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What to do if your flight is canceled

We know that travel is especially difficult right now. But alongside the latest COVID-19 travel advice and updates, we want to continue to inspire you with new travel content so that when the world opens its doors again, you'll be ready.

The dreaded flight cancellation. Frequent travelers would be lucky to make it through their lives without ever experiencing one, especially in the COVID-era. Luckily, flight cancellations aren’t typically dooming. But what rights do you have when an airline cancels your flight? Are you eligible for a credit? Will your trip be rescheduled? Can you get a flight refund?

We’re covering what to do if your flight is canceled in the U.S., what to do if an airline goes bankrupt, and how to go about getting your money refunded from a canceled flight.

Disclaimer: Travel restrictions within the United States are a patchwork of county, state, and federal guidelines. Regulations, potential quarantine periods, and travel restrictions may exist at your destination. We recommend contacting your destination’s Secretary of State office and reviewing CDC guidelines before booking travel.

Quick tips on how to get a refund on your canceled flight:

A lone bag on the right with black chairs and passengers on the left
Don’t get left behind when it comes to flight cancellations.

Read More: Coronavirus travel advice

What to do if your flight is canceled in the United States?

The U.S. doesn’t have federal laws regarding airline passengers’ rights.

Instead, those are left up to the airline and/or online travel agency (OTA). Generally speaking, passengers have two basic contractual rights (with slight variations by airline). It’s important to check with the company you purchased your tickets to verify policies and passenger rights.

If your flight is canceled, you may be entitled to either:

  • a seat on your original airline’s next available flight to your destination
  • a refund for the unused portion of your ticket (if this is one leg of a roundtrip, the value is not 1/2 the ticket, it varies based on individual purchases.
  • A travel credit, voucher, or reward points from your carrier.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Department of Transportation released guidance on when consumers are eligible for refunds, and when airlines are obligated to offer them. Some of the clearest advice from their guidance: make sure to ask if flight cancellations are eligible for a refund, and then follow up!

Most airlines offer some kind of assistance (and occasionally hotel and/or food vouchers) when flight cancellations are for reasons within the airlines’ control. In the cases of bad weather or ‘force majeure’ (forces that can’t be controlled), these same assistance measures are not guaranteed.

Force Majeure includes extreme weather, natural disasters, war, terror, and outbreaks of dangerous diseases.

What if my airline goes bankrupt?

Unfortunately, when an airline goes bankrupt in the U.S. you have very few rights (as the rights in place are put there by the airlines in the first place).

Your best bet to prevent this is to always use a credit card with travel protection that would hopefully reimburse you in case of an airline going bankrupt. Even regular debit/credit cards might allow you to dispute charges when purchasing goods you didn’t receive–it’s always worth a shot!

If your airline goes bankrupt mid-trip, ask around to see if any other airlines or OTAs are offering discounted “rescue fares” for stranded passengers.

For example, when the airline FlyBe collapsed in March 2020, many U.K. train companies offered FlyBe’s customers free travel with proof of booked travel on the airline.

A male passenger sits with his legs propped onto luggage after a flight cancellation
An airline bankruptcy could leave you stranded. Stay informed to avoid the stress.

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How do I get a flight refund after a cancellation?

When it comes to flight cancellations in the U.S., the rules are pretty straightforward for refunds. If the cancellation is the choice of the airline, you will likely be refunded or given a new flight (and possibly some extra miles or other incentives as an apology). You should request a refund from the outset of your travel difficulties and be persistent in receiving it.

However, if the flight is canceled due to force majeure, flight compensation is more unlikely. In that case, talk to your airline or OTA customer service departments regarding the refund. Although airlines in the U.S. have mostly interpreted COVID as force majeure, consumers are eligible for refunds if their flight was canceled due to pandemic related reasons. And, a recently proposed bill in the U.S. Senate would solidify that right as law.

Often, you’re allowed a 24-hour booking window whereby you can cancel your flight within 24 hours without penalty. But after that, you’re on your own. What if individual protection or prevention plans could stand in place to prevent lost money? Rest assured that there are certain ways in which you may protect your wallet when purchasing your ticket.

*Please always check official airline and travel agency websites for details*

a female hand holds three ten-dollar bills as a potential flight refund
Canceling a flight within 24 hours of booking may help you receive a refund.

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1. For a flight refund, read the fine print before making a purchase

Many people fail to consider the full implications of a non-refundable ticket until they find themselves needing to change or cancel their flight. The return policy is the first thing that you should note before submitting your final payment. Look for the specific section that covers flight refunds.

For canceled flights, you’ll want to be especially careful. Occasionally, a discounted ticket will come with restrictions against rescheduling a ticket.

Sometimes the airline will make an exception and grant you a refund, but don’t expect this to happen all the time. In today’s shifting travel world, it is always important to ask. During the first coronavirus wave, airlines such as Allegiant and Spirit were offering refunds upon customer request.

