By Sally French | NerdWallet
U.S. airlines aren’t required to compensate passengers for flight delays. Refunds are only guaranteed for entirely canceled flights (assuming the passenger opts not to be rebooked by the airline). There’s also no legal requirement for airlines to offer additional flight delay compensation.
That said, most U.S. airlines have pledged to provide additional services or amenities to customers affected by disrupted flights, as documented in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s customer service dashboard. But those pledged amenities can be semi-stingy. While every major U.S. airline offers meal vouchers for delays of three hours or more, only Alaska Airlines promises frequent flyer miles.
I’ve had two flight mishaps this year — yet both times I got compensation above what the U.S. government requires, and greater than what the airlines pledged.
Here’s the script I used to get travel vouchers, bonus miles and a free meal.
Southwest delayed flight compensation: a meal voucher and travel credit
The first delay I experienced this year happened as I traveled from Oakland, Calif., to St. Louis on a Southwest Airlines flight that entailed a layover in Denver.
Because the Oakland flight departed late, I (and 20 of my now closest friends seeking the same connection) arrived minutes after the boarding door closed on the St. Louis-bound flight. Together, we stood and watched our plane take off.
Southwest automatically rebooked us on the next departing flight, but that meant an irritatingly long layover plus a 2 a.m. arrival time in St. Louis.
I beelined to Southwest’s customer service desk, and after exchanging niceties, I said, “I’m going to land nearly three hours late, which means my ride home isn’t going to be able to pick me up. Do you offer any sort of compensation?”
They said they didn’t cover rides home, so I asked what else they could provide.
The agent offered me a $100 voucher toward future Southwest flights, something no airlines promise, besides Alaska Airlines and JetBlue.
I accepted, and as they printed the voucher, I said, “I don’t want to be greedy, but do you offer meal vouchers?”
Southwest’s delay compensation stance is to offer meal vouchers for delays of three hours or more, plus a hotel stay (and ground transportation to that hotel) for overnight delays. Though my delay was just under three hours, the agent printed out a $14 voucher, which covered dinner at Panda Express.
United canceled flight compensation: travel credits and miles
My second flight mishap of 2023 fell under United Airlines’ July Fourth weekend meltdown. My coach and I were headed to Colorado to compete at the 2023 USA Weightlifting National Championships when United canceled our flight entirely.
While the United cancellation policy promises to book you on the next available flight, the next available flight wasn’t for two days — after the competition ended.
Since federal law requires airlines to refund you for canceled flights (as long as you opt not to take another flight with them), I quickly bought two last-minute seats on another airline. There was no way I was going to miss the competition.
After the dust had settled, I filed for and received a full refund. United also sent us both (and everyone else caught up in the meltdown) 30,000 United MileagePlus miles, which NerdWallet estimates are worth about $360.
But our last-minute flights weren’t cheap — and I also booked an Uber because the hotel shuttle had stopped running by our new (delayed) arrival time. So I sent a message to the United customer service team through its online form. Here’s what I said:
My Wednesday flight was canceled and the next available option was Friday. I was competing at a weightlifting meet on Friday morning, so that alternative would not have been possible. Instead, I booked a last-minute flight for my coach and me on Southwest, which was $279.97 per person and got in at about 2 a.m.
Originally we were going to take the hotel shuttle, but since it stopped running at midnight, I also paid $39.62 for an Uber.
I am requesting compensation of $599.56 (both our airfares plus the Uber) to cover the unanticipated expenses. I know Southwest offered compensation for flights on other airlines when it had a similar cancellation situation in January, so thanks in advance for providing it to United customers.”
While United didn’t give me the $599.56 I requested, a customer service rep did issue me a $500 certificate toward future United flights. That was on top of the airfare refund, plus $720 worth of miles between us.
Considering that my out-of-pocket expenses to get us there last-minute amounted to about $700, we actually profited off United’s meltdown (assuming we’ll use the United vouchers and miles).
Tips for maximizing delayed flight compensation
Major flight disruptions are almost inevitable for frequent flyers. In the first four months of 2023, only 76.49% of flights arrived on time. More specifically, 21.6% of flights were delayed and 1.7% were canceled entirely, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
And while my two personal anecdotes had a happy ending, such outcomes are hardly a guarantee, particularly in the U.S., which provides few legal protections for disrupted flights. That’s in contrast to EU flight delay compensation rules, where travelers are legally entitled to up to 600 euros (about $660), depending on the delay.
Know what compensation you’re entitled to in the U.S.
Before seeking compensation for delayed flights, understand what you’re legally entitled to.
For canceled flights: Most airlines will rebook you on the next departing flight to your destination at no additional cost beyond the initial airfare paid.
If you choose not to take another flight on that airline, you are legally entitled to a refund.
For delayed flights: Airlines are not required to provide flight delay compensation. Compensation is only required when “bumped” from an oversold flight, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Look to travel insurance
Your travel insurance policy may help (if you have one). Many policies offer trip-delay and interruption benefits that can alleviate delay-related costs such as meals or hotel accommodations. While travel insurance typically costs extra, you might already have it because many credit cards provide trip insurance on trips paid for with that card.
If your flight is canceled or delayed, move quickly to get rebooked, or make alternative arrangements before seats fill up. You might be competing with all of the other passengers on your disrupted flight for a limited number of seats on the next departing flight. In situations like United’s July Fourth weekend meltdown, or the 2022 Southwest meltdown, you might be competing with a lot more than just one aircraft full of people to get to your destination.
While comparison shopping is wise in some situations, if getting to your destination is critical amidst a last-minute disruption, then booking any flight — assuming it’s in your budget — might be the best move.
The customer service agent is likely stressed and overwhelmed, so show kindness when asking for support. I suspect that’s what worked for me.
In both situations, I got to my destinations with some delay, but I felt appropriately compensated because of it. And once I finally made it to the weightlifting competition, managing the hassle felt worth it, as I even medaled at USAW Nationals.
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Sally French writes for NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @SAFmedia.