PennyWise: Personal Finance & Travel TipsPennyWise: Personal Finance & Travel Tips

How to get compensation for flight delays

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Travel booms during the holiday season and between winter weather and large crowds, delays and cancelations are to be expected. U.S. airlines are not required by law to compensate passengers for flight delays, and refunds are only guaranteed for flights that are canceled. There are, however, things you can do to get some compensation for travel disruptions. On the latest episode of PennyWise, host Nat Cardona is joined by Sally French of NerdWallet who shares the script that worked for her to get compensation from airlines for cancelations and delays. 

Read more on NerdWallet here!

About this program

Nat Cardona is host of PennyWise as well as Lee Enterprise's true-crime podcast Late Edition: Crime Beat Chronicles. Lee Enterprises produces many national, regional and sports podcasts. Learn more here.

Episode transcript

Note: The following transcript was created by Adobe Premiere and may contain misspellings and other inaccuracies as it was generated automatically:

Welcome to Pennywise, a Lee Enterprises podcast. I'm your host Nat Cardona.

Ah, air travel. It's stressful at times, especially when you're hit with seemingly endless delays or a cancellation that will leave you sitting in an airport chair staring at that God awful carpet pattern while you wait. Nerdwallet Traveler Awards expert Sally French joins us today with two personal flight anecdotes that prove maybe, just maybe, you can be compensated for your time in trouble through your airline if you follow her script.

Sally we're talking about flight delays and two experiences that you had going off of a script to get compensation because of those two flights. So flight delays and cancellations happen. They seem like they're happening more and more often or more. Maybe people on social media are complaining about it. Whatever. Have you. So you're in the airport, your flight's delayed and delayed or delayed.

Let's talk about your anecdotes first and we can just pop in tips along the way. So just go for it.

Yes. So I've been caught up in two fairly significant flight delays this year. The first one happened because I was trying to fly from my home in Oakland, California, to Saint Louis, and I had a layover in Denver. So what happened is the flight departing from Oakland departed late, and it turned out that it ended up being so late that we missed the connecting flight to Saint Louis.

We missed it by just barely. In fact, 20 of my now closest friends who were also trying to make that connection. We ran off the first plane and we saw the plane taking off from the jet bridge and rolling on to the tarmac just there, and they couldn't wait for us. So what ended up happening is we got rebooked on the next departing flight.

But that meant an irritatingly long layover, many hours in the Denver airport, plus a 2 a.m. arrival time in Saint Louis was not ideal. So my question was, what can I do? What can I get out of this other? The flight was on Southwest and they did automatically rebook me to my next flight, but it was still pretty annoying.

So I headed to the customer service desk and I basically said, Hey, it's because this flight is leaning so late, my ride isn't going to be able to pick me up. Do you offer any sort of compensation? And they said, No, we can't get you a ride to your next destination, but how about we offer you an $100 voucher?

And I was like, You know what? I'll take it. I'm rebooked. Anyway, this sounds like a good deal as they're printing out the voucher. I said. Can you offer any food as well? And they also sent me a voucher so I could get dinner up to $14 in the airport to tide me over until the flight. So that was my first.

That Southwest experience. It ended up being not too bad. I got $100 out of it and I had to stay at the airport for like a bonus for hours. But it seemed to work. My second situation was the United flight melt down during 4th of July weekend. I was headed to again, I was actually headed to Colorado. And as I was just looking at my flight arrival time, I saw that my flight had been canceled.

And so this was a huge meltdown because many, many people's flights were canceled that weekend. So what happened is I had to get to Colorado. So I ended up booking a flight actually on Southwest Airlines last minute because I was going to get there no matter what. So you are legally entitled to a full refund for a canceled flight?

I had to pay initially for my United flight. I then paid for an expensive last minute Southwest flight, but I was able to get a full refund on that United flight. However, I felt like that wasn't good enough because I had to book a last minute flight for a higher cost. So I emailed United and I basically said, Hey, my flight was canceled.

The next available option for you to rebook me was to wait. It was going to be two days later, which wouldn't work for my travels. I ended up having to book this other expensive flight. So I'm requesting compensation and I requested exactly $599.56, which was the cost of my new airfare, my travel companions, new airfare, plus an Uber to the hotel that we would have to take because of the delayed flight.

And so I requested about $600 and they responded back to me. They sent both me and my travel companion 30,000 United Miles points and we also got a a refund on the offer. And then the United rep sent me a $500 gift certificate towards future United flights, which basically made up the cost of my flight that I had to purchase anyway.

All in all, it was a pretty good deal out of a bad situation. And and so it just sort of illustrated a big learning is that in the U.S., you are not entitled by the government to compensation for delayed flights. But that doesn't mean you can't get compensation. You just simply have to ask.

