The only way to ensure that the airline will give you a refund for your cancelled flight is to buy a refundable airfare.
Or so would airlines have you believe.
Refundable plane tickets are not only extremely expensive compared to non-refundable fares, they are also NOT the only way to get a flight cancellation refund.
In this post, we're going to show you exactly how you can get a refund of your cancelled flight - based on your passenger rights, but also by taking advantage of the different cancellation policies of the most popular airlines.
We'll cover refundable airline tickets (although these are a no-brainer), non-refundable flights, and how you can get refunded for schedule change.
Here's a detailed table of content, in case you want to jump directly to what's most important to you:
- What are your Rights when Your Flight is Cancelled?
- How to get a Flight Cancellation Refund?
- How to Get a Refund on a Non-Refundable Airfare?
- Take Advantage of the Free Cancellation within 24 hours of Booking
- Check your Airline's Cancellation Policy
- Benefit from the Flexible Cancellation Policy of Online Travel Agencies
- Provisions for "Involuntary Refunds" in the Airline's Contract of Carriage
- Purchase your Flight Ticket Using Frequent Flyer Miles to Avoid or Lower Change or Cancellation Fees
- Purchase a Dedicated Travel Insurance
- Final Words on Refunds for Flight Cancellations
Let's dive right in!
According to the US Department of Transportation, "Airlines don't guarantee their schedules, and you should realize this when planning your trip."
"There are many things that can-and often do-make it impossible for flights to arrive on time. Some of these problems, like bad weather, air traffic delays, and mechanical issues, are hard to predict and often beyond the airlines' control."
In the US, airlines have no obligations to refund or reroute you when your flight is cancelled.
That being said, in practice, airlines will generally try to rebook you on an alternate flight at no additional cost when this happens. Provided that seats are available.
"Contrary to popular belief, for domestic itineraries airlines are not required to compensate passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled."
Now, keep in mind that if you're supposed to depart from Europe and your flight is cancelled, you may be eligible to both a refund and a compensation, as the rules described in the next section apply.
According to EU Regulation 261/2004, or EC 261, when your flight is cancelled, the airline must offer you a choice between these 3 options:
- A partial or full refund of your original ticket, along with a return flight to your original point of departure (if needed), OR
- An alternate flight to your destination as soon as possible, OR
- A ticket to your destination at a later date of your choosing
Let's break it down:
Option 1: Refund
(Note that in both of the cases below, the airline must reimburse you within 7 days)
- Scenario 1: You haven't taken any portion of your flight
That's the easiest option: the airline will offer you a full refund of your ticket.
- Scenario 2: You have already used a portion of your ticket
This may happen when you booked a flight with a connection. You took your first flight, but the second leg of your journey was cancelled.
In that case, you will get a refund for the unused portion of your flight. If because of the cancellation, your ticket is no longer useful to your original travel plan, then you can also ask the refund of the portion that you already used.
For example, this would happen if you're travelling for a business meeting, but because of the cancellation of the second leg, you will miss the meeting. The entire ticket is therefore rendered useless and you can claim a refund for the entire ticket, not only the unused portion.
Don't forget that the airline must also provide a flight back to your point of departure as soon as possible.
Option 2: Rerouting as soon as possible
The airline must provide you with a way to reach you final destination as soon as possible. Note that should there be no flight options available, the airline must also investigate alternative modes of transportation (train, bus, etc.).
Keep in mind that the airline is also required by EC 261 to transport you under "comparable conditions".
What does it mean?
If you were supposed to fly in First class, the airline must try to put you on First class for your rerouting flight too. If this is impossible because no seats are available, they must refund you the difference between the price of a seat in First and one in Economy.
Option 3: Rerouting at a more convenient date
If it is more convenient for you, you can also choose to be rebooked to your final destination on a later date, provided that seats are available.
Again, the airline must find transport under similar conditions.
Note: The airline must reroute you to your final destination, should you choose this option. If this is not possible and they take you to a nearby airport instead, they must also cover the fees you incur to reach your final destination or an alternative address (if agreed upon with the airline beforehand).
