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Your flight was canceled. Now what?

Here’s how to get to where you want to go (and make sure your luggage makes it too).

A graphic illustration of a man sitting on a bench at an airport, suitcase beside him and board with flight times above him. His head is in his hands. Getty Images/iStockphoto
Allie Volpe is a senior reporter at Vox covering mental health, relationships, wellness, money, home life, and work through the lens of meaningful self-improvement.

Air travel is inherently stressful. You need to ensure you give yourself enough time to get to the airport, and, once there, you have to contend with potentially long lines at bag drop and security. Without fail, you either have too much time or no time at all at the gate before boarding. Aside from timing, many of the conditions around air travel are out of the passenger’s control, including flight cancellations and delays.

In the United States, over 20 percent of flights were delayed in 2022, according to statistics from the US Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Nearly 3 percent of flights were canceled. Stranded at the airport, frustrated passengers may feel out of options. But you do have a few cards in your hand: reschedule, refund, request, or wait it out. Here are some answers to help you make a plan should you find yourself waiting out a delayed or canceled flight.

What causes flight delays and cancellations?

The DOT’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics tracks the causes of flight delays. According to the most recent data, from January through September 2022, the most common reason for flight delays was air carrier delays. A carrier delay includes circumstances like cleaning the airplane, damage to the plane, waiting for connecting passengers or crew to arrive, fueling, and maintenance — all of which are controllable by the airline.

The second-most common cause for a flight delay was the aircraft arriving late — which can be caused by weather. In 2021, weather accounted for 26 percent of total delays that year.

The causes for flight cancellations are the same as delays: air carrier, extreme weather, National Aviation System issues (like non-extreme weather, airport operations, heavy traffic volume, and air traffic control), and security (like needing to evacuate, or reboard because of a security breach or long lines at security).

I have an upcoming flight. What can I do to prepare?

Before you leave for the airport, make sure you’ve signed up for text alerts and downloaded the airline’s app (turn on its notifications) or the FlightAware app to get real-time flight information. If your flight is delayed or canceled well in advance, you can make adjusted plans from the comfort of a hotel or loved one’s home instead of the chaos of the airport.

Take a few photos of your luggage so that if it gets lost down the line, you can provide an accurate description of what it looks like. Travel expert Gary Leff of the travel blog View from the Wing also recommends putting an Apple AirTag in your luggage so you can track your suitcase’s exact location, whether it’s halfway across the country or at baggage claim.

Familiarize yourself with the services your airline provides in the event of a delay or cancellation so you know how to advocate for yourself and other passengers. The DOT’s Airline Customer Service Dashboard details various amenities airlines have committed to providing should a flight be canceled for reasons the airline can control, like maintenance or crew problems, but not weather. These services include rebooking your ticket for free on the same airline (or a partner airline) or a meal voucher for delays longer than three hours.

Your credit card might also offer trip delay coverage or baggage delay coverage where the cost of your hotel, meals, and expenses are reimbursed. Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Platinum Card from American Express, and Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card are among the credit cards offering these protections, but check your credit card contract for exact details.

Some airlines, like United and Delta, don’t have change fees for economy tickets and above, so you can change your flight for free if a delay is stretching on longer than you’d like and there’s a more convenient flight on the same air carrier. Check with your airline to make sure you’re not paying extra if you do try to change your flight.

My flight is perpetually delayed. I need to get out of this airport.

For delays that extend overnight due to controllable issues, many airlines — including American, Delta, Spirit, Southwest, and United — offer complimentary hotel accommodations, per the DOT Airline Customer Service Dashboard. Many of these airlines provide free transportation to the hotel, too. Extreme weather doesn’t fall under the “controllable” reasons an airline would offer these services, but if you’re stuck due to a weather delay, it’s still worth asking.

Passengers dealing with “significant” delays are entitled to a full refund should they choose not to travel. The DOT hasn’t defined what constitutes a “significant” delay, but rather decides on a case-by-case basis taking into account the length of the delay and the length of the flight. Under normal circumstances, refunds are issued fairly quickly, Leff says.

For airlines that won’t cover hotel stays and meals, go to the baggage service office in baggage claim and ask about the distressed traveler rate, Leff says. “When the airline is not paying for the hotel, they may have discounts available on hotels through their own negotiated rates, and the hotels provide that discount because they want the business from the airline,” he explains. “So you may get a better rate than if you were booking directly yourself. It’s not a publicly available rate.”

My flight was canceled. What now?

Regardless of the reason for cancellation, every passenger is entitled to a full refund should they choose not to rebook.

For delays and cancellations, Leff says the best course of action is to avoid long lines at the airline counter at the airport. “Standing in hours and hours-long lines is probably not going to get you information that’s even going to be useful,” he says. But do exhaust all of your options: Try calling, getting in touch via social media, chatting through the mobile app or with staff at the club level, looking at other flight options on other airlines, or plotting a route via train or bus. “You are best off looking at flight options yourself as though you were buying anew, knowing that with a canceled flight you’ll get your money back, and then you have at least the option to submit to Southwest receipts for some level of reimbursement,” Leff says of passengers dealing with that particular situation.

Just remember the airline staff, on the phone and at the airport, are not responsible for your travel headaches and are not the people on whom to unleash your frustrations. Be nice.

I finally landed. Where’s my luggage?

Sometimes passengers get separated from their luggage, leaving people without clothes and toiletries in a new location. When your bags don’t make it to your destination, speak with a member of airport staff immediately. They may have paperwork for you to fill out describing the physical attributes of your suitcase and its contents. Hopefully, the airport can locate and deliver your bag to you in a timely manner. (Before you depart, make sure there are no irreplaceable items, like keys, or things you’ll need immediately, like medication, in your checked luggage.)

The most an airline can pay a passenger for permanently lost luggage is $3,800 for domestic flights. Again, airlines may reimburse you for items you needed to purchase while your suitcase was missing, so keep receipts.

When it comes to air travel, there are many factors that can, and at some point, will, go awry. Have a plan (and a backup plan), know what expenses airlines will cover, and try to anticipate potential headaches.

Update, January 6, 2023: This piece was originally published on December 28, 2022, and has been updated to include general travel advice around delays and cancellations.

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