Holiday Travel Tips: Know Your Airline Rights


What to do if your flight is overbooked, delayed, or canceled this holiday season.

Traveling during the Thanksgiving and the December holidays can be stressful. Some situations are even more nerve-racking than a crowded airport full of screaming kids: Arriving at the gate to discover that your flight is delayed or canceled, or finding out that you and your now whining children have been involuntarily bumped. Here’s how to make it through these potential airport perils.

Know your rights if the flight is overbooked. Overbooking is not illegal, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). When a flight is overbooked, airlines first ask for volunteers to give up their seats. The DOT does not mandate the amount or type of compensation the airline offers. Airlines may offer money as well as a seat on the next available flight to your destination. Make sure that your guaranteed seat fits your schedule since, with planes flying full, your seat may not be on the next flight. Before accepting a voucher for a free flight, be sure to ask about blackout dates and other restrictions.

Know your rights if bumped. Getting involuntarily bumped is relatively rare, but certainly more possible during the busy holiday travel season when volunteers to take later flights may be in short supply. Although exceptions exist, if bumped and delayed between 1 and 2 hours on a domestic flight, you may receive compensation equal to double the price of your ticket up to $675. If the airline’s substitute flight will get you to your domestic destination more than two hours later or to your international destination more than four hours later than your original flight, payments may be four times the value of your ticket up to $1,350. For conditions and exceptions, review the DOT’s Consumer Guide to Air Travel.

Understand options for delayed or canceled flights. For these situations, unlike being bumped, there are no federal compensation requirements. Instead, each airline determines whether to offer meal vouchers or other reimbursements. Typically, don’t expect vouchers for food or lodging from most budget airlines. However, some relief exists if your flight sits on the tarmac. “U.S. airlines must provide passengers with food and water no later than two hours after the tarmac delay begins,” states the DOT site. And bathrooms must remain open.

What to do if your flight is canceled. Don’t go back out to the ticket counter in the airport check-in area even though airline personnel may direct you to do so. Salvage your trip by being savvy. Avoid the crowds and lines before security by seeking assistance from your airline’s check-in counter or customer service center in the gate area. While waiting in line, use your iPhone, tablet or computer to get online to book available flights and also call your airline’s reservation number as these options might get you a seat quicker than waiting to talk to the person at the counter.

If you must stay overnight, get online to find a nearby hotel with a vacancy. Airport hotels, especially those with free shuttle service to and from the airport, are convenient. When traveling with kids, a hotel with a restaurant or a nearby fast-food chain, however mediocre the food, adds convenience.

If a blizzard closes the entire airport, don’t leave the facility until you have a confirmed flight out even if it’s several days away. Also, ask to be wait-listed on several, earlier flights. Then, when the airport reopens, show up with your bags and get in line at the check-in counter to review your status. Better connections may have become available.

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