What to Do If Your Flight Is Canceled, According to a Travel Expert

From rebooking, to scoring a refund, to what time is best to fly, here are some pro tips.

Between extraordinarily high demand from passengers, airline staff shortages, and standard summer weather delays, flights have been delayed or canceled left and right. And while any unexpected schedule changes makes flying a hassle, it shouldn't completely discourage you from traveling.

From rebooking to hopefully getting a refund, travel expert, Scott Keyes, the founder of Scott's Cheap Flights, shared his tips and insight with Travel + Leisure for navigating these hectic times in air travel.

How to Find Out If Your Flight Is Delayed or Canceled

Airlines should notify you about delays and cancellations by email, text, or app notification — if you've provided your contact information — but tech issues may lead to communication mishaps. Always check your flight status on your airline's website in the 24 hours leading up to your flight. When you're at the airport, check the departures board for the latest information.

You can also use third-party websites or apps to monitor your flight for cancellations or delays, like Flighty or FlightAware.

Southwest Airlines flight is listed as canceled on a schedule at Boston Logan International Airport
John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

What to Do If Your Flight Has Been Canceled

If your flight is canceled, don't panic — your airline will likely automatically rebook you on the next available flight. However there's a chance that might not happen or if it does, the new flight may not work with your schedule.

If you're at home when you receive the notification that your flight has been canceled, visit the website to see if the airline has given you flight options for rebooking. If not, you'll have to call or text your airline — yes, wait times might be long, but talking to a customer service agent gives you the most flexibility with your rebooking.

If you've received the news of your canceled flight at the airport, head to your airline's help desk — unfortunately, there will likely be dozens if not hundreds of people in that queue. But that's not the only way to find assistance.

"Stand in line and pull out your phone. Gate agents aren't the only ones who can help re-accommodate you — phone agents can as well," Keyes said. "Don't put all your eggs in one basket; you may get through to an agent on the phone before you reach the front of the line at the airport."

And don't forget about your checked luggage — if you've checked luggage onto a canceled flight, you'll want to speak to an airline representative about how to collect your bag.

How to Rebook Your Flight

The three main options for rebooking are in-person at an airport help desk or via the phone or text. (Some airlines might be able to provide customer service assistance via social media, too.) Bear in mind that the response times might be exceptionally long, so try reaching out via all means possible.

But here's a hot tip. "The easiest way to get in touch with an airline quickly is to call their international phone lines," Keyes said. "Take American Airlines. They don't just have their main US hotline; they've got hotlines in Mexico and the United Kingdom and Australia and dozens more. While 99% of US passengers call the main US hotline and endure long waits, you'll typically get right through at a foreign office, and agents there can handle your reservation just the same."

While airlines always want to rebook you on one of their own flights, there is a chance they can rebook you on a different airline. "In extenuating circumstances, airlines will rebook you on a different carrier. It's not common, but in some cases — like, say, it's the last flight of the day and you'd otherwise have to stay overnight in the connecting city — airlines will do it with a carrier they have an Interline Agreement with," he said. "Full-service US airlines have these interline agreements with one another, but budget airlines rarely do. The lack of interline agreements is the primary reason I tend to avoid budget airlines when possible."

How to Get a Refund, Travel Credit, or Other Compensation

"Under federal law, if an airline cancels or significantly changes your flight, you're entitled to a full cash refund. Period," Keyes explained. "Doesn't matter if it was a non-refundable ticket. Doesn't matter if the cause was bad weather or a global pandemic. You're entitled to a cash refund if you no longer wish to travel; you don't have to take a flight credit or travel voucher."

For what it's worth, "significant changes to the schedule" means something different for every airline — read the fine print to find out what qualifies for your carrier. And that only covers schedule changes in advance of the flight, not standard delays, such as ones due to weather or a late inbound aircraft. The U.S. Department of Transportation, however, has proposed a new law that would require airlines to compensate passengers if their flight is delayed a certain amount of time, but that has not yet gone into effect.

Now, if you're flying to or from Europe, a compensation law called EU261 is already in place.

"If you're traveling in Europe, many delays or cancellations do entitle you to compensation up to 600 euros, in addition to keeping your flight," Keyes noted.

How To Avoid Canceled Flights In The Future

There's no sure way to avoid flight cancellations or delays, but there is one way to increase the chances that your flight departs on time.

"The earlier your flight, the better your odds," Keyes said. "That's because weather is generally better in the morning, and also because the plane is usually already at the airport, rather than arriving from elsewhere, and thus at risk if that inbound flight were to get canceled."

Additional Tips for Air Travel

If you do decide to fly this summer and into the fall, opt for nonstop flights when possible.

"A delayed connecting flight risks missing your connection and having to, in some cases, wait until the following day for a flight to your final destination," he warned.

And, perhaps most importantly — don't check a bag.

"If your flight gets canceled or you miss a connection, it's easier to get re-accommodated if the airline doesn't have to also locate and transport your checked bag to a new flight."

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