How to Get a Refund If Your Flight Is Canceled

Your travel plans may have been dashed, but you can turn your luck around by learning how to get a canceled flight refund

With flights up 400% since the pandemic low, it’s safe to say that travel is back. Unfortunately, airlines are struggling to keep up with the post-COVID demand. A whopping 23% of U.S. flights have been delayed for an average of 52 minutes since Memorial Day weekend, according to Flight Aware, an aviation intelligence company. And nearly 129,000 flights were canceled in the United States between January and July 2022 alone—an increase of 11% from 2019—and not just on budget airlines. That’s why it’s crucial to know how to get a canceled flight refund.

Yes, it’s possible to get your money back when your flight is canceled, but the details are among the things that airlines don’t tell you—not readily, anyway. Plus, the process can be complicated and require a little travel savvy, since most airlines will try to rebook you so they don’t have to give you your money back. “The rules vary by airline and situation,” says Marjie Jordan, the owner of Jordan Executive Travel Service. “There isn’t a one-rule-fits-all scenario.”

But there are some general rules that will help you get a canceled flight refund, which will come in particularly handy when the airline can’t get you to that mini vacation in time. Here’s what you need to know.

Do airlines have to compensate you for canceled flights?

Yes! If your flight is canceled when you’re traveling to, from or within the United States and you decide not to rebook, you are entitled to a refund for the unused flight, even if the flight was originally deemed “non-refundable,” according to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). This is a federal law designed to protect consumers.

You are also entitled to a refund for other airline-related extras, such as baggage fees, fees for flying with a cat or dog, and costs to board early. Unfortunately, an airline doesn’t have to compensate you for costs outside of the airline, such as your hotel, your transportation to the airport or a missed cruise … but it doesn’t hurt to put in a request for these expenses. Each airline has its own policies regarding reimbursement for them, so definitely inquire with your specific airline.

Confused? Here’s something that will make things a lot easier: The DOT recently launched an Airline Customer Service Dashboard, so you can figure out exactly what you’re owed by each airline, for each delay or cancellation. For example, according to the dashboard, if there’s a controllable cancellation (due to a mechanical issue), Delta will rebook you on another airline at no additional cost, while Southwestern Airlines won’t. Keep the site handy whenever you’re flying, especially if you’re flying in or out of the world’s busiest airports.

What about refunds for canceled international flights?

The DOT doesn’t protect passengers traveling between or within foreign countries, but you may be protected by the laws of whichever nation you’re traveling within. Under EU government rules, if your flight is canceled, the airline must refund your ticket or put you on another flight—even if that means it’s on another carrier, Jordan says. You could also be eligible for extra compensation and accommodations. The EU law, implemented in 2005, refunds passengers between $270 and $650 for flight cancellations within 14 days of travel or delays exceeding three hours. The amount of the refund depends on the distance of the flight.

“But again, there are rules,” she says. “They aren’t required [to refund you] due to storms or other extraordinary circumstances beyond their control.” Canceled flight refunds are generally only for circumstances within their control, such as mechanical issues and pilot problems. Minimize the chance of problems by booking the flights that are least likely to be canceled.

Can I always get a refund if my flight is canceled?

While you can get a refund if you decide not to rebook, it may be a trickier process if you used a third party like a travel agent or a discount site to book your tickets, says Valerie Edman, a luxury travel advisor and the owner of Cultured Travel. The airline won’t automatically refund you because the third party is technically responsible for your changes and cancellations—even if the airline was at fault. The travel agent, discount site or cruise line (whoever did the booking for you) will be the one to process the refund, and that third party might have different policies for refunds than the airline. Make sure to check their refund policies online before booking.

How do I get a refund if my flight is canceled?

File a complaint directly with the airline as soon as possible, Edman says. You should be able to find the complaint section on the airline’s website, though you can also reach out via snail mail. But online is generally a faster option, since your complaint must be made in writing. As for what to write, be specific, and ask for a cash refund to go back to the card that was used for the purchase, rather than receiving a voucher. If the airline replies and says they aren’t responsible for the refund, file a report with DOT here.

After you file your complaint, it will be reviewed by a DOT analyst to see if there was a violation, then reviewed by an attorney. Ultimately, an analysis will be sent to you. While a specific timeline for this process depends on the number of cases they have at that moment, the DOT will send you a written response within 60 days after you file the complaint.

You can also try calling the airline directly, which just might be the most effective way to get a canceled flight refund, according to travel blogger Kevin Mercier. “After calling the airline, I give the person on the other end my flight information, including my booking code and last name, so they can pull up my record,” he says. At the moment, the airlines are being bombarded with complaints, so your best bet is to be polite and courteous, even though you may feel frustrated. If the airline also happened to loose your luggage, here are the steps you should take right away.

If you purchased travel insurance specifically for this trip, you can also file a claim with the travel insurance company. Depending on the terms of your policy, you may be able to recover the cost of your ticket.

How long does it take to get a refund from a canceled flight?

The DOT requires that airlines acknowledge your complaint within 30 days and respond within 60 days regarding your canceled flight refund. Once the request has been accepted, the actual canceled flight refund could take a few weeks to reach your account, Edman says. Next, check out how to get a lost luggage reimbursement, just in case your bags don’t make it to their destination.

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Danielle Braff
Danielle Braff regularly covers travel, health and lifestyle for Reader's Digest. Her articles have also been published in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Boston Globe and other publications. She has a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and a master's degree in musicology from Oxford University in England. Danielle is based in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and two children. See her recent articles at www.Daniellebraff.com. You can follow her on Facebook @Danielle.Karpinos, Twitter @daniellebraff, and Instagram at danikarp.