Under EC 261, you may be entitled to up to 600€ (about $700) in compensation for your cancelled flight.
When are you eligible for a flight cancellation compensation?
- You cancelled flight was supposed to depart from the EU (with any airline) OR arrive in the EU (if it was operated by an airline based in the EU)
- The airline notified you of the cancellation less than 14 days prior to departure, or didn't notify you at all
- You had a confirmed flight reservation
- The reason for the cancellation was within the airline's control (e.g. technical issue, operational circumstances, airline staff strike) and NOT "extraordinary circumstances"
The best part? The EU law is retroactive: if you had a cancelled flight in the past 3 years, you might still be eligible to compensation!
According to EC 261, you can get up to 600€ (about $700) in compensation for your cancelled flight.
The exact amount varies depending on:
- the distance of the journey
- the length of the delay
Here's a handy table to help you understand exactly how much you can claim!
|Distance||Less than 2h||2-3h||3-4h||Over 4h||Never arrived|
|All flights 1,500km or less||€125||€250||€250||€250||€250|
|Intra EU flights over 1,500km||€200||€200||€400||€400||€400|
|Non-internal EU flights 1,500km-3,500km||€200||€200||€400||€400||€400|
|Non-internal EU flights over 3,500 km||€300||€300||€300||€600||€600|
Now, there is one situation that allows the airline to not pay you a compensation. It happens when the airline offers rerouting under the following criteria:
|Advance notice||Re-routing requirements|
|7-13 days||Re-routing flight departing no more than 2 hours before and arriving less than 4 hours after the original flight|
|0-6 days||Re-routing flight departing no more than 1 hours before and arriving less than 2 hours after the original flight|
If your flight happens to get cancelled, you can ask a full refund, even if you’ve booked a non-refundable ticket, instead of being re-routed on another flight.
However, note that when the flight is cancelled for reasons outside the airline's control, they may waive their obligation to offer a refund and a compensation. This happens in situations of adverse weather conditions, air traffic control restrictions, security reasons, etc.
Typically, when your flight is cancelled, the airline will automatically rebook you on a different fly.
If these new travel arrangements suit you, then there's no need for you to do anything: just take the new flight. You won't get a refund.
If they are not suitable, you can get in touch with the airline and ask a refund instead.
Refunds usually take the form of cash, credit to a credit card, or a voucher to be used at a later date (if you agree with this option).
A schedule change is treated like a flight cancellation with a rebooking on a different flight.
When the airline updates their flight schedule, your flight could end up with a different departure and/or arrival time. It could even include an unplanned connection, or modify the length of a planned layover (shorten or lengthen it).
In those cases, you may be eligible to a refund.
Keep in mind, however, that there is "schedule change", and "schedule change": if the airline modifies your flight schedule by a few minutes only, you're unlikely to get a refund if you claim it.
Be extra careful when the airline notifies you of a change of schedule, especially if your itinerary includes a connection. You need to ensure that you will still have enough time to catch your connecting flight.
Typically, the airline will note proactively let you know that your schedule change qualifies for a refund. You'll have to claim the full refund yourself. Get in touch with the airline immediately (preferably by phone rather than email) and request a refund.
Was your flight cancelled? You could get a flight cancellation compensation from the airline.
It takes only 3 minutes to check if you're eligible to up to 600€ from the airline.
Now, what happens if you are the one asking for a schedule change? Are you still eligible to a refund?
It depends on the airline. Some allow you to do it at no extra cost, but most of them request a fee to change your flight. In all cases, you'll need to at least pay the fare difference.
But should the airline change your itinerary significantly, you can ask for a different itinerary that is more at your advantage instead.
Say you booked a day flight from London to New York, but the airline changes their schedule and you now have to flight overnight instead, or with a connection first. You can try your luck and ask a flight that's more convenient to you instead (the same flight but the next day, for example). The airline could accept to put you on that flight at no extra cost, if seats are available.
