What to do If Your Flight is Delayed: 6 (Easy) Steps to Follow

It's easy to get lost and overstressed when your plane is late. Here's exactly what to do when your flight is delayed, step-by-step.

Pick any day of the year.

On average, close to 16,000 flights were delayed that day. Airlines report that about 11.74% of their flights are delayed annually.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 20.83% of flights on average are delayed in 2023.

(According to our data, it's closer to 24.30%)

In other words: you're likely to run into a flight disruption one day or another. Which means that you better be prepared for it. And know the rules for flight delay compensation.

Especially since not when it comes to dealing with flight delays, not all airlines are created equal: the best airlines in the world are much more efficient in providing care and coping with the schedule change, while the worst ones leave their passengers stranded for hours without any news or updates.

In this step-by-step guide, we’ll share exactly what you need to know and what to expect if your flight is delayed, in order to minimize its impact on your journey.

Get up to 600€ in compensation from the airline when your flight is delayed.

Here's a handy table of content in case you want to skip to a specific step:

  1. Know your passenger rights
  2. Find out the cause of the delay
  3. What to do if you have a connecting flight
  4. Contact the people and service providers affected
  5. Hold on to your travel documents
  6. Claim compensation
  7. Bonus tips from travel experts

Let's dive in!

1. Know your passenger rights when your flight is delayed

As with most situations in life, being informed increases your chances of minimizing the negative impact of an unexpected event.

Air travel is a heavily regulated industry and regulations offer travel protection at both the national and international level.

Some of the most cited pieces of legislation on passenger rights are:

Just like any other piece of legislation, the core and most important information is usually very convoluted, difficult to find and always open to interpretation. To the average traveler, it serves little to no purpose at all: most people will be discouraged to understand the meaning of those passenger laws.
Not to worry, our legal experts have gone through the world’s most common passenger rights regulations on flight cancellations and delays and and summarized the key points in a quick and easy resource, which answers some of the most common questions so make sure you keep it handy for your next trip: learn more about flight delay compensation

You have 2 main elements to consider when your flight is late: your right to compensation and your right to care.

Right to compensation for flight delay

That's how you turn your bad experience into something (much) more positive.

One of the most overlooked passenger rights in cases of flight delays is the right to compensation. An estimated 90% of passengers report that they either don’t know about their rights or don’t know how to apply them.

The right to a flight compensation is applicable after the event, that is - after you arrive at your final destination, because it depends on the length of the delay.

That's why we're talking about it in more details in the 6th step of this list!

But here's the gist of it:

If you’re departing out of an airport located in the EU and/or your flight is operated by an airline headquartered in the EU, and your flight is delayed, causing you to arrive at your final destination at least 3 hours after the scheduled arrival time, you may be entitled to as much as 600 EUR per passenger.

Like I said, we will dig deeper into this in a bit. For now, simply keep in mind that if your flight is delayed, you may be entitled to compensation.  

Your right to care when your flight is delayed

When your flight is delayed, the airline must enforce your “right to care”.

In a nutshell, the right to care means that the airline must provide you with meals (or meal vouchers) and refreshments, as well as wi-fi access, and accommodation, where applicable, at no additional cost.

If your flight is delayed by 2 hours or more, then the carrier must provide you with meals and refreshments or a voucher, which you may use at a restaurant at the airport or in the vicinity of the airport.

Travel expert tip: if these vouchers are not provided by the airline, keep your receipts and claim a refund after your trip.

In cases of significant delay (if your flight is delayed by 6 hours or more), causing you to spend the night at your point of origin, then the carrier must cover your accommodation costs as well as any other costs related to the transfer from and to the airport.

Although airlines have agreements with certain hotel chains, it is not uncommon for them to run out of rooms to accommodate all of the passengers, so try to be among the first at the kiosk  to ask whether there’s arranged accommodation. If there isn’t, or there’s a shortage of rooms, inquire what is the accommodation refund policy of the airline, so you can claim your expenses later.

Keep in mind that the right to care is not a substitute and does not conflict with the right to compensation, which we previously mentioned.
This means that you may accept a voucher for meals and refreshments; however, make sure you’re not accepting a voucher as flight compensation, as it would waive your right to a delayed flight compensation.

2. Find out the cause of the delay

Is it bad weather? Mechanical issues? A worldwide pandemic? (still too soon?)
Whatever the cause of the flight delay, it matters. To stay updated, follow real-time notifications via the airline’s app, use mobile apps like FlightAware to check your flight status, or simply have a chat with airline customer service. They're often thrilled to talk to someone as calm and understanding as I’m sure you are.

