What you believe to be fair and what will actually happen, when you experience flight delays and difficulties, are often vastly different. You can throw away the notion of the gold plated airport golf cart coming to pick you up, and take you to a VIP jacuzzi with Chef Nobu cranking out some light bites while you wait. Delays, cancellations and bumps turn airports into chaos. Beyond the golden golf cart, knowing what you’re owed and what will likely happen is essential to a happy outcome…

a row of airplanes on a runway


Everyone thinks that a delayed flight automatically requires compensation. Wrong. You can argue your case, but for short delays, no government on earth thinks so. Anything you get is a courtesy from the airline. Furthermore, if your flight delay is caused by weather, or other events out of human control, no matter how long the delay, all other rules go out the window. That’s what twitter’s for eh? There are exceptions and important rights you DO have…

a close up of a flag

US Rules

Each airline has its own policy about what it can and will do for delayed passengers. There are NO federal requirements to help you out. Unfortunately for most, this means that airlines will always give better treatment and benefits to their elite flyers, including accommodations and/or priority rebooking. Whatever scraps are up for grabs will go to the normal flyers. Nothing is guaranteed, but you should always ask for what you believe to be fair. That means if your flight is delayed overnight, you should fight for a free hotel room and meals. There is one semi silver lining, more like aluminum perhaps, but if you are delayed while on the plane, airlines must provide food and water after two hours of delay, and at three hours must offer you the right to get off penalty free. Unfortunately, it’s four hours for international flights. To summarize, the US Department of Transportation, literally and shockingly, has no requirement for airlines to do anything for you…

Best Options: If you’re in a hurry, search for similar flights on other airlines which will be departing on time. If you find one, politely ask the airline to endorse your ticket over to the airline operating on time. They don’t have to, but they may if you are polite and compelling. Additionally, be proactive in contacting call centers, using apps and seeking assistance in rebooking and assessing your options. Waiting in line is almost always a bad idea. When it’s all over, be sure to send the airline an email or online message to voice your displeasure, they are generally very good at offering miles for the inconvenience…

a blue flag with yellow stars on it

European Rules

European Union standards are tighter, for the better. Airlines are required to provide food and refreshments to passengers waiting for a short flight delayed just two hours, with long flights getting the refreshment treatment after four hours. If your flight is delayed by five hours or more, you’re entitled to a refund, however, once you accept the refund the airline doesn’t have to take you anywhere or do anything for you. You just get your money back. Even better, for flights that are delayed until the next day, lodging and meals are a requirement for all passengers. It doesn’t even stop there, on the arriving end, if your flight arrives three or more hours late, assuming that the delay was not due to weather, and you weren’t offered another flight that would’ve worked, you are entitled to a check for an amount between €250-€600, depending on length of flight.

Best Options: Again, if you’re in a hurry and getting to your destination as close to on time is the key, ask for your ticket to be endorsed or proactively seek out another routing on the same airline and ask to move to those flights. Have flight numbers and everything ready. To get it done, use airline apps, social media and phones to reach out as quickly as possible, to beat the rebooking rush. If you’re not in a hurry, see what the airline is offering, bargain for your best options and let it play out. Again, once it’s all over, email or send an online message stating your displeasure, the inconvenience caused and ask if this is what you can expect from them. Airlines are generally very good at offering miles to keep you happy(ish).

a close-up of a sign

Schedule Changes + Aircraft Changes

Far less red tape here. A schedule change or aircraft change opens pandoras box, allowing you tons of options. Airlines might sigh and fret, but you can change to any more suitable flight within reason and/or move to a flight with your original aircraft type. No one hoping to experience a brand new plane would be too happy on an old clunker…

a group of people walking in front of a large screen with a sign


a close-up of a flag

US Rules

I don’t even know why I bothered writing in this space. There are no rules. Airlines are on their own to accommodate you and rebook you onto the next available flight.

a blue flag with yellow stars on it

European Rules

European rules are much better. You’re entitled to the obvious stuff, like the option to take the next available flight with availability, a later flight at a different point in time with availability, or an attractive third option, a refund of the ticket as well as a return to your first point of departure. So if you went from London to Rome, and were stranded in Rome, you’d get a refund and a flight home to London, your first departure point.

a close up of a ticket

Voluntary + Involuntary Bumps

a close-up of a flag

US Rules

A voluntary bump is a negotiation between you and the airline. There are no set rules. Airlines often offer pretty excellent opportunities for voluntary bumpers, including upgrades, vouchers for future flights, hotels and other goodies. For involuntary bumps, there are rules and you don’t have to accept any less, and may receive much more. For an involuntary bump that gets you to your destination within an hour of schedule, you get nothing. For an involuntary bump that gets you to your destination between just over one hour, and under two for domestic, and one and four for international, you receive 200% of your one way fare, up to $650. If your delay is over two hours domestically and four hours internationally, you’re entitled to a check in the amount of 400% of the one way fare, up to $1300. If you’re on an award ticket, the compensation will be based on the lowest available fare at the time. The airline will offer you vouchers, but you can demand cold hard cash.

a blue flag with yellow stars on it

European Rules

Again, a voluntary bump is a negotiation with the airline, there are no set rules, you’ll have to pull out your best agent skills and negotiate. For involuntary denied boarding, you are entitled to just about everything mentioned in this entire post. You’ll get moved to the flight of your choice, provided there’s availability, you’ll get cash compensation up to €650 and any bumps requiring an overnight will secure you hotels and meals.

Expert Tips

If you find yourself in one of these unfortunate situations, be as proactive and speedy as possible in assessing your options. Consider whether or not a bump with some future airline credit would be beneficial. If you’re not in a hurry, it almost always is. If you are in a hurry, get the schedules and on time information for flights that can keep you moving. Bring them to the attention of an airline social media department, their call center and their desk personnel, whichever gets to it first. Most importantly, remember, if you are involuntarily denied boarding, you do not have to take vouchers, you can take cash.


Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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