You Gotta Fight for Your Right to Travel

There’s nothing worse than a canceled flight. Regardless of the reason, to have your travel plans changed through circumstances outside your control can be frustrating — even infuriating — and you start wondering what you’re supposed to do next.
Most airline passenger rights are established by the government and therefore are the same for all scheduled airlines and their passengers. But, in the United States, there are no federal laws or regulations that specify what rights you have in the event of a canceled flight. That means your rights vary from carrier to carrier.
A recent Smart Traveler article said that all airlines make sure that you understand that they do not guarantee schedule and are never responsible for consequential damages (losses you suffer because you didn’t arrive on time or at all).
According to the article, you have two basic rights when your flight is canceled, although they may vary slightly. You’re either guaranteed a seat on the airline’s next available flight (at no additional charge), or you can be given a refund of the unused portion of your ticket. Some airlines will go a bit further if they have to cancel the flight for a reason within their control, but most often will not when the cancellation is weather-related.
In most cases, regardless of the reason, when an airline cancels your flight, you have a right to a full refund of the remaining value of your ticket, according to the article. Refunds can be in cash or card, depending upon how it was purchased.
Another option is to travel in the next available seat. Almost all airlines promise to get you a seat on their next available flight to your destination at no extra cost. Typically you’ll get a seat in the same class, but upgrades can happen if a seat doesn’t exist. A lower-class seat — with a refund of the price difference — is another alternative. Other options include a transfer to another airline or even ground transport that can get you to your destination before they can get you there, but only at their “sole discretion.”
It’s important to know that all airlines consider airports they serve within a multi-airport region as equivalent destinations. So for example, if you’re headed to JFK, Newark and LaGuardia are considered equivalent. There are several others like Chicago (O’Hare and Midway), Dallas-Fort Worth (International and Love Field), Houston (Bush and Hobby), Los Angeles (International, Burbank, Long Beach, Ontario, Orange County), San Francisco (International, Oakland, San Jose), and Washington (National, Dulles, and Baltimore).
Also, you should note that if the next available seat is on a red-eye and you prefer not to travel on one, there’s nothing that says the airline must find you a later seat on a better schedule. If the next available seat is not scheduled to arrive within a reasonable time, most airlines will agree to put you on an earlier flight to a nearby destination such as Philadelphia instead of Newark or New York.
Should you decide that none of the options work, there is nothing to specify a limit to how far in the future a carrier will honor the “no fare charge” provision. It may be negotiable but, according to Smarter Travel, nothing is guaranteed.
If your flight is canceled due to weather conditions or causes out of the carrier’s control (acts of God, strikes, work stoppages, fuel shortages, civil unrest, etc.) your rights are a refund or the next available seat to your destination.
However, if the cancellation is a problem within the carrier’s control (crew shortage, plane change, etc.) most lines will tend to your need in the case of an extended delay in finding that available seat. Customarily these can include meal vouchers or hotel accommodations.
Policies, like prices, change and can vary in specificity, and some are even negotiable.
International flights, such as those outside the U.S. and Canada offer a bit more to the weary traveler. Travelers on European Union flights, for example, are entitled to alternative transport, refund and no-charge return.
This is also a strong argument for using a travel agent. If they made the arrangements, they can also be the ones to negotiate for new alternatives.
Another possibility is to do some online research for other flight options, such as changing a layover from Atlanta to Cincinnati or Detroit. If you can help the booking agent save a little time in finding options, it helps them out immensely.
Finally, most importantly, mind your manners. The person dealing with your change did not cause the cancellation, nor can they offer you seats that aren’t available. Aggression may land you in trouble; kindness may land you in a (better?) seat on your way to your destination.
Have you ever had to deal with a flight cancellation? How did you handle it? Tell us about it on our Facebook page, or on our Twitter stream. You can also find us on our Instagram page at @TravelproIntl.
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