As a passenger, you are entitled to know what is the reason for the delay of your flight. Airlines will often not pay compensation if the delay is due to "extraordinary circumstances" out of the airline's control, like air traffic control decisions or, you guessed it, weather-related incidents.

The rule here is simple:

  • If the reason for the delay is within the airline’s control, then they are liable and must pay compensation.
  • If the delay is caused by an event out of the carrier’s control, then there’s no compensation due. In EC261, the latter are referred to as “extraordinary circumstances”.

Note that the burden of proof falls on the carrier. That is, the airline must prove that the delay was caused by an extraordinary circumstance, otherwise compensation is due.

We have seen a number of cases where passengers have been falsely refused compensation on the grounds of extraordinary circumstances, with the most common causes being technical malfunctions and weather delays.
How come?
Airlines (sometimes) lie about the cause of the delay. A technical malfunction is not an extraordinary circumstance, and most weather delays aren’t either, since the carrier could’ve operated the flight per schedule.
To determine that, we analyze something called a METAR, or weather report. The problem? Not everyone can understand such reports.
That's why many passengers have turned to ClaimCompass to claim their due compensation. Because we do have the tools and technical expertise to ensure that passengers aren't cheated out of the compensation they are owed.

3. What to do if your flight is delayed and you have a connecting flight

(If your journey doesn't include a connection, you can directly skip to step 4. Lucky you!)

One common scenario is missing your connecting flight because the first leg of your journey has been delayed. But don’t throw your travel plans out of the plane’s window just yet.

Should this happen to you, seek assistance from the airline’s staff: most major airlines will be able to rebook you on an alternative flight either with them or a partner airline. If no one is available (or helpful), don't get angry: give a phone call to the airline's customer support. The sooner, the better.

Or do it yourself: if the airline can’t provide suitable flight options for a later flight, book yourself a new flight online with a departure time that matches your needs. You should be able to get a full refund from the airline for the flight changes.

The key element, which will determine your course of action, is whether or not your entire journey (all of your flights) are under the same booking number.

All flights are under the same booking number

Let’s take an example:

You’re flying from Rome to New York with British Airways, with a 1 hour connection in London. That means that your complete itinerary looks like this:

  • First leg: Rome FCO to London LHR
  • Second leg: London LHR to New York JFK

Now, let's imagine that your flight from Rome is delayed, by, say 40 minutes. You don't have enough time to transfer anymore. As a result, you’ve missed your connection from London to New York. If this delay has not been caused by an extraordinary circumstance, then you may:

  • ask to be be rebooked on the next available flight, and
  • if the next available flight is in the following day, then you can ask for accommodation and meals

Now, because of the delay of your first flight and the resulting missed connection, you end up arriving in New York 3 hours late or more.

You can still claim missed connection compensation, even though the first leg was delayed by only 40 minutes. What counts is the arrival time at your final destination.

The flights are on individual bookings

If you’ve booked your flights as two separate tickets, that is - you’ve gone and you’ve first looked for a flight from Rome to London and then from London to New York, then the two flights are treated separately.

In the event that your first flight is delayed and you miss your second flight, then your options are quite limited as no compensation is provided (unless you end up arriving in London 3 hours late or more, as then London would be considered your final destination).

Indeed, on individual bookings, it's called a "self-transfer": you're responsible for catching your next flight.

If you decide to book flights individually, we strongly suggest you buy insurance, because the airline has no obligation to compensate or rebook you on another flight. You're likely bound to buy another flight to your destination or back to your point of departure.

4. Contact the people and service providers affected by your flight delay

If you have booked services to be delivered at your destination, make sure you notify them if your arrival time changes.

For example, if you’ve booked a car rental or a shuttle, do let them know that your flight is delayed so they can hold onto your reservation. Certain car rental companies will hold your vehicle for up to 24 hours from the scheduled pick up time if your flight has been delayed.

That is important as you will safeguard your reservation and will be billed only once you pick up the vehicle and save some unnecessary costs or no-show penalties.

Similarly, if you’ve booked a hotel room and won’t be able to make it during the check-in times, do give them a call.

According to a Starwood Hotels and Resorts representative:

"it is at the hotel’s discretion to waive the cancellation policy"

... depending on the circumstances, or it may decide to arrange an alternative accommodation.

