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Nobody likes to have their plans disrupted, but when it comes to air travel, it happens all the time. Flight cancellations come with the territory—and these days, they’re happening with even more regularity.
Fortunately, while you can’t control whether your flight gets cancelled, you can control how you respond to and remedy the situation. Here are 7 tips for handling it like a pro.
In This Article
First thing’s first: When you get a flight cancellation notification, head straight to the airline’s app. Some airlines will allow you to select a new flight right from there, so make sure you have it installed!
It’s likely the airline automatically rebooked you on what it considers the best available option, so you should see that right in the app, as well as some other choices. If you see one you like, great—you should be able to select it for no additional charge.
If not, you’ll need to talk directly with customer service. If you’re already at the airport when your flight gets canceled, you’re likely to see a rush to the desk at your gate. Jump in that line as fast as you can, or if it’s already super backed up, check and see if the airline’s general customer service desk has a shorter line. If you have lounge access with the airline you’re flying, talk to the folks at the front desk.
Better yet, send a travel companion to check and see while you hold your place in the line at your gate!
Don’t stop there, though. If lines are long, it’s possible you can reach a customer service rep on the phone faster than you can reach a gate agent. Dial up the airline while you’re waiting in the physical line so you can queue in both places simultaneously. Since everyone from your flight will be competing for limited spots on other flights, speed is key!
Note: Sometimes, it’s just not possible to get through quickly, and that’s okay. Right now, during the novel coronavirus pandemic, hold times are dreadful as airlines try to accommodate thousands of passengers amid major schedule shifts.
If you have days or weeks before your cancelled flight, and your travel is not essential, don’t bother waiting on hold all day; instead, wait to see how the situation progresses and try back when things have calmed down a bit.
On the flip side, if you have elite status, now is the time to make sure you’re using the dedicated elite phone line. Your wait time will be shorter and the agents who service them are often more experienced and knowledgeable!
Why was your flight canceled? Was it the weather? Maintenance? A missing crew? Something else?
So many factors can be responsible for causing a cancellation, and it’s important to know which one was behind yours. The reason? It may just wind up dictating your next move.
For example, if the factor behind the cancellation is only impacting your specific flight, grabbing the next flight out might be a perfectly okay solution. But if the cancellation is because of a storm that’s supposed to last all day, that tactic isn’t going to work.
If you’re already at the airport, it should be pretty simple to figure out what’s going on. Chances are you’ll have heard several delay announcements before the airline actually scraps the flight, and if you haven’t, you can easily ask your gate agent.
If your flight is cancelled days in advance, it could be because of schedule changes, impending weather, low demand or something else entirely. If you don’t know the reason, call the airline.
The most important thing you can do after your flight has been canceled is to research your options yourself.
You know your needs better than anyone else, so by doing so, you can often come up with options that suit you better than what your airline app or an agent suggests.
The airline, for example, may have you waiting out a storm at the airport for 8 hours, just to try for a night flight that might well be canceled, too. Meanwhile, if you know that storm is supposed to last into the evening and you don’t live too far from the airport, maybe you’d rather spend the day at home and just try again the following day after the weather clears.
Or perhaps the weather is in Houston, where you’re supposed to make a connection. Do you need to fly to Houston at all? Can you find another airline that can get you to your final destination while avoiding the problematic region? If so, it may be possible for your airline to put you on that other airline’s flights.
Maybe you’re trying to fly to one airport, but the new flight you’ve been automatically rebooked on will be getting in too late for whatever it is you need to do. Can you find an earlier flight to somewhere close by and then either rent a car or take a train to finish the journey?
That’s not a solution an agent—who is only looking for a new itinerary to your original destination—will be able to come up with for you. You need to find it on your own.
All of these examples come from my own life, by the way, and if these experiences have taught me anything, it’s that the more creative your solution is, the more likely it is that an agent can make it happen.
With most people on your canceled flight trying to get from Point A to Point B as soon as possible, if you can think up your own alternative that gets you out of that category, airline employees are more than happy to oblige!
Now that you know what the best option is, there’s no need to mince words. Present the agent with what you’ve found and politely ask specifically for that itinerary. It’s not a bad idea to have a backup in mind in case there’s a flaw in your plan, too.
