Once you've experienced a $200 price spike in the middle of your ticket search, your third 45-minute flight delay of the day, or your bag going MIA in Miami, you can't help but wonder what these shifty airlines are hiding from you.
Quite a bit, as it turns out. When cancellations, overbooked flights, and excessive delays eff up more than just your day, a $10 voucher for an airport meal isn’t gonna cut it as an adequate salve -- and in most cases, you've got a right to way more than that. Here’s what the airlines aren’t telling you.
Say no to vouchers -- you're entitled to cold, hard cash
If you’re involuntarily bumped from a flight because it's overbooked, do not settle for vouchers; they're the airline equivalent of Geoffrey Dollars. The airline must arrange new travel for you within two hours -- if they don’t, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) requires they compensate you in cash, up to $1,350. But the airlines often offer passengers a travel voucher instead (like every time, let’s be real). They're also required to tell you that you can get a check on the spot. It's like your flight delay Miranda rights.
If it looks like the delay is going to cost you more than the airline is offering, like you had a non-refundable hotel reservation, or miss a private helicopter ride (look at you!), you’ve got 30 days to try and get as much money out of them as you can. But once you put a check into your bank account, you’ve essentially agreed to accept whatever you were offered.
Even with new flight arrangements, you can get cash
Let’s say you’re bumped from a flight, but the airline still manages to get you where you’re going within an hour of the original arrival time. You’ve got no cause to complain, really, other than just being a dick, and you’re not going to see any compensation. BUT, if you arrive between one and two hours past your original arrival time on a domestic flight (or between one and four hours for international), they owe you compensation of 2005 of the one-way fare to your destination, up to $675. And for flights arriving more than two hours later, you are entitled to 400% of your one-way fare.
You can cancel within 24 hours of booking for no charge
Now, there are caveats, so don't go booking out an entire planeful of tickets just for shits and giggles. For most airlines, you can cancel/change your ticket up to seven days before you’re scheduled to travel, and still get a full refund. (The notable exception: American Airlines, which instead allows you to hold a ticket up to 24 hours at the price you see.) Additionally, you need to book directly with the airline's website, and not through a third-party booking site, although big ones like Expedia or Travelocity offer policies similar to those of airlines. But the big takeaway: You can have buyer's remorse for up to a full day. And some airlines -- like Southwest -- have even more generous refund policies that let you change plans up until right before you take off.
If you're delayed, they can book you a seat on a competitor's flight
Back in the golden age of flying, there was this thing called Rule 240, whereas an airline that delayed you significantly or canceled your flight was REQUIRED to rebook you at no extra cost, even on a competing airline. That ended with deregulation in 1978, but airlines will still do it if you ask nicely or if you have elite status.
Don’t expect the gate agent to scour the interwebs trying to find a seat for you, though. There’s likely 100 other people trying to get out as well, so if you make their job fast and easy you’ll get better results. Look up the flights you want, calmly stroll up to the counter with two or three options ready, and see if they can do anything for you. If those options include flights on their airline, all the better.
If your itinerary gets changed, they pay the difference...
If you’re massively delayed and the airline arranges alternate transportation with another carrier, they will cover all the expenses and extra fees the new airline might assess. So if there's only a first-class seat available, it's yours, and it won't cost you an extra penny. Pass the champagne.
... and, in that case, you get to keep your original ticket for later
That unused ticket for the delayed or canceled flight? It’s still good to use another time; think of it like an airline credit you got for your aggravation. If you’ve had it with that (expletive) airline and vowed never to fly them again, even for free -- you have principles, dammit! -- you can also request an “involuntary refund” for the flight you were bumped from.
Also, a point of warning: It HAS happened that airlines try and cancel your original ticket onsite, and confused passengers assume this is normal procedure. It’s not, so politely tell the reservations agent you do not want to cancel the existing reservation.
Non-refundable tickets CAN become refundable
When the airline's at fault, it owes you money. If a flight is severely delayed (generally over two hours), canceled, or if there’s a schedule change in advance or a route change (like a nonstop flight changing to a flight with connections) you can get a full refund on a non-refundable fare. Don't let them push you around.
Your additional fees are refundable, too
Though common decency would dictate that the money you paid to check your bag, get some extra legroom, or board early would also be refunded in the case of you getting bumped or severely delayed, airlines don’t always offer it up. Make sure to mention the fees you paid when negotiating any compensation or refund. If you’re nice, and your agent isn’t having a bad day, they’ll oftentimes give you that stuff gratis on your rescheduled flight as a gesture of goodwill. Again, the key words there are “if you’re nice.”
