through your airline’s app or using a kiosk at the airport.

Many airlines will book you on the next flight with available seats if there’s a flight delay. (For example, here’s American Airlines’ policy.) If no flight is available by 11:59 p.m. local time your airline may arrange an overnight stay only if it’s caused by the airline (like a maintenance issue with your plane). 

If the flight delay is due to weather or an “act of God” (a real classification like floods, hurricanes or natural disasters that are out of the airline’s control), you’ll be responsible for your hotel accommodations. But even if you’re not entitled to a reimbursement or perk of any sort, it doesn’t hurt to request it. Ask nicely and treat the airline customer service agent respectfully and you may get what you want.

covid-airport

Flights can be delayed due to “acts of God,” such as hurricanes or flooding. 


Ty Pendlebury/CNET

How can I get money from being bumped from a full flight? 

One big inconvenience for passengers is to be involuntarily bumped from a flight. In a case like this, the airline often oversells the flight and can choose which customers cannot board. When this happens, the airline will explain how it determines who won’t board (late arrivals to the airport can be the first to go). It happens all the time and might not seem too bad when you’re getting paid for the inconvenience. Usually, you’ll get compensated and the airline must also cover additional costs, such as your checked baggage. And no matter the change, you’ll get a flight credit or trip voucher (there’s a big difference between the two) to rebook your flight. 

But there’s a catch to get the money. You’ll need to be checked in by your airline’s deadline — the time can vary, but typically it’s one hour before departure. You also must have a confirmed reservation — so if the airline reaches out via email to confirm your flight and you don’t, you may not be able to get the money if you’re involuntarily bumped. There are specific rules for international flights and you also won’t receive these benefits if the airline removes you from the flight for health, safety or unruly behavior.  

How much will the airline pay me if my flight is overbooked? 

The amount that an airline can pay you for an overbooked flight depends on a few factors. The DOT says that airlines can cap the maximum amount at $775 for any domestic or international flights from the US with a delay that’s one to two hours. Usually, the amount is twice as much as a one-way ticket. You may be lucky enough to get more depending on your airline. If you have over two hours’ wait for a rebooked flight, you may get up to 400% of the value of your one-way ticket for a rebooked flight. But the airline can cap the maximum amount at $1,550. 

If you’re rebooked for a flight and your wait is less than an hour the airline doesn’t have to pay you, but you can always ask for miles or a credit for the inconvenience. It’s best to check with your airline to see how much they’ll offer you. The good news is that you’re guaranteed compensation if you wait at least an hour. The question for the airline is, “How much?” 

Can I get a refund if I’m too sick to fly?

It’s a big question, considering that COVID-19 will continue to spread for some time. You may be able to send a doctor’s note (more below) or proof of a positive COVID-19 test to change your flight without losing money. The same rules still apply: You can change your flight without a change fee, as long as it’s within a specific time period (this may depend on the airline and your ticket type). Or, you can request a travel voucher to book a new flight at a later date. Keep in mind that some vouchers have blackout dates where they cannot be used — this is usually for holidays. Remember to read the policy and understand any exceptions before agreeing to a voucher instead of a refund.

Some airlines aren’t budging on their cancellation policies — JetBlue is one of them. Its nonrefundable ticket policy doesn’t make exceptions to the rules. Nonrefundable tickets are indeed nonrefundable, even during the pandemic. You may be able to cancel your flight and leave the ticket as “Open” to book travel at a later date. The ticket will be available for one year. But you’ll have more flexibility as a Mosaic member or with a refundable ticket.

What if I have a doctor’s note that I can’t fly? 

Sometimes, having a doctor vouch for your illness can help avoid paying extra fees or losing out on money. Before you submit a doctor’s note to an airline, check the policy to see if there are any exceptions to the rules if you’re sick. Ask your doctor to provide as much information as possible to back up your medical condition. 

In the case of COVID-19, airlines have the right to deny boarding if you test positive. You may be able to change or cancel your flight, and fees may be waived. But you may have to cover the difference in the ticket price for the new departure date or destination. 

Don’t wait to get in touch with the airline. It may be less than accommodating if your flight is within the next day or two. Keep in mind that the airline may not waive your fees or give you a credit, depending on its policy.


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Can airlines charge me for not showing up?

Again, different airlines have different rules. For example, Delta Airlines updated its no-show policy for customers that don’t notify their travel agent or Delta. You’ll lose your ticket (and its value) if you don’t change or cancel your flight before the departure time. The new policy went into effect for tickets purchased on or after March 31, 2021. One of the reasons for the policy change is to give other travelers access to seats that would be left open to book or change reservations. 

JetBlue has a similar policy for nonrefundable tickets purchased after June 8, 2021. However, if you need to change a flight, you may pay a difference in the airfare. So even though most airlines won’t charge you, you’ll likely lose your money if you don’t change your flight before the departure time. 

What if I miss my flight? 

Sometimes the unthinkable happens and you’ll miss your flight due to traffic, long security lines or procrastination. We’ve all been there. What happens next all depends on the airline and customer service. You may be able to go standby on the next flight, but it’s not guaranteed. And depending on the airline, you may have to pay a pretty steep fee, upwards of $200, to rebook. Or you may have to pay the difference in airfare or buy a separate ticket depending on the airline. So ask nicely.

Rolling luggage going up the escalator at the airport

If your luggage is missing, you’ll need to file a report with the airline before leaving the airport. 


