What you can ask from an airline after a delayed or canceled flight

As we head into the next two weeks of holiday travel, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration expects to screen more than 2.5 million passengers daily from Dec. 21 to Jan. 2, following the screening of approximately 30 million travelers over Thanksgiving.

While TSA said it is “prepared to handle the busy passenger volumes this winter holiday season,” holiday travels can often be delayed and canceled due to Mother Nature.

Last year, nearly 20,000 holiday flights were canceled from the Monday before Christmas, thanks to a winter storm across much of the U.S. over Christmas. More chaos ensued when Southwest Airlines had an operational meltdown (for which the U.S. Department of Transportation fined the airline up to $140 million just this week on Dec. 18).

When you’re heading home to see family or friends who have become chosen family, it’s particularly frustrating when travel plans go awry over the holidays.

It’s important to know what you, as a passenger, can reasonably expect from an airline in times of stress in case your flight is delayed or canceled over the next few weeks.

When your flight is canceled or significantly delayed due to reasons outside your control, like the weather and operational issues cited above, you can contact airlines to ask for compensation.

Although U.S. federal law requires airlines to compensate passengers who cancel their trip altogether in response to a canceled flight, the DOT determines whether a delayed flight warrants a refund on a case-by-case basis.

Therefore, we can’t guarantee airlines will give you anything at all, but we suggest being prepared with the tangible requests outlined below.

If you choose to contact an airline’s customer service department (see our guide on how to contact them), remember that you’re speaking to a fellow human on the other side of the phone who deserves respect. Kindness goes a long way, especially in times of stress.

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If you deal with a delayed or canceled flight over the holidays, bookmark this page. And if you don’t, still bookmark this page because you likely have a similar situation in the future.

Non-flight-related costs: Hotel, rental car and meals

This starts with any extra costs (aside from the ticket itself) you may have incurred as a result of the cancellation or delay.

If your canceled or delayed flight forced you to seek alternative transportation options to get where you need to be, your first step is to ask the airline if it will cover those costs. These costs include booking a last-minute rental car or Amtrak ticket, for example.

If you booked a new flight the next day, see if the airline will cover at least some of your accommodation and food costs for the unexpected night.

“While some airlines offer these amenities to passengers, others do not provide any amenities to stranded passengers,” per DOT.

If an airline agrees to cover some of these costs related to food and accommodations, it’ll most likely be for those tied to hotels near the airport and/or meals at that hotel or the airport. If you book a night at a luxury hotel downtown, don’t expect them to offer to cover that stay.

While airlines are not required to give you anything for the inconvenience, they may cover some of the costs you incurred from inconveniencing you in the first place.

If you booked your flight using a credit card with trip delay or trip cancellation insurance, see what, if anything, your credit card company will cover, determined by the specific terms and conditions of protection.

For example, both the Chase Sapphire Reserve® and The Platinum Card® from American Express cover accommodations in these circumstances.

Airline miles

There are two scenarios where an airline might offer you airline miles in return for a canceled or delayed flight.

If you used airline miles to book your flight and proactively canceled your flight ahead of its departure, ask your airline to credit those miles back to your account.

This would also apply if you used cash to book a refundable flight you canceled before departure.

The second scenario involves bonus miles, which an airline may award in response to a canceled flight. This usually comes in the form of a flight credit to use toward a future flight, which airlines commonly offer.

Beyond offering a flight credit or travel voucher, you can also ask your airline to award extra miles, such as Delta SkyMiles or American Airlines AAdvantage miles, for canceling your flight.

If you hold elite status for your airline of choice, they are more likely to honor your request.

Even if you have a low-level status or no status at all, inquire with the carrier about receiving bonus miles in return for dealing with a bad flight experience.

Bottom line

If you’ve made it thus far and are asking yourself if there’s a way to get refunded for your delayed flight entirely, it depends on whether your delay falls under the category of a “significant delay,” as defined by the DOT.

Unlike the European Union with EU 261, the U.S. legal system does not clearly outline the circumstances that entitle air passengers to refunds for delayed flights.

Even still, an airline offering to refund you entirely for your delayed flight is unrealistic since refund policies depend on flight schedule changes overall. However, as a rule of thumb, you should always ask for more than what they initially offer.

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