How to Handle Flight Cancellations Like a Pro

A canceled flight doesn’t have to spell doom for your trip.

Photo by: SynthEx/Shutterstock


By: Joe Sills

Anger, desperation, panic—they’re the range of emotions rippling through your body when you hear the most dreaded news in travel, “Your flight has been canceled.”

At first, the sentence seems like an impossibility. Airlines have hundreds of aircraft, right? Even if yours goes down for the count, they could just send another one, right? Sadly, the airline industry doesn’t always work that way. For major airlines, substituting malfunctioning aircraft for another plane already at a major hub is standard procedure; but often, travelers on budget airlines or those flying out of smaller airports find themselves facing a cold reality. Bags packed and beds booked, a flight cancellation can leave you stranded at the terminal, all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Still, all is not lost if you find yourself stood up at the gate. There are a few ways to salvage your vacation or business trip by handling flight cancellations like a pro.

1. Rebook on the Next Flight

This is the most common option available to stranded flyers. When a flight is canceled, airlines use this go-to move to placate as many passengers as possible, though it often means waiting in long customer service lines or finding yourself listening to hold music for hours. You can try to circumvent those lines by accessing customer service via Twitter or email, though those services will occasionally boot you back to the line. Still, if you’re going to be stuck in line, you might as well @ that airline to save some time.

2. Ditch the Flight for Another Airline

I once found myself stranded at MIA one evening with a desperate need to be in London the very next day. Options were limited: The budget airline that canceled on me wouldn’t have another flight out of South Florida for days, while major airlines were charging incredible rates to hop across the pond on less than two hours’ notice. After scouring the desks of seemingly every Europe-based airline for an hour, I finally settled on a compromise by grabbing a full refund from the budget flight and applying it to the difference on a last-minute Air France ticket.

The compromise got me to London on time. I was late by just one hour, but it came at a cost. (WOW Air and Air France have totally different pricing structures.)

If you’re short on time and your budget allows, play the field by booking a last-minute flight online. By booking on my smartphone, I skipped a line full of similarly stranded passengers at the service counter. (Google Flights is a life saver.) Just be sure to book directly through the airline’s website if you’re cutting it extremely close on time, as budget booking sites can save you money, but sometimes take a few critical minutes to process reservations.

Polite passengers with status on major airlines have had luck being rebooked on another airline. Though you’ll need to be a wizard with words and have some pull to get it done, this bonus route is worth a try for the qualified.

3. Wait It Out, and Get Compensated for Your Time

Airlines know the worst possible thing they can do to a passenger on the ground is to cancel a flight. As such, they typically avoid the process at all costs—and there’s a reason for that. If your flight is canceled, airlines receive tremendous pressure to compensate you for the inconvenience.

Legally, U.S. travel laws only require airlines to reimburse you monetarily if you are involuntarily bumped from a flight, but that doesn’t mean your inconvenience is worthless.

Sometimes, whether for financial reasons or because your schedule is flexible, the best way to conquer a flight cancellation is to wait it out. If you find yourself in this unenviable position, make a phone call to your airline immediately and attempt to arrange for compensation via frequent flyer miles and hotel reimbursement. (A travel companion of mine once received a 48-hour vacation in Hong Kong courtesy of American Airlines.) 

Remember the golden rule of customer service: Thou shalt be polite. Airlines are most likely to pay for your accommodations if the cancellation is due to mechanical fault with the aircraft, but politeness goes a long way in any flight cancellation scenario, especially if you kindly remind them that you are now in a real pinch.

If you’ve booked your flight with a credit card, you may also be eligible for travel delay reimbursement. The Points Guy has a thrifty list of cards that offer this protection—usually $500 per ticket, if you’ve booked the flight with that card. Notable entries include the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Reserve Card, the Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card and the Citi Prestige Card. Downer alert: Claiming your cash will involve a phone call to your credit card company. 

That $500 can go a long way towards making the best of a long delay between flights by covering the cost of a luxurious Airbnb or a night or two out on the town.

The Cold, Hard Truth

Flight cancellations are one of travel’s most unexpected and disappointing disasters. However, if you’re quick on your feet and clever with your calendar, you can turn a frustrating experience into a favorable situation. 

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