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 5,079 consumer complaints just in April 2022, for example, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), and 2.3% of flights were canceled. There was a mishandled baggage rate of 0.55% from 40 million bags. For the first quarter of 2022, according to the DOT, the 10 U.S. reporting marketing carriers posted a bumping rate of 0.44 per 10,000 passengers, which is higher than both 2019 and 2021’s first quarters.
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 and canceled flights, and other travel mishaps. An updated version is posted online.
For additional resources, visit FlyersRights.org, which lists phone numbers for the DOT, consumer advocate/protection offices, airlines and its own assistance hotline.
We’ve highlighted seven 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 writes consumer travel columns in several publications. 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 (and it may take longer to get on another flight if all air traffic is suspended). “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. Your flight gets delayed
Although a long delay in the U.S. might not result in any compensation, in Europe there are laws that entitle you up to 600 Euros or $700 for any delay longer than three hours. Pay attention to the original flight time and when you actually take off and land. If it’s a delay longer than three hours (even if it’s due to a missed connection), make a claim with the operating airline by filling out the Air Passenger Rights Complaint Form.
The U.S. doesn’t offer any compensation for delays as of now, but some lawmakers are working to bring legislation that may institute this type of passenger compensation after a very long delay on U.S. flights.
To prepare for any possible delays, always bring extra snacks, a refillable water bottle, any medications you may need, chargers and extra batteries for your devices in your carry-on luggage. While you may get stuck waiting in the airport, planes can also get stuck on the tarmac for hours with passengers already boarded, so it’s good to have everything handy.
3. 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 one hour before a domestic departure and two hours for international to significantly reduce the risk of forfeiting your reservation. Airlines tend to have a “last to check in/first to bump” mind-set.
Alternatively, if you’re able to be a bit flexible, you could volunteer to be bumped and receive a potentially hefty sum in travel vouchers. Listen to announcement details carefully and decide how much it’s worth it to you to be voluntarily bumped.
4. 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 Nerdwallet.com and previously of Smartertravel.com. “If they ended up in the wrong airport, it could take a couple of days. The airline should bring the luggage to you.”
One way to track your bags is to place tiny digital locator devices like Apple AirTags or Tiles inside your suitcases. They will help you see where your luggage is at any given time via your mobile phone, possibly letting you assist the airline in locating your bags.
Also, most of the major airlines allow you to track your luggage on their app. For example, Delta’s app lets you see when your luggage is offloaded from the plane and onto the conveyor belt, so you know exactly when to expect it.
5. Your luggage doesn’t ever show up
If your luggage does end up 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.
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.
6. 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.
7. 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, says Elliott: “You should call the rental-car company instead. 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.