- Southwest Airlines
Southwest Airlines is known for having the best policy when it comes to flight changes.
Buying a non-refundable ticket with Southwest is basically the same as purchasing a 1-year travel credit: should you decide not to take your flight (up to 10 minutes before departure), Southwest will let you modify or cancel your booking at no extra cost.
The price of your ticket will be converted into travel credit available for one year after the reservation was made. You can use the credit for the same itinerary at a different time, or for a completely different one.
The best part?
If you book the same flight at a later date, for cheaper than what you spent initially, you'll have extra credit thanks to the price drop.
- Alaska Airlines
Flights within Alaska are not subject to change fees: you can change your flight for free.
- Frontier Airlines
Frontier Airlines introduce a "no change fee" policy which applies to flight changes made at least 90 days prior to departure.
The only situation for which you can get a refund with JetBlue in the form of a flight credit is if you manage to book the same flight itinerary at a lower fare within 5 days after your initial booking. This applies only for a change with the same itinerary.
The obvious answer is "no". In the US, however, it is indeed possible (see the next section).
The only guaranteed chance that you have to receive a refund for your non-refundable flight is if this flight is cancelled or subject to a major schedule change. In that case, you may indeed get your flight ticket refunded. Note that to be eligible for reimbursement, you still need to have checked-in for the flight.
So if you have a non-refundable ticket for a flight that you cannot take, you might still want to check-in, just in case the flight is cancelled at the last minute, or subject to a schedule change.
Unless the DOT's 24h rule applies:
Fees to modify or cancel you booking are generally super pricey for non-refundable tickets. In the US, change and cancellation fees can go as high as $200 domestically and $750 for international airfares.
That being said, there are a few tricks that you can use to get a refund to cancel your flight. The refund will take the form of either a flight change or credit for a future flight (a voucher).
The US Department of Transport implemented the "24-hour reservation requirement", which:
"requires carriers to hold a reservation at the quoted fare for 24 hours without payment or allow a reservation to be cancelled within 24 hours without penalty."
This free cancellation with 24 hours of booking rule applies to tickets for travel within, from, or to the United States.
In short, if you cancel your booking within 24h after the reservation was made, you are entitled to a full refund of your airplane ticket, without cancellation fees.
Note that the rule is applicable only if your flight is at least 7 days away.
The crazy part?
Some US airlines have even more advantageous policies than what is required by the DOT.
While the DOT requires your flight be at least 7 days away to apply for reimbursement, American Airlines lets you request a full refund within 24h of booking as long as your flight is at least 2 days away.
American Airlines also offers a free 24-hour hold on some of their flights, as long as you book them at least seven days prior to departure.
What does it mean?
American Airlines will save your booking and its price for 24h: you will have 24h to cancel your flight if your plans change, at no extra cost.
How to know if your American Airlines flight is eligible to the free 24h hold?
If it is, you will see a “hold” label on the “Review and Pay” page.
You can also purchase an extended hold option.
There isn't any difference between United's 24h cancellation policy and what the DOT prescribes.
You can, however, purchase their FareLock service, for a fee. The price of your ticket will be held for 3 or 7 days, depending on the option that your choose.
But there's a hack to hold an airfare for free with United Airlines: at the payment step, choose “Other forms of payment” and then select “Pay in person”. It will keep your reservation for 24 hours. If you want to pay online, you can still do so within those 24 hours. Once you have made that online payment, you’ll still have the 24-hour free cancellation period prescribed by the DOT and United Airlines. So, added up, you have in total 48 hours to cancel your flight for free.
The language gets complicated, but essentially, with "Delta's risk-free cancellation policy", it doesn't matter when the flight is, you can cancel "by midnight of the day after the eTicket is purchased or midnight of the departure date of the first flight, whichever comes first."
Southwest has the same cancellation policy as Delta: there is no advance purchase requirement to be eligible to a full refund.
With Alaska Airlines, the DOT's rule that full refunds are applicable only if your flight is at least 7 days away is reduced to 24 hours. So you can cancel within 24 hours for free as long as your flight is more than a day away.
