Winter Storm Ruined Your Holiday Travel Plans? Here’s How to Get a Flight Refund

Winter Storm Elliott caused widespread flight cancellations across the U.S., especially for Southwest Airlines passengers.

winter storm strands passenger in airport
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Historic Winter Storm Elliott spread wintry misery across the U.S. and derailed holiday travel plans for millions of Americans. The National Weather Service (opens in new tab) (NWS) had estimated that this storm would produce widespread disruptive and potentially crippling impacts affecting up to 110 million people across the central and eastern United States.

Meanwhile, AAA (opens in new tab) had expected 2022 to be the "third busiest year for holiday travel" since the organization began collecting travel-related data in 2000, with 112.7 million people journeying 50 miles or more away from home from Dec. 23 to Jan. 2. 

Unfortunately for holiday travelers, more than 15,000 flights were cancelled before and during the storm, according to CNN (opens in new tab), with Southwest Airlines responsible for most of those. 

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If you took to the skies, there's a good chance you experienced delays or cancellations of your scheduled flight to your holiday destination, especially if you flew on Southwest. So how can you get your money back if you were affected? 

Winter storm preparations by major airlines

Before the storm, CBS News (opens in new tab) reported that several airlines announced their plans for potential blizzard conditions, freezing temperatures and the threat of mass delays and cancellations. United Airlines said its operations team is monitoring the situation and will "adjust as needed." American Airlines had been preemptively operating with an "all hands on deck" status to minimize passenger disruptions, specifically relying on de-icing teams that have been preparing for a winter storm situation since summer. 

Major airlines including American, Delta and more had offered vouchers to allow customers to rebook their flights without change fees. As the storm barreled across the U.S., most airlines managed delays in a normal fashion, limiting their cancellations and managing customer frustrations. 

Except for Southwest, that is.

Southwest's total meltdown

Southwest Airlines stood apart in its level of chaos, cancelling more than 12,000 flights late last month. This is nearly double the cancellations of Delta and United Airlines combined in 2019, according to Bureau of Transportation Statistics data (opens in new tab).

Analysts have blamed staffing shortages and outdated flight scheduling software that trapped flight crews in the wrong cities for days, and Southwest admitted that the software was unable to keep up (opens in new tab) with the historic number of cancellations and crew changes .

Southwest has said it would reimburse (opens in new tab) affected passengers for reasonable expenses such as last-minute hotel, rental car and dining costs, but it might take several weeks. In order to request a refund, the company says passengers whose flights were canceled from Dec. 24 to Jan. 2 should fill out a form and submit receipts online (opens in new tab).

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg told Southwest in a letter (opens in new tab) last week that the disruptions were "unacceptable" and that he expects refunds to be issued within seven days to travelers who booked with a credit card.

In a related, proposed class action filed on Dec. 30 in New Orleans federal court, Eric Capdeville accused Southwest of breach of contract, according to Reuters (opens in new tab). Though Southwest has promised to reimburse (opens in new tab) passengers for expenses, the plaintiff said it offered only a credit to him and his daughter after scrapping their Dec. 27 flight and being unable to book alternative travel.

How to get your refund

So your flight was canceled or delayed — now what? Visit the U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) Airline Customer Service Dashboard (opens in new tab), where you can compare the refund and reimbursement policies of the 10 biggest U.S. airlines. 

According to the DoT's information, Alaska, American, United, Delta and JetBlue are the top carriers in terms of aiding customers with disrupted travel. Frontier and Spirit are by far the worst. 

Find your airline in the tables below and check if your disruption is covered under their policies. 

flight cancellation refunds chart

(Image credit: U.S. Department of Transportation)

airline delay refunds chart

(Image credit: U.S. Department of Transportation)

Airline customer service list

Once you've determined whether your airline covers your situation, contact them via their respective customer service website:

More airline passenger protections

On top of the dashboard, the DoT has been fairly aggressive this year in pursuing airlines for customer abuses.

In August, the DoT announced a pending rule (opens in new tab) to strengthen protections for consumers seeking airline ticket refunds. The rule came in response to years of complaints from consumers with nonrefundable tickets who did not travel because airlines canceled or significantly changed their flights, or because the consumers decided not to fly for pandemic-related reasons, such as health concerns.

The proposed rule requires consumers flying domestically or internationally to receive a full refund based on their original payment method, even cash, in any of the following circumstances:

  • If your flight is canceled.
  • Whenever departure or arrival times are delayed by at least three hours for domestic flights or by at least six hours for international flights, if fliers opt out of taking the flight.
  • Anytime the departure or arrival airport changes or the number of connections is increased on an itinerary.
  • If the original aircraft has to be replaced by another, but there’s a major difference in the onboard amenities offered and overall travel experience as a result.

Most recently, the DoT fined six airlines (opens in new tab) a total of $7.25 million in November for failures to provide timely refunds after customers had their flights canceled or significantly changed.

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Ben Demers
Audience Engagement Manager, Kiplinger.com

Ben Demers manages audience engagement at Kiplinger, informing readers through a broad spectrum of personal finance content across social media, articles, e-newsletters, syndicated content, and videos. He is passionate about helping people lead their best lives through sound financial behaviors, particularly saving money at home and avoiding scams and identity theft. Ben graduated with an M.P.S. from Georgetown University and a B.A. from Vassar College. He joined Kiplinger in May 2017.