Bing Guan/Bloomberg/Getty Images

What happens if the airport loses or damages baggage?

Airlines will typically deliver your lost or delayed bags as soon as they can, usually within 24 hours. This may take longer for international flights, especially if you’re changing destinations. The same goes for cases where your phone number, address or other information aren’t up to date, or if flights to your destination are few and far between. 

In the meantime, the airline will cover the cost of items you need right away, like toothpaste and contact lens solution. Travel experts suggest packing essentials, including medication, in your carry-on bag just in case. Most full-service airlines let you bring one carry-on bag (such as a small suitcase) and one personal item (like a purse or book bag) for free. Others, like Spirit Airlines or a super economy ticket, may charge you for carry-on luggage.

How do I file a claim for lost or damaged luggage?

If you don’t have your bags after landing, it’s best to file a report with the airline before leaving the airport. You can also make a claim online or over the phone. Many airlines require you to report lost luggage within a specific time period, For example, United Airlines suggests filing a claim within 24 hours of arrival, but you’ll have seven days to report damaged bags and 21 days to file a claim for lost bags on domestic and international flights. 

When submitting your claim, you’ll need to have your flight information, bag tag number (don’t lose this) and photo ID handy. And take photos of your bag before checking it — they can be helpful when describing it to airline staff. You may also be asked to provide receipts or proof of purchase for the items in your bag. By law, airlines can be held liable for up to $3,800 for lost, damaged or delayed bags. If a bag is lost, you will be reimbursed for checked baggage charges.

How do I file a complaint with my airline?

If you run into a problem with bagging, boarding or any other common problems you can file a complaint with the airline or the DOT. However, it’s recommended to work with the airline to try to resolve the problem first. Airlines are required to address complaints within 30 days. Check your airline’s website for the best way to submit complaints. Some offer an email while others have an online form. 

If you’re not satisfied with the airline’s response you can still file a complaint with the DOT online. You’ll need to include contact information and your flight itinerary. You can attach pictures or other files, too. You may get a flight credit or flyer miles for your troubles, but money is unlikely.

What about delayed or canceled international flights in the EU?

Most countries have different rights for travelers, but there are some similarities to US domestic flights. European Union flight rights apply to passengers to or from 27 EU-member countries. EU rights apply if your flight departs or is within the EU on any airline. Or if your flight arrives in the EU by an EU airline. But if the airline compensates you for any troubles, the EU won’t credit you again for the same problem.

If you miss a connecting flight due to a delay of three hours or more in Europe and it’s not an “extraordinary circumstance,” (such as a massive storm) the airline must compensate you. And if the airline cancels your flight, you are entitled to a full refund. And if you’re already at the airport and your flight is canceled, you are entitled to meals, snacks and a hotel stay if you’re rebooked for the next day. You may also get a refund depending on the circumstances. 

If your departure is delayed by at least two hours, you are entitled to snacks and meals while waiting. But the airline is required to pay you if the delay is at least three hours. If the delay or cancellation is due to bad weather or aircraft damage or other “extraordinary circumstances,” you may not get a full refund but the airline must offer a reimbursement or rebooking. You are also entitled to food in this case. 

If you’re flying from the EU to the UK, there’s an important update that stems from a new Brexit agreement. Starting this year, the rights within European airlines don’t apply to UK flights or others that are not by an EU carrier unless your circumstance falls under UK laws. 

Can I be refunded for airline shortages or strikes? 

In the EU, you can always ask for a refund, rebooking or a return flight — especially if you are notified less than 14 days before your flight. But keep in mind that you may not get money back if the airline defines the disruption as an extraordinary circumstance. 

However, a strike could be considered an extraordinary circumstance. You may be refunded if the airline cannot prove that the strike is related to the flight delay or cancellation or cannot prove that it cannot be avoided. Your airline should provide more information on refunds under these circumstances, but if not, contact your national organization for help

Baggage carousel at airport

Travel insurance can help ensure that your items are covered if there’s a flight. 


Angus Mordant/Bloomberg/Getty Images

What if my luggage is lost or damaged on an international flight?

If your luggage is lost, damaged or delayed on a flight in the EU, you may be compensated up to 1,300 euros ($1,525) if the airline is liable. The airline must compensate you for your checked bags if they’re damaged in transit. If the airline determines it didn’t cause the damage, you won’t be reimbursed. 

You’ll need to file a claim with the airline in writing within seven days if your luggage is lost or 21 days if you got your luggage but it was delayed. There’s no standard form to follow. The EU’s online tool also helps you claim refunds and outline your rights if you had luggage or flight problems. 

Everything else to consider when booking your next flight 

Before you book any domestic or international flight, it’s best to understand all of your rights before buying a ticket. 

  • Some airlines and credit cards offer travel insurance to ensure your items and flight purchase are covered if there’s an issue with your luggage or flight.
  • Carefully read your ticket limitations and travel itinerary to avoid unexpected costs.
  • Review the airline’s policies no matter how good an airfare deal you found. Some tickets are nonrefundable and cannot be transferred — even during a pandemic. 

Traveling right now can be frustrating and stressful, but Google’s travel features can help you plan your next vacation as the pandemic continues. Be sure to hold onto your card if you’re fully vaccinated — especially if you’re planning to go abroad. 

And if you’re curious about your preferred airline’s delayed and canceled flights policies we’ve compiled the most popular ones here:

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