Unlike with flight delays, while there’s no universal regulation, which deals with these particular scenarios, many providers have set policies in place to address these unforeseen changes.

Pro normal-human-being tip: if a friend or relative was supposed to pick you up at your destination, don't forget to notify them that you'll be late!

5. Hold on to your travel documents when your flight is delayed

It is important - scratch that: CRITICAL - that you hold on to your travel documents after your trip. At the very least, you should always keep:

  • Your electronic ticket / booking confirmation which contains your booking number or PNR
  • Your boarding pass or luggage tag
  • Any receipts from meals, accommodation and transfer (taxi, shuttle) expenses, which have been caused by your flight delay

Why should you keep your travel documents?

Whether you’re claiming expenses and/or compensation from the airline directly or via your insurance provider, you will always be required to provide some sort of proof. For example, if your claim for delayed flight compensation is denied and you decide to bring matters before a National Enforcement Body or a court, then if you cannot provide a boarding pass, your case may be deemed ineligible for lack of proof you even traveled.

One more thing - be careful how you dispose of your boarding pass. That barcode contains a lot of personal information and it isn’t too hard to read it using a free website like this one.

That will reveal your name, your frequent flyer number, and your booking number (a.k.a. PNR). The latter can then be used to log into the airline’s website and do all kinds of changes.

6. If your flight is delayed by at least 3 hours, claim compensation

If the disruption of your flight causes you to arrive at your final destination 3 hours late or more, file a claim for compensation.

There is a chance that your flight may fall under a regulation, where delayed flight compensation is prescribed by law, as we described in step 2.

At the very least, you can let us check if your flight is eligible thanks to our Compensation Calculator (it takes less than 3 minutes):

Even if there is no particular legislation, which allows you to claim compensation, you can still send a complaint to the carrier and ask for reimbursement of your expenses and a goodwill payment, voucher or other.

The best part?

Depending on the airline operating your flight, the departure airport and your residency, you may be able to claim for flights that took place a while back.

The time limit to submit a claim varies from one country to another in Europe. For instance, if your flight departed from the UK, then the Statute of Limitations states that you can claim compensation for a delayed flight which took place as far back as 6 years ago.

How much are you entitled to for your flight delay?

If your flight is delayed and you end up arriving at your final destination 3 hours late or more, you may be entitled to compensation between 250 and 600€.

For EC261, the key factor that determines the amount that you can claim is the total length of your journey. Again, we’re talking about the total distance between your airport of departure and arrival, for all flights located under the same booking number. Hence the compensation is as follows:

  • For flights up to 1,500km: 250 EUR
  • For flights between 1,500 and 3,500km and intra-community flights: 400 EUR
  • For flights of more than 3,500km: 600 EUR

That's the general rule. But in certain cases, these amounts may differ slighty. Read more on how much compensation you can claim for your delayed flight.

Conclusion On What To Do When Your Flight Is Delayed

Don't panic, follow these step-by-step instructions, and it should be fine. Of course, having to wait a few extra hours at the airport is almost as bad as waiting for your doctor's appointment - but it'll pass.

Most importantly, if your flight gets delayed, make sure that you check whether you're eligible to compensation:

FAQs on flight delays

Why Does My Flight Keep Getting Delayed?

First of all, keep your calm, don't get aggressive with the airline or airport staff: they have nothing to do with the delay and may only have a limited amount of information. It may be that the airline cannot be granted a departure slot by air traffic control.

The airline must offer you a meal (or meal voucher) and refreshment if your flight is late by at least 2 hours at departure.

It'd be wiser to stay at the airport, despite the inconvenience. However, if the flight is delayed by over 6 hours, you're allowed to require a hotel room and transportation to get there. The same applies if the flight is delayed overnight.

You can also ask the airline to rebook you on another flight to your destination.

If Your Flight Is Delayed, Can You Leave The Airport And Come Back?

If you've already checked-in but haven't passed the security control and entered the departure area just yet, you're relatively covered.

However, we'd recommend that you don't leave the airport, as you won't be notified if the flight doesn't depart as late as "planned".

If you've already passed the security and immigration control, you won't be able to go back out of the airport. And we recommend that you don't try.

As a rule of thumb,

  • if it's a short delay (less than 3 hours), get to the departure area and stay rather close to the boarding gate, in case the flight is moved up.
  • If it's a medium-long delay, make sure you've checked in and enjoy the airport facilities while keeping an eye on the flight schedule board, but don't leave the airport.