Such exceptions usually occur in extreme unforeseeable or uncontrollable circumstances, such as an unexpected death or illness, a car crash, or even a safety emergency such as an unplanned airport threat evacuation.

*Please always check official airline or travel agency websites for details*

2. Pay through special methods for a flight refund guarantee

Some credit card companies offer travel insurance if you pay with their cards. This benefit is often overlooked on existing cards. Before you book, you may want to compare any travel insurance benefits that come with different payment methods that you have available.

Some of the cards that offer this benefit include Chase Sapphire, American Express, Citibank AAdvantage Signature, World MasterCard, Capital One Venture, and United Explorer Visa Platinum. If you need a refund, the first call you make can be to your credit card company instead of the airline.

Travel insurance is often offered as another way to get your money back for a ticket. This typically costs a small amount in addition to your flight ticket.

It will often cover cases where you are unable to fly due to reasons like illness, car trouble, or other situations not covered by the airline. Check what is covered by your travel insurance prior to booking travel.

a hand holding a credit card above a computer keyboard.

Read More: Our top 5 tips for booking your next trip with confidence!

3. Fly through one main airline

There’s a benefit to staying loyal to one airline’s membership or loyalty program. Not only do you accrue miles, rewards, and savings, but you also develop status and tenure as a loyal customer. This may be to your benefit if you ever need to arrange a flight refund.

Customer loyalty can help increase your chances of courtesy exceptions or accommodations. For example, if you cancel a United flight without warning, a customer service agent may be able to give you flight credits or another booking if you have been a long-time loyal customer. Anyone with status, history, and points has a chance at this opportunity. This includes members of elite, first-class or gold status.

4. Contact the airline or OTA and request a flight refund

Some customer service agents will give heed to a sob story. It all depends on who takes your call and how free they are to accommodate you.

This is typically a kindness or extension of courtesy and not a customer right. However, the only way to try is to make a phone call and speak with a person about your situation.

Your airline or travel agency representatives will have a full idea of what they can and cannot do to help you. It is important to remember that politeness is best to navigate conversations with customer service reps. That advice extends to more in life than just rescheduling a flight. However, if one agent cannot help you, you may want to try and call again to receive someone that can.

To arrange your United Airlines refund call 1-800-UNITED-1 (1-800-864-8331) and discuss your ticket reservation with a United customer service representative.

To reach Southwest Customer Service dial 1-800-435-9792 and explain the details of your flight to arrange a refund.

For an American Airlines Refund call the American Airlines customer service line on 1-800-433-7300.

a blue and red plane flying in the middle of a blue sky
Airlines with reputations for good customer service may help you avoid canceled flights.

Get familiar with major airlines’ flight cancellation policies

There are a lot of details around flight cancellations, refund eligibility, and how to protect your rights while traveling. And, because of the way that travel has been affected during the coronavirus-era, those details are constantly shifting. By staying informed, you stay prepared.

AirlineFlight Cancellation Policy
American Flight change fees have been waived for new tickets booked through Jan 2021. Full policy here.
DeltaDelta has canceled change and cancellation fees for travel booked through March 2021. Read the full policy.
UnitedUnited is offering flight refunds in the form of airline credits for passenger-canceled flights. This is the policy.
SouthwestSouthwest is offering 12-month credits for flight cancellations while allowing them to be recorded as airline points. Read the info here.
HawaiianHawaiian has discontinued change fees, and changes can be made within two years of the original purchase date. Details here.

Discover where you can go now

Skyscanner’s interactive travel restrictions map is the place to start planning your prospective excursions. With our travel map, you get up-to-date information on worldwide travel restrictions. The International Air Transport Association provides this data so you stay in the know on what’s happening with your dream destination. Travel safe, travel smart.

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Am I eligible for a refund if my flight is canceled?

A refund for your flight depends on several things such as what airline you are traveling with, and whether the cancellation was due to force majeure or not. Depending on the airline, your eligibility for a refund or a credit may also depend on the class of ticket you purchased (Economy, Business, or First). Always check with your airline’s customer service center to get specific info.

What is force majeure?

Force Majeure are any circumstances that alter your flight that are out of an airline’s control. The may include weather or other emergencies. Double-check with your airline’s customer service rep. to see what your flight cancellation is classified under.

Am I eligible for a flight refund if I cancel my flight?

The answer will be different and dependent on your airline’s specific policy. However, the most likely answer to this question is no, with a 24-hour exception after the immediate purchase of your flight. In the COVID-era, refunds for flight cancellations have been a bit different with some airlines offering a longer grace period to cancel.

How long does an airline credit last?

The typical length of an airline voucher (or credit) is 12 months, though some may be longer. At times, coronavirus related vouchers have been granted for longer periods of time or have been given a “claim-by” date that has more flexibility as well.