Being assertive here is important. An airline representative’s main goal is to get you placed on a new itinerary, but your main goal—of trying to get yourself placed on a new itinerary that suits your specific circumstances—is a little more complex.
What’s even more important, though, is being polite. Your situation is almost never the fault of the agent you are speaking with, and that agent is only trying to help. Furthermore, how invested an agent is in helping you really does depend on the way you treat him or her. I cannot stress this enough: You will get so much further by treating agents with courtesy and respect.
Sometimes, you’ll find that an agent can’t accommodate the solution you’ve found, and in that case, it can sometimes make sense to escalate the issue to a supervisor.
Earlier this year, stranded in Chicago amid a snowstorm, I found precisely one itinerary that would get me home in time to repack my bags and catch a flight to San Francisco for a business trip.
The first leg only had seats available in first class.
The agent I was working with was very nice, competent, and sympathetic to my situation. But because I had originally purchased an economy ticket, there was no way she could put me into first class on that leg—even though the cancellation had left me no other options.
But there was one person who could: her supervisor. I asked (once again, as politely as I could!) if there was any way she could check with him about overriding that rule because of the extenuating circumstances, and voila—they made it happen.
Of course, it’s not always that easy, and sometimes you will just hit a brick wall. In that case, I always, always, always recommend using the HUCA method—hang up call again—to try your luck with a new agent.
An agent’s level of experience, knowledge of the rules and mood can all impact what he or she can do for you, and you’ll find calling again to deal with someone else can make a world of difference!
Depending on the reason behind your flight cancellation—and how much it ends up derailing your plans—you might be eligible for compensation from the airline. Once you’ve made your new flight arrangements, find out if that’s the case.
If you’ve been stuck in the airport all day due to maintenance problems, the airline may provide a food voucher. If a cancellation strands you overnight, the airline might put you up in a hotel. Sometimes, there’s nothing the airline can do on the spot, but writing in to customer service after the fact can result in a future flight credit or some airline miles.
Luckily, in European Union, the rules around cancellations are a little more clear-cut . Thanks to a regulation dubbed EU261, passengers may be eligible for up to 600 euros depending on how far in advance their flight was cancelled, the length of their cancellation-related delay, and the length of their flight.
Of course, some things are out of an airline’s control and won’t result in compensation. Weather-related cancellations, for instance, don’t usually result in compensation in the U.S., and EU 261 doesn’t cover situations caused by air traffic control issues. It’s important to know the rules around these circumstances before you seek compensation.
It’s also important to remember the rules of courtesy we discussed above. It’s great to have an idea of what you want and ask for it, but always keep it reasonable, and always ask politely.
At this point, you may be thinking, “all of this is well and good—but what if I booked through a third party?” As you may have experienced, trying to deal with an airline directly won’t always work if you’ve booked through an online travel agency (OTA), such as Expedia or Orbitz, or a bank travel portal, such as the Chase travel portal or Amex Travel.
In situations where my flight has been cancelled at the airport, I’ve never had a problem switching a flight with an agent no matter how I booked it. But if your flight is cancelled well ahead of time (for instance, the airline cancels the entire route weeks in advance), the airline may tell you that you need to deal with the agency directly if you want to rebook.
While there will definitely be some extra red tape to cut through—as well as a whole lot of waiting on hold—the process here is pretty similar. Call up the OTA or travel department of the portal’s bank partner, explain your situation, and ask for the new itinerary you want.
You’ll likely be placed on hold while a representative phones the airline, and with a middleman involved, it’s extra critical that your message is clear and specific. Don’t be afraid to ask the OTA or portal rep to HUCA if they can’t get the outcome you want, either!
One extra tip for dealing with OTAs:
Make sure the representative gets your phone number to call you back in case you get disconnected. These calls can take well over an hour (and involve multiple transfers) when all is said and done, and the last thing you want is it dropping in the middle and scuttling the entire process.
Let’s be honest—having your flight cancelled is almost always a drag. But by following a few key steps, you can avoid a disaster situation and minimize your inconvenience. If you can reach customer service quickly, go in with a plan, and advocate for your needs, you’ll find that cancellations are a whole lot easier and more pleasant to deal with.
And if you’re lucky, you might just wind up with some extra change or a stash of miles in your pocket at the end of the day, too.
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