In Europe, you're entitled to even more
Oh those zany Europeans, always making pesky “rules” that inconvenience large businesses but benefit the general public. Among them is what they require of airlines, so if you find yourself delayed on a Madrid to Stockholm flight, you’re entitled to even more than you are back home.
If your flight is canceled because of something the airline did (not weather), it’s required by law to feed you and put you up in a hotel. You also must receive a full refund for a canceled flight within seven days. The EU has its own set of delay compensation guidelines as well, ranging from 250 euros for short flights delayed under three hours up to 600 euros for flights between EU and non-EU airports that originate in Europe. That means if your flight home to the US is delayed, you’re still entitled to compensation.
Also of note: These rules apply to many European-held islands in the Caribbean, like Martinique, Guadeloupe, and others.
They owe you way more for delayed luggage than they'll offer to pay
If your bag is delayed, not lost, airlines will try to placate you with $25 or $50 each day. But the DOT says it's not enough to salvage a wedding, a ski trip, or an important business trip. These companies can owe you up to $3,500 in liability for a domestic US trip, so long as you've got receipts. But don’t go all Julia Roberts on Rodeo Drive just yet; you’ve gotta prove to the airline the relative value of what you had in the bag, and why you needed it before the luggage could be delivered. That’s not to say this isn’t your big chance to upgrade your suit collection. It’s just that if there wasn’t an event you needed the suit for before your bag showed up, you might not get full reimbursement.
If your bag is small, you can gate check it for free
Don’t go lugging an oversized suitcase filled with a whole semester’s worth of clothes through TSA or anything, but if you’ve got a small- or medium-sized bag you’re willing to part with for a few hours, taking it to the gate and volunteering to gate check it can save you a bag fee. It also earns you goodwill with the flight crew, as you appear to be sacrificing something for the good of the plane, even though you’re just being cheap.
HOWEVER, don’t try this if you’re flying Economy Plus on a legacy carrier -- you’ll pay an administrative fee of around $50, as well as the checked bag fee, to make this happen. Obviously, this also won’t apply to airlines that charge for carry-on bags.
If the plane sits for three hours, you can hop off
During a lengthy tarmac delay in the US (upon either arrival or departure), the DOT says an airline can’t keep you on a plane for more than three hours (on a domestic flight) or four hours (on an international flight) without allowing you to get off if you wish. So no, playing Transformers: Age of Extinction again as in-flight entertainment isn't gonna cut it. Also, the airline is obligated to get that food and water cart running down the aisle after two hours of delay.
Buying multiple tickets at once can be more expensive
It might seem more efficient to book a big block of airline tickets for your big bachelorette blowout rather than suffer through a week of group texts to make sure everyone is on the same flights. But it might also mean you end up spending a lot more money.
Airlines sell tickets at different price levels, much like at a sporting event. So if there’s two tickets left for $99, then you try and book four tickets -- but the lowest price level with four tickets available is $299 -- ALL four tickets will be $299. Those two cheapos stay on the market. So book individually: it’ll ultimately save those who book first more money.
You can get premium seats for free... if you wait
As a person of size, I fly almost exclusively in exit rows. My most common seatmate is the Invisible Man, followed closely by traveling flight attendants and pilots (known as Dead Heads or Non-Revs) assigned available seats at the last minute. You know why? Because those seats cost extra, and are most frequently the only ones left empty, even on an “extremely full flight.” If you have status with an airline -- or even if you don’t -- ask for these seats when you arrive at the gate. If you ask nicely and are super polite (which, frequent flyers will tell you, is a big factor in getting free stuff) the gate agent has the power to give them to you.
Asking at the check-in counter, however, is a much lower-percentage shot. They’re dealing with every person on every flight, and won’t have time to give you the attention a gate agent might.
Credit cards might cover travel insurance and bag fees
Airline credit cards generally lure you in with promises of free bags, but other credit cards offer this perk, too, if you book with their cards. So take five minutes and call your credit card company to see if this applies. Many also automatically offer travel insurance, which means you won’t need to buy that from the airline either. Just remember travel insurance isn’t “I decided to sleep in” insurance, and only applies in situations stipulated in the policy.
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