What to Do If an Airline Changes or Cancels Your Flight

Sam Kemmis
By Sam Kemmis 
Edited by Mary M. Flory

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The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted air travel tremendously, forcing airlines to offer flexible travel policies and start canceling flights across their networks.

So what should you do if your flight is canceled or rebooked? That depends on your travel goals. Here we’ll break down the different scenarios and offer best practices for achieving your desired outcome.

The most important piece of advice we can offer right now is: Don’t accept proposed changes to your itinerary until you’ve weighed the options.

“How will I know if my flight is rebooked?”

Airlines will notify you, usually by email, if they rebook or cancel your flight for any reason. If you booked through a third party like a corporate travel portal or an online travel agency such as Expedia or Orbitz, you might hear about the changes from them.

When an airline cancels a route, it will usually try to rebook passengers onto other flights. For routes with tons of service, like JFK to LAX, that can bump the itinerary by an hour or two. For more rarefied service, it can disrupt the itinerary by a day or more.

The specific protocol for rebooking varies by airline, but generally you’ll receive an email or call with the new itinerary details, and be asked to accept the changes.

Don’t automatically accept changes

When an airline cancels a flight, all passengers have the right to cancel their (entire) itinerary and receive a full refund. Here’s the Department of Transportation’s language:

"If your flight is cancelled and you choose to cancel your trip as a result, you are entitled to a refund for the unused transportation — even for non-refundable tickets. You are also entitled to a refund for any bag fee that you paid, and any extras you may have purchased, such as a seat assignment."

Airlines, of course, don’t want you to cancel your itinerary, and will try to rebook you on a similar one. They will often present this rebooking as the “default” option in the hopes that you will accept it without investigating further.

Declining the proposed changes is (usually) within your rights as a passenger. Once you accept changes to an itinerary, it will be much harder to make changes later, so make sure to consider your options before you confirm the changes.

Weigh the options

And keep in mind that the proposed rebooking an airline offers is just that: a proposal. You can and should call the airline to find better dates and times if the suggested ones don’t work for your travel schedule. Just keep in mind that many airline call centers are busy, so set aside plenty of time.

Many airlines have also waived change fees on most domestic and short-haul international flights, as long as you didn't book a basic economy fare. If you can find a flight with a different airline that fits your schedule better, one option is to re-book with another airline and cancel your existing flight. You might not get a cash refund, but most of the time, you will receive a flight credit to use on another trip within one year.

To summarize:

  • If you’re looking for an excuse to cancel your air travel, use an airline rebooking as an excuse to get your money back.

  • If you still want to travel but the proposed changes don’t work for your schedule, call the airline to get other rebooking options.

  • If you’re fine with the proposed changes, go ahead and accept them.

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