Know Your Rights When Holiday Travel Goes Wrong

Setbacks happen to even the most organized holiday travelers. Here’s how to get out of 6 classic travel jams.

by NEA Member Benefits


Key takeaways

  • The DOT routinely revises the airline passengers’ “bill of rights.”
  • If a flight cancellation is due to a mechanical or operational delay, expect to get food vouchers, transportation to/from a hotel and the room bill for the hotel.
  • Rental-car companies are responsible for replacing a vehicle if it breaks down.

If you’re traveling this holiday season, you could run into a “perfect storm” of disasters—and some may have nothing to do with the weather.

Flight delays, cancellations, lost luggage and other perennial problems can throw a big wrench into travel plans all year long. Airlines received 1,576 consumer complaints just in September 2017, for example, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, and over 100,000 incidents of lost, damaged or mishandled baggage were reported. In July through September alone, more than 74,000 passengers were bumped from flights by U.S. airlines due to overselling. And more than one-fifth of flights fail to arrive on time.

Yikes! And when you consider that long-distance travel typically increases by 23% during the winter holidays, it’s understandable why frustration levels can run so high.

Before you even head to the airport, you should know your passenger rights. The DOT routinely revises the airline passengers’ “bill of rights”—rules for oversold flights, delayed/canceled flights and other travel mishaps. An updated version is posted online.

For additional resources, visit, which lists phone numbers for the DOT, consumer advocate/protection offices, airlines and its own assistance hotline.

We’ve highlighted six classic “perfect storm” scenarios for winter holiday travel, with useful tips on how to get yourself out of a jam:

1. Your flight gets canceled

As soon as you learn that your flight is canceled, promptly head to the customer-service counter to ensure that you’ll get on the next flight out. While in line, cover your bases by using your mobile device to try to reach the airline’s service reps via the phone and/or the company’s website, says travel expert Christopher Elliott, who serves as a consumer advocate for National Geographic Traveler. You could book yourself a new flight before you even get to the counter.

If the cancellation is due to weather, don’t expect the airline to pay for your delay expenses. “But if it’s a mechanical or operational delay, they’ll pay for some food and your hotel bill,” Elliott says.

Airlines have their own guidelines, but you can expect to get up to $15 in food vouchers (depending on the meal), transportation to/from a hotel and the room bill for the hotel, which likely will be chosen by the airline.

2. You’re bumped from an overbooked flight

Know what you’re owed for the inconvenience of being bumped involuntarily. “Under federal law, that would be up to $1,300 for more than a two-hour delay on domestic flights or more than a four-hour delay on international ones,” Elliott says. You’re entitled to that full amount if the airline doesn’t make any alternative arrangements for you until after those time frames.

To avoid this situation, arrive at least 30 minutes before departure to significantly reduce the risk of forfeiting your reservation. Airlines tend to have a “last to check in/first to bump” mind-set.

3. Your luggage isn’t on the conveyor belt

No need to panic—at least, not right away. Many items end up at the airline’s office in the baggage-claim area, so go there first. If your luggage doesn’t surface soon, make a claim while you’re still at the airport.

Your suitcase is probably the victim of crossed signals, not theft. “If your bags are on the next flight in, you could have them within hours,” says Sarah Schlichter, editor of “If they ended up in the wrong airport, it could take a couple of days. The airline should bring the luggage to you.”

While your luggage is AWOL, you might need to buy clothing and toiletries. Keep your receipts: You may get compensated for any unexpected but reasonable resulting expenses. Each airline has guidelines as to what it will and won’t pay for, and the amount can depend on whether you’re away from home and how long your bags are missing. To be certain, get details from your airline before your trip.

4. Your luggage doesn’t ever show up

The compensation cap is $3,300 per person for a domestic flight, with a refund for any baggage fee. “But you’ll be reimbursed for the depreciated value of your items,” Schlichter says. “You can’t claim full price for that suit you bought several years ago.”

If you use a list to help yourself pack, keep it with you so you can present an itemized list of what was in your suitcase. Items such as jewelry and cash aren’t eligible, so it’s best to keep those in your carry-on bag.

5. You can’t get to your hotel

You may be trapped at the airport because your flight was canceled, but your hotel reservation in your destination city is still active. The best way to handle this situation is to plan ahead: Before you even book your room, ask the hotel about its cancellation policy. If it’s too strict, look for a hotel that offers a liberal cancellation policy in case your travel plans are thwarted. Most won’t charge your credit card until you show up at the front desk anyway, Schlichter says.

Keep the hotel’s phone number handy, either programmed into your phone or written down in case you can’t get a wireless signal in the airport. Contact the hotel staff and keep them informed of your delayed travel situation and possible arrival time.

6. Your rental car breaks down

After your flight lands, you’re willing to go over the river and through the woods to get to Grandmother’s house. But if your rental car breaks down or pops a tire, you’re facing yet another holiday-travel crisis. Your first instinct may be to call AAA if you’re a member. Don’t do it: “You should call the rental-car company instead,” Elliott says. “They’re responsible for taking you and the car back to the rental location, and then replacing the vehicle.”

Elliott also recommends documenting the incident in formal communications to the rental-car company so you’re not held responsible for any damage.

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