When you travel via airplane, you run the risk of your flight being canceled or delayed and throwing a serious wrench in your plans.
On Tuesday, United Airlines flights were grounded for more than an hour after the carrier experienced computer issues, the Federal Administration said.
It’s just the latest example of the many problems facing air travel this year. Situations like this make it important to know that as a passenger you always have rights.
CNBC Make It talked to Tomasz Pawliszyn, CEO of AirHelp and Clint Henderson, managing editor at The Points Guy, about the essential steps you should take when your flight is delayed or canceled.
How to find out if your flight is delayed or canceled
Airlines will often notify you about delays and cancellations by email, text, or app notification if you provide the appropriate contact information when booking.
That said, doing your due diligence is also essential. Henderson says one of his favorite apps is Flightradar24, a live flight tracker showing real-time air traffic.
“I’m always tracking my flights so I can see where my planes are coming from and the status,” Henderson said.
What to do if your flight is delayed
Most airlines allow passengers to track flights via their applications.
By tracking where your plane is coming from, you can gauge whether your flight will be delayed. If you notice a delay is imminent, it might be worth contacting the airline to see if they can rebook you on another.
“You’re not always going to get an airline willing to work with you in those situations,” Henderson added.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Airline Customer Service Dashboard shares passenger rights for specific airlines and the agreement made by the 10 largest carriers, including Delta Air Lines and American Airlines, in the event of “controllable” cancellations and delays.
Those passenger rights include major airlines having to rebook passengers on the same airline at no additional cost for “significant” delays and covering meals if there’s a delay of three hours or more.
Some will rebook on a partner airline at no additional cost.
What to do if your flight is canceled
The first thing you should do when you find out your flight is canceled is contact the airline.
Pawliszyn recommends calling while getting in line at the customer service desk at the airport. But his biggest tip is to try to get rebooked on another flight immediately, even if it’s with a different airline.
“I always push to rebook on the same airline or airline group. It’s quite standard for airlines to have agreements with each other,” he said. “They tend to bend the rules in the spirit of good customer service. They might not always agree but it’s always worth trying.”
Henderson suggests taking it further by reaching out to the airline on social media or even looking for the international toll-free number, especially during irregular hours.
“You want to use every tool in the toolbox to get yourself pre-booked first,” he said.
Henderson added that it’s important to remember that if an airline cancels your flight, you’re legally entitled to a full refund, which includes the ticket price, taxes, baggage fees, extra charges, and ancillary fees.
Passengers must receive that refund within seven business days if they paid by credit card and within 20 days if by cash or check.
Always have a plan B
As an expert traveler, Henderson suggests that passengers know what other airlines are running flights around the same time. That way, if your flight gets canceled, you can see if they are willing to book you on a competitor carrier.
“All these airlines have interline agreements with each other,” he said. “It’s always an option you should have in your back pocket.”
Henderson added that when you contact the airline, give them the competitor’s information and see how much they are willing to work with you.
If your flight is canceled, you may be entitled to additional compensation
Thanks to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Airline Customer Service Dashboard, all major airlines— except for Frontier—will cover a hotel stay and transportation to the hotel in the event of an overnight cancellation.
It also doesn’t hurt to ask the airline for reimbursement of expenses brought on by a flight cancellation. And keep in mind that many credit cards offer customers travel protection.
“When your flight is canceled, the credit card company can be your best friend,” Pawliszyn said. “In this situation, you can process a chargeback, which means asking the credit card to return the money for services not executed.”
Pawliszyn also suggests keeping a record of all the expenses and conversations with the airline because it might come in handy when advocating for yourself and the compensation you’re entitled to.
“A lot of the time, it’s on the passenger to push the airline to resolve the challenge they have with you as a client,” Pawliszyn said.
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