If the delay is very long, once again, make sure you've checked-in, and get in touch with the airline staff: they might get you to hotel accommodation so you can rest while waiting for your flight. Inquire about the ways you can be notified if there is another schedule change.

What To Do If Your Flight Is Delayed By 2 Hours or More?

First off, this is when the 'right to care' I mentioned kicks in. You are entitled to some meal vouchers, a refreshment, a couple of phone calls, and wi-fi access. Don't forget to reach out to the airline customer service; they're usually more helpful than the kiosk, where it’s really a first-come, first-serve type of situation.

You might also want to check if your loyalty program has any perks for trip delays like these. Some offer lounge access or priority rebooking. And remember, always keep tabs on your scheduled departure as things could change on a case-by-case basis.

What To Do If Your Flight Is Delayed By 6 Hours or More?

For such a significant delay, you're entitled to more than just meal vouchers—think hotel accommodations and transport to and from the airport.

First, confirm with the airline whether the original flight will actually take off or if it's likely to become a canceled flight. If it's looking bleak, start exploring options for an alternative flight. With delays this significant, most airlines will rebook you without any additional cost. While you're at it, check your travel credit card or travel insurance policy; some offer extra compensation for delays over 6 hours.

If My Flight Is Delayed, Can I Check In Later?

This one's tricky. In theory, a delayed flight means you have more time before takeoff, but here's the thing: scheduled departure times can change. Maybe they find a replacement aircraft, or the mechanical issue miraculously fixes itself (I wouldn't bet on it, but hey, stranger things have happened).

Airlines often advise you to stick to the original check-in deadlines, even if your flight is delayed. That's because they operate on a "better safe than sorry" policy, and also because they don't want to deal with more headaches than they already have.

So, in summary, it might be tempting to arrive later, but it's a bit of a gamble. And as any travel expert will tell you, the house usually wins, and that’s the airline, not you.

What To Do In Cases Of Tarmac Delays?

In the US, federal air travel rules from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) state that you cannot be held in a plane stuck on the tarmac longer than 3 hours for domestic flights, or four hours for international ones. Past this delay, the aircraft must return to the gate to let passengers disembark.

The airline must also provide food, refreshments, and access to the lavatories within two hours of a tarmac delay.

In Canada, according to the amended passenger rights rules, airlines can keep passengers on the plane for 3 hours before having to disembark them, regardless of whether it's a domestic or international flight.

They can keep passengers in the plane an additional 45 minutes if they estimate that the flight is likely going to be able to take off within this time frame.

So passengers can be stuck on the tarmac up to 3h45.

The EU Regulation doesn't mention anything regarding tarmac delays: it's up to the airline's contract of carriage.

If My Flight Is Delayed, Should I Still Go To The Airport?

In short, you can't show up late even if your flight is delayed. You can't be late to check-in on a delayed flight because the closing time for check-in is set relative to the scheduled time of departure, not the actual one. As a result, it remains the same, regardless of whether your plane is late or not.

Even if you've checked-in online, you still want to get to the airport on time - that means, early. If you're not at the gate on time, you might not be allowed to board AND not be eligible for denied boarding compensation.

Keep in mind that flight schedules are anything BUT fixed. Your flight might end up being moved up and depart earlier than announced in the delay notice.

What To Do When Your Flight Is Delayed On A Business trip?

If your flight was delayed by at least 3 hours while you were on a business trip, you could be entitled to compensation. Even if your company paid for the ticket, you, as the passenger who suffered the inconvenience of a late flight, are the one entitled to the compensation.

There are however a few exceptions: you can read more on the topic here.

Should I Get Additional Protection Against Flight Delays?

When a national or international regulation doesn't protect your rights, your credit card might. The team at the Points Guy put together a great guide that summarizes which credit cards offer this nice perk. It works just like travel insurance. But you might want to get actual travel insurance if your credit card doesn’t do the job.

What To Do At The Airport When Your Flight Is Delayed?

If you're not careful, you might easily die of boredom while waiting for your flight.

No worries, we put together a guide on what to do at the airport when your flight is delayed. Here are a few ideas:

  • Find the craziest souvenir in the airport shops
  • Make up the backstory of the other passengers waiting
  • High five people on the escalator
  • Pretend you're late for your flight and run across the terminal
  • Take a nap. But be careful not to miss your plane