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What to Do if Your Flight Is Canceled or Delayed

How to keep your trip on track as air travel disruptions and chaos continue

Travelers at LaGuardia Airport (LGA) in Queens on Friday, July 1, 2022

Bloomberg/Getty Images

Travelers at LaGuardia Airport in Queens, New York on July 1, 2022.

En español

The chaos and unpredictability of air travel this summer was taken up a notch with London Heathrow airport’s July 12 announcement that it would limit the number of passengers it serves through mid-September. Aiming to accommodate no more than 100,000 passengers a day, effective immediately, it called on airlines to start limiting ticket sales for Heathrow-bound flights.

Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye said in an open letter to passengers that, “as departing passenger numbers have regularly exceeded 100,000 a day, we have started to see periods when service drops to a level that is not acceptable: long queue times, delays for passengers requiring assistance, bags not traveling with passengers or arriving late, low punctuality and last-minute cancellations.”

He cited staff shortages, flight delays and growing demand for air travel as reasons for the problems, and asked passengers to help reduce the crowding by “not arriving earlier than 3 hours before their flight” — a hard sell when so many travelers are (rightly) expecting long lines when they arrive.

Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport also has announced capacity caps — it wants to serve no more than about 70,000 passengers a day — as “the demand for air travel is exceeding even the most high expectations,” while “the labour market is incredibly tight.”

Although American airports have yet to implement such measures, Ed Bastian, Delta Air Lines’ chief executive officer recently announced that Delta would be keeping the number of flights at the current level rather than increase it to meet the growing demand and risk more schedule disruptions.

A chaotic summer

Americans are heading to Europe in droves now that a negative COVID-19 test is no longer required to enter (or reenter) the U.S. They also may be inspired by the euro’s drop in value, making travel there a bit more affordable. (One euro is now about equal to one U.S. dollar, compared with $1.10 at the end of March.)

But, as noted above, those travelers (as well as passengers flying within the U.S.) are contending with flight cancellations and schedule changes — often at the last minute, sometimes with additional stops. (FlightAware, an airline tracking service, offers a Misery Map, depicting where schedules are most affected in the U.S.).

Mollie Fitzgerald, co-owner of Frontiers International Travel in Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, has a client who left for Italy on June 28 with a connection through Heathrow. The flight from Heathrow to Italy was canceled, and their bags have disappeared: “It’s three weeks later and their luggage is still lost,” she says.

Fitzgerald adds that some of her clients have responded to reports of crowded airports and lost luggage by postponing their trips until later in the year: “They say, ‘We don’t want to venture into this mess.’ ” (Fitzgerald experienced the upheaval firsthand this week, when her flight home from Norway was canceled due to the Scandinavian airline SAS’s pilot strike.)

But many Americans are eager to travel this summer, even with the potential air travel headaches. If you’re one of them, it will help to know what to do in case your flight is delayed or canceled. Here are a few tips to help make your trip as smooth as possible during these chaotic times.

Before your trip

1. Reduce or optimize connections. The more connections you have, the more chances there are for cancellation or delay. If it makes financial sense, book direct flights whenever possible — those extra dollars you spend may end up saving you a lot of hassle. And if your itinerary choices include different connection airport options, choose those in warm-weather cities that are less susceptible to winter mishaps.

2. Book flights earlier in the day, with a direct carrier. Zach Griff, senior airline reporter at The Points Guy website, recommends travelers book earlier flights because “once a few cancellations happen, the domino effect means a higher percentage of later flights will be delayed or canceled.” He also suggests booking with a direct carrier (such as United and American) rather than a regional partner (United Express or American Eagle, for example). The parent airlines tend to get priority for staffing and airport access.

3. Avoid checking luggage. Changing a flight at the last minute will sometimes mean checked baggage will be left behind, trailing your new itinerary. Bringing just a roller bag small enough to use as a carry-on item makes you more nimble to grab a replacement flight, not to mention providing a change of clothes should you get stuck somewhere.​

4. Use travel tools. Staying up to date on flight and weather information can help you predict and manage delays and cancellations. Limor Decter, travel adviser at the Embark Beyond agency, says: “We encourage our clients to download their airline’s phone app and make sure their contact information is updated and notifications turned on. Check on flight status and weather and news, and where the flight originates a day or two prior to departure.”

5. Consider using a travel agent. Should things go wrong, you can use your travel agency for support. “Agencies have direct access and clout with airlines,” Decter says. “We can connect with the right people to rebook a flight that’s canceled.” 


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At the airport

Every traveler dreads their flight getting canceled or delayed, but handling the disruption is much less upsetting if you know your rights as a passenger and resources for rebooking. Also important is persistence, as well as “being flexible, prepared and patient — now more than ever with the current travel landscape,” Embark’s Decter says. Here's some more advice.

1. Be polite to airline customer service reps. Being polite, either in person or on the phone, is not only the nice thing to do — given the amount of stress airport and airline employees face — it may inspire them to take that extra step to help rescue your travel plans.

2. Know your rights. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) requires airlines to give a full refund to passengers if a flight gets canceled for any reason. Many airlines will try to offer travel vouchers for future trips, but you do not have to accept credit in lieu of cash (or a refund of frequent flier points plus taxes paid). If you choose to be rebooked, airlines “have to accommodate on the next available flight — even with a competitor airline,” says The Points Guy’s Griff, “But sometimes these options are only available in person at the airport with a customer service center or with a gate agent.”

3. Ask your airline for help in case of delay, but be prepared for little or no compensation. The DOT rule is that passengers are “entitled to a refund or compensation if the airline made a significant schedule change.” But what exactly constitutes “significant” has not been defined and varies widely between airlines. Airlines will typically offer meal and hotel vouchers if a flight is delayed or canceled due to staffing or mechanical issues, but they often won’t do so if they claim the delay is due to weather — even if the weather is on the other side of the country. “But it can’t hurt to ask” for more assistance, Griff says.

4. Explore all options if you need to rebook. Given the vast number of cancellations and delays in the past few weeks, it pays for passengers to be proactive in their rebooking. As anyone who has recently tried to change an itinerary knows, airline customer-service phone wait times have been horrendous — sometimes measuring in hours. So try a multipronged approach to rebooking: Contact your travel agent if you used one, check your airline’s website and app, and try to talk to in-person representatives at the airport customer service center and to gate agents. If you have airline lounge privileges, talk to a customer service rep at a lounge, where the line is likely to be shorter.

5. Propose a solid plan B. Griff suggests researching a replacement itinerary to propose to the representative. “It’s better than just asking for help,” he says, because “it can speed up the process and give you an option you actually want.”   

Bill Fink is an award-winning travel writer who has covered cultural travel for Lonely Planet, Frommer's, the San Francisco Chronicle and many other outlets.

Christina Ianzito is the travel and books editor for aarp.org and AARP The Magazine, and also edits and writes health, entertainment and other stories for aarp.org. She received a 2020 Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing. ​​

Editor's note: This article was originally published on January 14, 2022. It's been updated to reflect new information.

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