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It’s 2021. After a long dry spell, you’re dipping your toes back in the travel waters. Business travel flights are back, you’re ready to see extended family, or your kiddo is flying home from college for the holidays. Then it happens: the dreaded flight delay. Remain calm. This guide will tell you what to ask for and what you should be offered by the airline, and how to get paid automatically when there is a flight delay.
This post is sponsored by Allianz Global Assistance (AGA Service Company) and we have received financial compensation. However, all thoughts and opinions are our own and based on personal experiences.
Flight Delay Questions
We research flights. We weigh flight schedules with prices and select the best options for our family. Then it’s our day to travel and BOOM flight delay. Our plans have gone awry and we just want to make it to our destination without losing half our vacation and paycheck.
Let us walk you through the most common questions about flight delays, show you what you should ask for and what you can do to make it better next time. We even list the rules for the major airlines — called the “Contract of Carriage” — and their contact information.
What if the flight is cancelled and I’m rebooked for days later?
We know some of y’all are finding your way onto this post because you are sitting stranded in an airport somewhere (hello October 2021 Southwest travelers!). We’re going to cover common causes of delays here and link to airline contact info and Contracts of Carriage below which will help even those who have had their flights cancelled. Be aware that some airlines don’t have “walk agreements” with other airlines, for example Southwest. This means in the case of a cancellation you’ll be accommodated on the same airline. They will not walk you for example to Delta. Other airlines have intra airline agreements and may rebook you with someone else.
Unfortunately, if you’re stuck for days your options are to wait it out, rebook with someone else at your own cost, or cancel and drive. Travel insurance can help to cover some of the out of pocket costs when there is a change of plans.
What Caused the Flight Delay?
The cause of the flight delay will determine how much the airline has to do to help you through the situation.
Airlines categorize delays in two ways: mechanical and everything else. If the delay was caused by a mechanical problem, you’re likely entitled to more help getting rebooked and you might even get some compensation from the airline in the form of food or hotel vouchers or even future flight credits.
When it’s not the airline’s fault
The following flight delay causes are considered out of the airline’s control:
- weather conditions (either in your city of departure or arrival city)
- air traffic control (this includes ground stops and control tower issues/backups)
- crew rest (if the crew ran over their scheduled shift and had to take a mandatory break due to earlier weather delays)
For the above causes, most airlines will rebook your connection if you traveled on their airline for your entire itinerary. Sometimes they will provide a meal voucher after four hours.
Connecting to another airline or stuck overnight somewhere? Unfortunately, you are on your own. Try asking at the help desk for a distressed traveler rate to a local hotel or an overnight amenity kit if you don’t have access to your luggage. If you are nice about it, the agents are usually willing to help. One of the reasons we recommend embracing the carry on is so that you’ll have your own items with you. It makes it much easier to change flights at the last minute too!
TravelingMom Tip: Head to a different gate to talk to an agent instead of going to the same line as everyone. Larger airports like Dallas (DFW), Detroit (DTW) have entire customer service desks staffed with multiple agents. And while you’re waiting in line in person, also call the airline’s 800 number and wait on the phone. Sometimes you can get help on the phone much faster.
When the Delay is the Airline’s Fault
On the other hand, when the airline caused the delay — such as a maintenance issue with the plane — it tends to turn out better for the traveler.
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If a mechanical issue causes the delay, the airline is required to:
- offer a meal voucher (you can request them at any time. Most airlines will hand them out in the boarding area if the delay is four hours or more)
- rebook you on a later connection with no fees
- provide you with overnight hotel accommodations if you are stuck in another city. You likely have to take the hotel the airline offers, however. In most case, the airline’s “Contract of Carriage” says it owes you no further compensation for lodging.
Ask nicely if an upgrade is possible for your rebooked flight. It’s gratifying to receive the silver lining of first class after a tough day. If the delay is lengthy and other airlines offer flights to your destination, many airlines will book you on another carrier.
Don’t get angry, get rebooked.
We’ve all seen it. The traveler who goes from zero to overly angry in 5 minutes. He goes to the ticket counter, yells a little, gets on his phone, and starts throwing out numbers. “This trip cost me $4,000. Now I’m losing a day!”
You’re upset. It’s understandable. However, the calmer you remain, the more likely you are to get calm service. Storming out of the airport can make you a “no-show” for the flight. That means you won’t be eligible for a no-fee rebooking. This leads us into our next point.
Say please and thank you. Identify with the agent: “I know this isn’t your fault but I’m sure you can understand that I’m upset. How can you help me?” Speak in a way that makes them want to give you a positive answer. Ask politely for items like credits and meal vouchers.
Do not use the vouchers to drink.
Hopefully, you’re not “partying” at the bar while traveling with your kids, but we’ve all seen nervous, stressed folks add alcohol to the mix during airport delays and end up too drunk to board when the flight is ready to leave. Claire, a character in the TV show “Modern Family,” infamously teetered on the edge of this mistake in one episode.
Repeat after me: There is nothing I can do.
Many travelers stress out when delays happen. This is natural. The reality is that there is not much you can do. Accepting this and reminding yourself that you will get there at some point can help your mental state.
