What to Do If Your Flight Gets Canceled

Amy Marturana Winderl

Air travel is pretty incredible when you stop and think about it. Flying makes it possible to explore faraway destinations and cultures that we otherwise could never see. But as wonderful as it is, air travel can also be incredibly frustrating when your flight is delayed or, even worse, canceled. Whether you're heading out on vacation or trying to get back to your bed after already having your fun, it's easy to feel powerless when an airline cancels your flight. You do have some power though—and there are still ways to make it to your destination, even if it is later than you anticipated.

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Here, travel experts share the best ways to anticipate a flight cancellation and how to deal when your flight is canceled to make the most of the situation.

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Book in some buffer time.

One of the best things you do when booking your flight is to give yourself time in between your ETA and any important events. Kristin Addis, travel blogger at Be My Travel Muse, says that she learned the importance of working in a buffer day before something important after a few close calls. "Once I almost missed my cousin's wedding, and another time I had to work all day without sleeping because my route back home took 12 hours longer than planned," Addis says. Whether you're supposed to attend a wedding ceremony or you have a cruise ship to board before it leaves the dock, giving yourself a day or more will help you feel more relaxed if your flight ends up getting canceled.

Share your contact info.

"The most important thing is to make sure that the airline or travel agent has your day-of-travel contact information on file," says Brett Snyder, president at Cranky Concierge, an air travel assistance service that helps travelers deal with this exact situation. "If there are any problems, they will rely on that information to reach out to you. If they don't have info, you won't get a notification from them." Similarly, download your airline's smart phone app and sign up for flight alerts. That way, if something goes wrong with your flight, you'll get a text or email in real time, so you can act on it quickly and find an alternative route.

Check the status early and often.

You won't know that your flight is indeed canceled until the airline makes the call, but there are some ways to predict a high likelihood of it happening. For example, if you're flying in the winter to a destination that gets a lot of snow, check the weather forecast a few days in advance. If it looks like it's going to be problematic the day you're traveling, call the airline and ask them if you have any options for rebooking sans fee. Snyder suggests also checking the for airport-specific delays. "That doesn't mean your flight will be delayed, but if there's fog in San Francisco or thunderstorms over New York, then chances are higher that you'll face a delay," he says. Most airlines will also send you a weather alert a day or two before your departure date if they anticipate any issues. They'll then usually let you rebook on a different flight, free of charge, to avoid it.

Use a two-pronged approach.

If your flight is indeed canceled, there are two things you should do immediately: get in line to speak with a customer service rep and whip out the airline's app to try and rebook yourself. Everyone else is going to be trying to get rebooked, so quickly get in line before it's 30-plus people deep. You'll have more options if you're helped before everyone else takes all the available seats on alternative flights. "The agents at the airline usually just want to get you out of their hair, and I don't mean that in a bad way," says Snyder. "That means both of yours goals are aligned. If you can help them find an option and get you moving, then everyone is happy."

The airline will look up your reservation and book you on the next available option, says Snyder, but the automation process in their booking system won't always get you the best flight. So, while you're waiting in line to speak with the booking agent, use your phone to look up other options. (This also can let you snag a seat before other people who are waiting to be helped.) If you find a flight that works for you and there are seats available, you might be able to book it right there without being charged. In some situations, you will need to talk to a representative in order to waive any fees.

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Ask for more.

Unfortunately, there are no federal requirements for what an airline has to do if your flight is canceled. Each airline has its own policies, but none are required to compensate you for a canceled domestic flight, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. (They do have to compensate you if you're bumped from an overbooked flight, though.) You may be due compensation for expenses incurred due to a canceled international flight, though, so always file a claim with the airline afterwards and make sure to save any receipts for hotels, food, rebooking fees, and anything else you had to shell out money for because of the cancelation. If your flight is canceled and you can't get rebooked on anything that day, ask the airline if they will pay for a hotel or meals.

Try to switch airlines.

The U.S. Department of Transportation suggests checking flights on another carrier, especially if your current airline's options are slim. If you find one that would work, ask your current airline booking agent if they will either refund you so you can buy a new ticket on the other airline, or if they can actually rebook you on the other airline. If the cancelation was the airline's fault, they're more likely to bend over backwards to switch you to another airline, says Snyder.

Stay calm and be kind.

"It's very important to be kind and respectful with the booking agents and airline staff,” says Addis. First, because it's good to be a nice person and stay calm in frustrating situations instead of lashing out on others. But also, booking agents have a lot more power than it seems, Addis says, and most people dish them anger and frustration. "Be the person who treats them kindly and you might be getting on an earlier flight than everyone else," she says.

Get creative.

Depending on your destination, you may be able to figure out a new way to get there instead of flying at all—especially if you work with all the other disgruntled and determined travelers around you. "Can a bunch of people band together and rent a one-way car for a shorter trip (I did this once), or can you route yourself through a different city?" Addis suggests. If you're really stuck or in time crunch, it can't hurt to brainstorm some different travel options.