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Flight delayed or cancelled? A step-by-step guide to refunds, rerouting and compensation

A woman carries her luggage down the stairs at the international airport in Frankfurt, Germany.
A woman carries her luggage down the stairs at the international airport in Frankfurt, Germany.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Michael Probst, File
By Charlotte Elton  & Rita Palfi

As chaos and queues continue to plague European airports, some passengers are getting nervous.

Searches for ‘cancel my flight’ in the UK skyrocketed by 163 per cent in June as travellers tried to work out the best course of action. Searches for ‘refund my flight’ also increased by 137 per cent, research by Our Woven Journey - a family travel blog - revealed.

With travel horror stories mounting across the continent, you may be considering calling off holiday plans too. But think twice before you cancel, experts have warned: if you ditch the trip, you’ll probably have to cough up. 

You also have a lot more rights than you might think if your airline does cancel your flight meaning it might be better to wait and see what happens. 

Here’s what to do if you’ve got flights booked this summer and how to get your money back if your trip is cancelled or delayed. 

Should I cancel my flight?

If you’ve already booked travel plans, it’s probably best to keep them - though it depends on the airline you are flying with.

The UK’s Travel Association (ABTA) has urged would-be travellers not to cancel their flights.

“While it is really disappointing if you do experience a delay or cancellation, you do have rights, including for a replacement flight or refund, plus significant compensation in most cases when flights are cancelled less than 14 days before departure,” an ABTA spokesperson said.

“If you are thinking of cancelling in advance or postponing your trip, make sure you check the terms and conditions of your booking before doing so as you are likely to incur some costs.”

Most airlines will charge a hefty cancellation fee if you cancel your flight unless you’ve purchased a refundable option

However, if you decide you do want to cancel, keep an eye on timings - providers may offer a partial refund before a certain date. You don’t want to miss this deadline.

What should I do if my flight is cancelled?

If your flight is cancelled you have the right to choose between a refund, rerouting or return. If you choose any of these three options you no longer have rights to the other two.

The airline is required to try and get you to your destination as soon as possible even if this involves travelling with a different carrier. 

During the current summer chaos, the airline might not be able to offer to reroute you or provide you with a return under comparable transport conditions at the earliest opportunity. In this case, it has to reimburse your flight cost.

If the airline does not give you the choice to rebook your ticket but you buy another ticket to get home under comparable transport conditions, they have to give you the price difference between your original ticket and the costs of the new ticket.

You are still entitled to the choice if the cancellation happens after the aircraft took off but was forced to return to the airport of departure.

If you accept rerouting it is no longer considered a cancellation, but a delay. Don’t forget that you can choose the date; you do not have to take the earliest possible journey. 

Airlines are also required to give you a choice when reimbursing you between cash or a voucher.

AP Photo/Frank Augstein, File
Travellers queue at security at Heathrow Airport in London, Wednesday, June 22, 2022.AP Photo/Frank Augstein, File

What if my flight is delayed?

You have slightly different rights if your flight is delayed and some of them depend on the duration of the delay and the distance of your trip. 

You have the right to assistance when the delay is at least two hours at departure, and to reimbursement and a return flight when the delay is at least five hours.

If your flight is delayed at departure by two hours for journeys of less than 1,500km long, three hours for flights between 1,500 and 3,000km or four hours on any other flight, then you have the right to additional assistance. 

The airline must offer you meals, refreshments, accommodation and transfers to accommodation if needed. You also have the right to free telephone calls, emails or, yes, faxes.

If you have to pay for any of these, the airline should reimburse you - just remember to keep the receipts.

What can I do if my flight is overbooked?

If you are denied boarding because your flight has been overbooked then you have a few options. 

If you presented yourself on time and had a valid ticket but were denied boarding because the flight was overbooked or for operational reasons, you have the right to compensation and assistance from the airline

You also have a choice between reimbursement, rerouting, or rebooking for a later flight - the same as if your flight is cancelled.

Can I get compensation if my flight is cancelled?

If your flight is cancelled less than 14 days before the scheduled departure date you could be entitled to compensation.

This amounts to €250 per person for flights of 1,500km or less, and €400 for flights between 1,500 and 3,500km. For all flights longer than 3,500km, it’s €600.

It also means that if two weeks prior to your trip you do not get a notification to say it has been cancelled, the chances that your flight will take off are higher. 

You could also be entitled to compensation if you arrive at your destination with more than a three hour delay. Like with cancellations, the amount depends on the flight distance. 

FRANCOIS WALSCHAERTS/AFP
A flight information board shows cancelled flights due to a strike on June 20, 2022 at Brussels International Airport.FRANCOIS WALSCHAERTS/AFP

Which flights can I get compensation for?

Whether you are protected by EU regulations depends on a number of factors but it might not be as clear-cut as you think.

EU Regulations apply when:

  • Your flight is within the EU, no matter what airline operates it
  • Your flight arrives in the EU from outside and is operated by an EU airline
  • Your flight departs from the EU, no matter what airline operates it

For any kind of complaint or claim to be successful, it's essential that it wasn’t your fault that you couldn’t get on the flight. Make sure you arrive at at the airport at least 2 hours before the departure time and have a valid ticket and confirmed reservation. 

Are there any exceptions to flight refunds and compensation?

In the case of a 'vis major' event, airlines have the right to not pay the compensation above for cancellations and delay. But they still should provide you with assistance like accommodation or rebooking.

The most well-known vis major, or extraordinary circumstances, is poor weather conditions. But they can also be traffic management decisions or security risks. Still, the airline must prove that the delay or cancellation was linked to these extraordinary circumstances and also that it could not have been avoided. 

Flight-free alternatives this summer

If you haven’t already booked a flight, why not consider other options?

You won't be alone. Advantage Travel Partnership has revealed that one-third of calls to its members were from customers anxious about travel.

“Understandably customers are concerned about being able to travel without incident in the immediate future and in the summer. The current situation is damaging still-fragile customer confidence,” leisure director Kelly Cookes told Travel Weekly.

Luckily, there are other options. With a rail network stretching more than 200,000 km, Europe is a paradise for train travellers.

So why not check out Italy or Spain through a train window instead?

It’s better for the planet, too - according to the European Environment Agency, rail travel accounts for 14 grams of CO2 emissions per passenger mile. Air travel generates 285 grams over the same distance.