Multitask in line.
Flights delays stack up. The gate agents get swamped. If you are standing in a long line, be on your phone to the airline’s 800 number while you wait. Then get assistance from whoever is available first.
Have Twitter? Find the airlines’ customer service Twitter handle and tweet them. I’ve had WAY faster responses by doing this. They’ll ask you to private message your confirmation code. You can often make all necessary changes without ever talking to a human. Southwest in particular handles tweets really well. If you’re looking for a cancellation or refund with Southwest Twitter is definitely the fastest way to contact them.
Here’s a list of airline Twitter handles:
Information is King
The more information you have, the better. Know what other flight options are available. Have a contingency plan. Know flight numbers for different flights. A quick search of the airline’s website or an aggregator like Kayak.com can provide you with some ideas.
A sample dialogue I’ve used:
Me: Hi there. I understand you are swamped and I want to make this as easy as possible. I am probably going to miss my connection due to the delay. Is there any availability on the United 5pm flight?
Agent: Sure thing. Let me check. (Secretly thinking, “Thank you for not yelling and for making my job easier.”)
Ask to be protected on another flight.
Worried the flight delay will mean that you miss your connection? If you think you can make your original flight under the best case scenario, ask the agent to “protect” you on another flight. It doesn’t delete your original booking, but it gives you a backup in case you miss that connection.
Do not accept a flight change unless you are absolutely certain that you will not make your original connection.
Ask for flight delay compensation.
Most airlines have a voucher system that compensates passengers who are delayed past a certain threshold (for example a flight delay of four hours or longer). However, you have to know to ask for them. That information is listed in your carrier’s Contract of Carriage.
Here are links to the Contracts of Carriage for the major US airlines:
Buy Travel Insurance
Having an annual travel insurance plan may sound fancy or even expensive, but in reality it will be the best (affordable) travel investment you make. Especially in 2021!
Our annual Allianz covers our entire household for less than $500 a year. Knowing that it covers emergency medical care and emergency medical evacuation gives me peace of mind. It also covers lost or delayed baggage and includes both a 24-hour emergency hotline and concierge services to assist with reservations.
Other plans cover trip interruption and trip cancellation as well. In the event of a flight delay of six hours or longer, you submit for reimbursements for eligible expenses, including a hotel room if you’re stuck overnight. The TravelSmart app makes it super easy to submit claims. Payments can be deposited directly into your bank account.
We talk about our first-hand experience here at TravelingMom. The Allianz annual plan is the travel insurance we buy for ourselves and our families.
Our editor Cindy Richards got delayed on her first trip after she purchased an annual plan. Stuck for 3 days after Northeastern snowstorms stalled airport traffic, she filed a claim. That one claim was equal to more than she paid for the full year Allianz plan only days before! She renews that plan every year.
Personally, I had to get a root canal in Sri Lanka (just as fun as it sounds). Not only did Allianz help me to find a local dentist but the insurance paid for the dental work and the medications that accompanied it.
Flight Status: When It’s a Different Kind of Delay
You’ve got to love that gray area. With coronavirus, flight numbers and routes are changing constantly.
My son will fly home for Thanksgiving. So far, the flights I’ve booked have changed flight numbers 4 times! Be sure to keep track of these changes. You don’t need any confusion about times at check-in.
If your flight has been changed and then it gets delayed, email customer service after your flight. Lay out the details of your flight. For example, your Atlanta to Los Angeles flight was changed from 1pm to 5pm, then that flight was delayed for 3 hours. Ask for what you want — miles, a credit, etc. There are no guarantees you will get what you want, but it never hurts to ask.
Another delay that is a giant pain? Tarmac delays (AKA ground delays). Runways have a certain number of flights that can depart every half hour. Some airports like SFO (San Francisco), JFK (New York), and EWR (Newark) routinely have more flights scheduled per 30 minutes than they can physically have take off. The overbooking assumes some flights will be delayed or canceled. When that doesn’t happen, the runways are overbooked and airplanes are forced to wait on the tarmac.
And then there’s deicing – the practice of spraying airplanes with a chemical to melt snow and ice just before takeoff. That extra time leads to ground delays where you’re on the plane but not going anywhere. Many airlines have specific ground delay criteria that they follow.
How Can I Avoid a Delay?
You may be asking yourself: “Is there a way to avoid a delay in the first place?”
The answer is: kind of. Do your research and make choices based on these probabilities:
- Booking the first flight out in the morning during winter increases your chance of delay, especially if you’re flying from a smaller airport. Crews have mandated rest periods and if there were weather delays the day before that rest time will run past the first flight.
- Look at historical data for specific flights, airlines and airports. While it’s not a guarantee, past performance is a good indicator of future on time takeoffs. Realistically, from April 2020 to June 2020 only 77% of flights ran as scheduled (within 15 minutes of advertised times). It’s always a good idea to know what to do when a delay happens.
- If you have a choice, choose the nearby airport with fewer delays. For example, I used to fly to California quarterly for business. I learned very quickly to fly out of Oakland (OAK) over San Francisco (SFO) which had frequent fog delays.
What’s your worst flight delay story? Best outcome? Share with us in the comments below.