When you buy your flight tickets via a travel agency and the airline cancels your flight, it is the airline's responsibility to ensure that you are notified about the cancellation or schedule change. It is also the airline who must pay your cancelled flight compensation, not the travel agent.
Something equally interesting to know when you book your plane tickets with a travel agency is that some of them have free cancellation policies that are more flexible than the airline's.
For example, several Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) such as Expedia, Orbitz, or Priceline, let you cancel your flight ticket for free until the end of the day of the next business day following the purchase. No matter how long before the flight you booked your tickets.
What does it mean?
If you booked your ticket on Friday, the next business day is Monday - so you have until Monday evening to cancel your flight.
One last (great) benefit of booking flights on OTAs:
Some of them offer a price drop guarantee. It means that if the airfare for your itinerary drops after you've purchased your ticket, they will refund you the difference.
CheapAir is one of those OTAs. They offer what they call a Price Drop Payback up to $100. Note that the refund will be made in the form of travel credit, not cash.
In their contract of carriage, many airlines include what is called a provision for "involuntary refunds".
In layman's terms, it means that you can apply for a full refund (even if you purchased a on-refundable ticket) when the airline refuses to carry you or when your flight is delayed more than a specific amount of time (varies by airline).
Here's a link to the contract of carriage of some of the main airlines:
US and Canadian Airlines' Contracts of Carriage
- Alaska Airlines’ contract of carriage
- Allegiant’s contract of carriage
- American Airlines’ contract of carriage
- Delta’s contract of carriage
- Frontier Airlines' contract of carriage
- JetBlue’s contract of carriage
- Southwest Airlines' contract of carriage
- Spirit Airlines' contract of carriage
- United Airlines' contract of carriage
- Air Canada’s contract of carriage
- WestJet’s contract of carriage
- Air France's contract of carriage
- Alitalia's contract of carriage
- Austrian Airlines' contract of carriage
- British Airways's contract of carriage
- EasyJet's contract of carriage
- Iberia's contract of carriage
- KLM's contract of carriage
- Lufthansa's contract of carriage
- Norwegian Air Shuttle's contract of carriage
- Ryanair's contract of carriage
- Scandinavian Airlines' contract of carriage
- Turkish Airlines' contract of carriage
- Wizz Air's contract of carriage
Purchase your Flight Ticket Using Frequent Flyer Miles to Avoid (or at least) Lower Ticket Cancellation Fees
If you're a frequent traveller, you're probably already subscribed to a Frequent Flyer program (if not, you should).
One of the main advantages offered by these programs is that they let you collect miles, or points, which you can use to purchase flight tickets at a discounted rate.
Booking a flight with miles is particularly beneficial in the case of flight cancellation refunds: it lets you change or cancel your flight at a much lower fee than if you had booked it with money.
The best airline in this regard is (once again) Southwest: they let you cancel tickets purchased with miles, free of charge, and even refund your miles to your frequent flyer's account.
If you feel like the airline or your OTA's policy don't offer enough protection for your booking and travel plans, you can always resort to a dedicated travel insurance.
Obviously, it doesn't come free of charge - but if there's a high chance that you'll have to change your flight or cancel it, it might be worth the investment.
If you're not buying your ticket using airline miles, but with your credit card instead, consider looking at the type of insurance it offers for air travel: some do offer flight cancellation refunds. But you'll need to be able to justify why you're changing or cancelling your ticket in order to be eligible to a refund.
The level of consumer protection varies whether you're flying in Europe or in the US, and depends on the exact airline that you're travelling with.
That being said, all systems do offer the possibility to claim a partial or full refund for flight cancellation. When passengers are responsible for the flight change or cancellation, they should be expected to pay a fee... except if they manage to do so within the limits defined by the airline or travel agency.
Keep in mind, however, that if the airline cancelled your flight to or from Europe, you may be eligible to a 600€ compensation, even if you're not entitled to a refund.