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Table of Contents
- An overview of what you're guaranteed
- How to find the reason for your flight delay or cancellation
- When you're entitled to flight delay compensation from the airline
- What types of flight delay compensation you will get
- What to expect after an airline cancellation
- Other ways to protect yourself from delays and cancellations
- If you're wondering about flight delay compensation
Whether you're on the way to the airport or have already boarded your flight, there's never a good time to find out about flight delays or airline cancellations. While your first priority should be to figure out your backup plan, you might also be wondering if you’re entitled to any kind of compensation.
Turns out that depends on the reason for your travel disruption and the airline you're flying. Some protections are universal — such as being able to get a full refund when your flight is canceled. But for things like meals, hotels and ground transportation, it depends on the airline's commitment to its passengers.
Here's what you need to know about flight delay compensation and protections when airline cancellations occur.
An overview of what you're guaranteed
The U.S. Department of Transportation has a handy table that outlines the "Commitments for Controllable Cancellations," broken down by airline.
Each airline is committed to rebooking passengers on the same airline at no additional cost. In addition, every airline except Frontier is committed to complimentary hotel accommodations for any passenger affected by an overnight cancellation.
Otherwise, here's what you can expect from different carriers for a "controllable cancellation," per the U.S. Department of Transportation website.
Rebook on partner airline or another airline with which it has an agreement at no additional cost
Meal or meal cash/voucher when cancellation results in passenger waiting 3 or more hours for a new flight
Complimentary ground transportation to and from hotel for any passenger affected by an overnight cancellation
Delta Air Lines
How to find the reason for your flight delay or cancellation
Not all airline cancellations and delays are considered the airline's fault. And airlines aren't required to provide flight delay compensation when a delay or cancellation isn't considered within their control. So, the first step in figuring out if you're due compensation is to figure out the reason for the delay.
The reason for your flight delay might be evident — whether that's a tropical storm blowing through your destination or seeing mechanics working on the aircraft. However, we recommend gathering some proof of the reason for the delay, just in case you need it later.
Some airlines do an excellent job of communicating the reason for the delay. Since June 2018, United Airlines spells out the reason for your delay at the top of your flight details in the United app.
For example, the flight below was delayed due to "troubleshooting a technical issue on your plane."
If you're flying on another airline, you may need to use a service like ExpertFlyer to see the official reason listed for the flight delay or cancellation. For example, this American Airlines flight from Barcelona, Spain to Miami was canceled "due to government action."
» Learn more: How to avoid flight delays
When you're entitled to flight delay compensation from the airline
Now that you know the reason for the delay, you need to figure out if that issue is considered a "controllable" flight delay or cancellation to see if you're due compensation.
Airline cancellations and delays that are "controllable" by the airline
A "controllable" flight cancellation or delay is one where the airline is at some level of fault. The DOT considers the following types of delays as controllable:
Crew scheduling problems.
Fuel or baggage loading issues.
Cabin cleaning delays.
In the previous United example, a delay for "troubleshooting a technical issue" will likely be considered a controllable flight delay. If that flight ends up being significantly delayed or canceled, travelers should expect to receive compensation from the airline.
Examples of cancellations and delays when you won't get compensation
Other types of delays are considered out of the airline's control. For example, airlines generally aren't going to provide overnight accommodations, meals or cover other expenses if a blizzard causes the cancellation of your flight.
Other times that the airline may not be considered at fault include:
Air traffic delays.
Safety- or security-related events.
Infrastructure or utility problems.
Some airlines specifically list other delay reasons that are considered outside the airline's control, such as "passenger illness" (Alaska Airlines), "Federal Aviation Administration-required crew duty limitations" (Southwest Airlines) and "acts of God" (JetBlue Airways). Beware that different airlines may interpret the same situation differently. You can find out the exact terms in the airline's customer service plan or contract of carriage.
» Learn more: How to book a flight that (likely) won’t get canceled
What types of flight delay compensation you will get
When your flight is delayed, the service that you'll get really depends on the airline you're flying. The DOT tracks the commitments made by all major U.S. airlines to provide various types of compensation for delays or cancellations (as outlined in our "overview" section).
All 10 major U.S. airlines commit to rebooking a passenger on a later flight on the same airline at no additional cost when there's a significant delay. That means the airline will eventually get you where you need to go — as long as there's another flight.
Note that airlines are required to provide a full refund in the case of a cancellation or significant flight change, regardless of if it's the airline's fault. That means you can opt to cancel a trip if a delay or cancellation wrecks your plans.
Other types of compensation for a controllable delay vary between airlines:
Rebooking on another airline: Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue and United will rebook you on a partner airline in the case of an extended delay. However, Allegiant Air, Frontier, Hawaiian Airlines, Southwest and Spirit don't commit to rebooking you on another airline. Instead, you'll need to wait until the next flight on that airline.
Meals: Almost all major U.S. airlines commit to providing meals or meal vouchers in the case of a delay of three or more hours. The only exception here is Allegiant, which will leave you to fend for yourself during lengthy delays.
Hotels: Again, almost all major airlines will provide a hotel in the case of an overnight delay. The only holdout here is Frontier. And although Spirit will provide you lodging, it doesn't commit to providing you with complimentary ground transportation to your hotel.
» Learn more: Easy solutions to common air travel nightmares
What to expect after an airline cancellation
Generally, airlines provide the same compensation in the case of airline cancellations as they do for controllable delays. The only difference is that Hawaiian will rebook you on a partner flight in the case of a controllable cancellation, but it won't do so in the case of a delay.
To summarize, here's the compensation you can expect from major U.S. airlines in the case of a controllable flight cancellation:
Rebooking on a later flight on the same airline at no additional cost (all airlines).
Rebooking on a partner airline at no additional cost (Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, United).
Meal or meal voucher when a cancellation causes a delay of three or more hours (all airlines except Allegiant).
Hotel accommodations for overnight cancellations (all airlines except Frontier).
Ground transportation to and from the hotel (all airlines except Frontier and Spirit).
» Learn more: How much is travel insurance?
Other ways to protect yourself from delays and cancellations
If you're on a flight that was canceled due to weather or another reason outside the airline's control, your credit card perks may save the day. Several travel-related credit cards provide trip delay insurance that covers just these types of delays.
For example, those with a Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card automatically get trip delay reimbursement when paying for a qualifying trip with their credit card or Ultimate Rewards® points. However, this coverage only kicks in when there's a delay of more than 12 hours due to inclement weather, an equipment failure, a strike or a hijacking/skyjacking. Almost all of these would be considered out of an airline's control.
Just make sure to keep your receipts and note that Chase's benefits administrator may request a statement from the airline explaining the reason for the delay.
» Learn more: A credit card can rescue your trip from stormy weather
Alternatively, you might want to take out a travel insurance policy that will cover you in the case of a wide variety of delays — such as bad weather, airline maintenance or personal medical issues. Some travel insurance policies will even let you cancel a trip for any reason, meaning you're covered no matter why your flight was delayed or canceled.
If you're wondering about flight delay compensation
The compensation you'll get in the case of airline cancellations and delays depends on a few factors. First, the delay or cancellation generally needs to be "controllable" by the airline before it will provide any sort of compensation.
Next, you'll need to look to the airline's commitments to see what types of compensation you'll get. Many airlines will provide meals for delays over three hours, a hotel for overnight delays and even rebook you on another airline. However, low-cost airlines — such as Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit — don't commit to providing some of these types of compensation. You might want to factor these commitments into your decision when booking your next trip.
If a flight delay or cancellation isn't considered the airline's fault, look to your credit card perks to see if you have trip delay reimbursement or similar travel protections.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card