How to Overcome Travel Delays and Cancellations

Travel hiccups are unavoidable. Here’s how to navigate them.

passenger looking at timetable board at the airport
(Image credit: anyaberkut)

Everyone has a tale of travel gone wrong. The recent computer crash at Delta was just the latest in a long line of airline mishaps that have caused widespread disruptions. A hiccup here and there won’t ruin your trip. But if you encounter a full-on snafu on your next flight, knowing your rights and planning ahead can save you from becoming another horror-story victim.

Most airline delays and cancellations are caused by technological failures, such as the Delta outage, or weather-related problems. In either case, virtually all airlines promise to book you a seat on the next available flight at no additional charge. (A handful of airlines, including Delta and United, may book you on another airline at their discretion.) For individual cases, that might be the end of your troubles. But in the case of a massive disruption, delays can derail your trip for days. If you decide not to proceed with your trip, you can apply for a full refund, even if you hold a nonrefundable ticket. But if packing it in and going home isn’t an option, you’ll have to proceed to Plan B.

You’ll generally fare better if the delay or cancellation is the fault of the airline. For instance, in a long delay (typically four hours) due to equipment malfunction, Alaska, Hawaiian, United and WestJet provide meal vouchers. And those four as well as American, Delta and Sun Country will provide overnight accommodations in the case of a delay that continues after 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. If the airline can’t get you into one of its affiliate hotels, you’ll get a voucher worth the price of a stay to spend toward a future flight. Other airlines might be willing to provide assistance if you explain your situation, but they are not required to do so.

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If you’re delayed by weather or some unforeseen event, such as a workers’ strike, airlines will offer little assistance, and you may have to foot any delay-related bills yourself. It pays to act quickly. The TripIt Pro (opens in new tab) smartphone app for Apple and Android ($49 a year) will send you alerts about cancellations, delays or gate changes on the fly, sometimes even ahead of an airline announcement. The free FlightAware (opens in new tab) app (Apple, Android and Windows) will also let you keep tabs on your flight. If you wake up the day of your flight and the weather looks dicey, book a refundable hotel room near the airport.

Hedge Your Bets

Travel insurance can compensate you for the costs associated with a trip interruption. You can purchase some policies up until the day of your trip, but err on the side of buying early. If you buy after it’s apparent that bad weather will ground your flight, for instance, you may forfeit

coverage. George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com (opens in new tab), recommends that you reject the airline’s coverage and compare policies at third-party sites such as Squaremouth.com (opens in new tab) and TravelInsurance.com (opens in new tab). The insurance will likely pay expenses such as meals and hotel stays during a delay, and policies will often cover nonrefundable costs for unused hotel rooms or tour packages at your destination. But read the fine print, says Hobica: “The insurer’s de­finition of a delay may be very different from yours.”

Your credit card company may also be able to help. If you’re delayed by more than six hours, or if you need to stay overnight, the Chase Sapphire Reserve card will reimburse you for up to $500 per day in necessary expenses, such as hotel rooms and meals. The Chase Sapphire Preferred, American Express Platinum and Citi Prestige cards offer similar coverage.

Ryan Ermey
Associate Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
Ryan joined Kiplinger in the fall of 2013. He writes and fact-checks stories that appear in Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine and on Kiplinger.com. He previously interned for the CBS Evening News investigative team and worked as a copy editor and features columnist at the GW Hatchet. He holds a BA in English and creative writing from George Washington University.