Right. Right. And that's immediately with your first story of the delayed flight. It's just putting yourself out there to talk to the agent at the desk and being polite. I imagine, is a huge thing, which you often see in airports is not the case. Right?

Right. That's exactly. Is the person at the ticket counter or is not the cause of your delay, but they can help you get to where you need to go. They can ultimately have that power to rebook you. They're the ones who can issue those meal vouchers or those frequent flier miles. So you really want to make sure that they are on your side?

I'm sure. Sure. And then, you know, in the second predicament that you had with the cancellation, any advice and I don't know if you can just pull this out of your back pocket, but let's say somebody doesn't have immediate extra funds to rebook on a separate airline outside of what they've already. Let's say if it's united or American and you kind of are stuck with a horrible cancellation and reschedule, what would your approach be there, do you think?

Right. That's exactly one of the tough situations, is I just immediately booked a Southwest flight for a couple of reasons. One, I was able to have the funds on hand to book the flight right away. Two, Southwest is a great airline because you can then cancel your flight pretty much within 10 minutes of takeoff and you can get that money back as a Southwest travel credit.

So I knew that all my plans are up in the air and I would be able to at least have that Southwest credit on hand. Southwest makes it really easy to change and cancel flights. In fact, there normal top rated airline in terms of change and cancellation policies. The other thing that you might want to consider is simply holding travel insurance because travel insurance will often help you rebook on another flight.

The catch is it has to be a covered reason and it can be really nebulous. What a covered reason is. It varies based on the policy and it depends on the reason for the cancellation. Travel insurance is typically a percent of your overall trip cost. However, you might not even need to pay for travel insurance. Many travel credit cards offer travel insurance is a benefit for booking that trip on the card.

So I would definitely recommend looking into one of these travel credit cards that offers travel insurance as a benefit. So that way, if you are in a similar predicament where maybe you have to stay in a hotel for an extra night, often your travel insurance is the one that will cover that. Nerdwallet has a list of all the best credit cards that have travel insurance.

Many of them do have annual fees, but the reality is often annual fee is still less than the cost to buy travel insurance out of pocket. So if you are going to buy a travel insurance, it's often a no brainer.

Yeah, that's a great suggestion because it's when you book your tickets individually and then you see that checkbox at the end, do you want to add travel insurance? A lot of people overlook it, but nowadays pretty beneficial. And yeah, if you're using your credit card, I didn't even realize if you have a travel credit card that that perhaps could already be looped in there.

So that's that's important stuff. The one other thing I want to touch on here is acting quickly. If you get yourself in one of these predicaments, whether if like it's canceled or delayed, that being in my personal experience. Pay attention to your app that is connected to your airlines, because if you have to manually pick seats, choose what flight, what time.

Remember, you're probably competing with a lot of other people for the same thing. 


That's a great point, because especially, you know, in my Southwest example, there were about 20 of us who needed to get on this connecting flight, which means there were 20 empty seats on the flight that were left without us. And who knows how many empty seats are on the next departing flight. Luckily, in that case, there was a seat for everybody.

But if there hadn't have been, then we would have been competing against each other to get that seat on the next departing flight could be really stressful. Similarly, in the United situation where United just completely canceled flights, I ended up booking on Southwest. And the reality is so many other people did. In fact, I when we were boarding in the southwest, boarding gate attendant said, how many of you guys never intended to take this Southwest flight and are coming from United?

And the whole boarding gate erupted in cheers because there were so many people. And the the attendant said, you know, I had to get that because this flight usually has like ten people who take it on average. And it's a full flight, which means everyone, when there's a cancellation or a delay, is jumping to get on the next available flight, which again, you're just competing with everyone.

And often there's not enough seats.

There to have your phone charged and wallet handy.

Really. And the good news is that there are so many apps that have made it better. The airline apps make it pretty easy to book a flight online and often, you know, you look at the customer service desk and the line is just snaking around the airport. But often you can rebook yourself self-service using the app is is often just as good as speaking to a human at the customer service desk.

There you go. I've done it more than handful of times that I'd rather admit I've had a lot of bad luck multiple times. no. My husband and I were talking about it like, seriously, the last five trips we've taken and we have a little one they've gotten totally just whether it's a severe delays or cancellations. But we are both separately on our phone, moving things around.

So, yeah, just that's I'm a big believer in that. Good tips there. Okay.

I'm glad you're on top of it. Despite all the flight cancellation woes.

Hey, no, it's not going to you know, just I'm not going to cancel my travel plans in the future, but I'm like, come on, this can't happen six times in a row now.

So you don't like it happening more frequently, which is why it's just never a bad idea to have that backup plan to know what other flights are departing because you might need to take advantage of that. 

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