What Are Your Rights If An Airline Cancels Your Flight (Covid-19 Edition)


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Note: This is an updated version of a post that I first published back in March when the current crisis was only just breaking. With a large number of people seemingly still unable to get the refunds they’re owed and with airlines still pushing customers into accepting vouchers for future travel, it seems appropriate to remind readers of where they stand when an airline cancels their flight(s) in the time of Covid-19.

Throughout this current travel crisis, a significant number of airlines have been doing their very best to make it very hard for customers to request a refund when their trips have been canceled or they’ve been giving passengers the impression that they’re not entitled to a refund in the first place. The good news here is that, in a number of jurisdictions, the rules and laws are firmly on the side of the consumer, but if you don’t know what the rules and regulations say, it’s easy for an airline to pull the wool over your eyes.

This post aims to inform readers with bookings to/from/within the United States and/or the European Union (and select associated nations) what their rights are when an airline cancels their flight(s) in the era of Covid-19.

What Do The Rules Say?

First and foremost let’s get one thing very clear: The current pandemic does not allow airlines to ignore the rule of law in the countries they operate within, to and from.

Airlines cannot pick and choose which laws they’ll adhere to and which they ignore and this applies as much to situations where an airline cancels a traveler’s flight(s) as it does to any other situation that may arise.

In the United States the Department of Transport (DoT) regulations on canceled flights are very clear:

If your flight is canceled and you choose to cancel your trip as a result, you are entitled to a refund for the unused transportation – even for non-refundable tickets.  You are also entitled to a refund for any bag fee that you paid, and any extras you may have purchased, such as a seat assignment.  

The DoT goes on to say the following:

If the airline offers you a voucher for future travel instead of a refund, you should ask the airline about any restrictions that may apply, such as blackout and expiration dates, advanced booking requirements, and limits on number of seats.

As far as the law in the European Union goes (yes, this still covers the UK), this is the advice:

If your cancelled [short-haul, medium-haul or long-haul] flight is covered by EU law, your airline must let you choose between two options:

1. Receive a refund

You can get your money back for all parts of the ticket you haven’t used. For instance, if you have booked a return flight and the outbound leg is cancelled, you can get the full cost of the return ticket back from your airline.

2. Choose an alternative flight

If you still want to travel, your airline must find you an alternative flight. It’s up to you whether to fly as soon as possible after the cancelled flight, or at a later date that suits you. Airlines often refer to this as being ‘rerouted’.

Although most airlines will book you onto another of their flights to the same destination, if an alternative airline is flying there significantly sooner then you may have the right to be booked onto that flight instead. You can discuss this with your airline.

Where Do These Rules Apply?

The US Department of Transport rules (DoT rules) cover all flights to, from, and within the United States regardless of the airline providing the transportation.

European legislation applies to all flights departing from the European Union (and select Eurozone countries) regardless of the airline providing the transportation, as well as to all airlines based in the European Union (and select Eurozone countries) irrespective of the routing (link).

For clarity, a flight is covered by EU law if it departs from or arrives into:

  • Any EU member country (including the UK)
  • Iceland
  • Norway
  • Switzerland

The home country of an airline has no bearing on whether or not it is subject to EU law.

What Have The Airlines Been Doing?

A number of airlines (like British Airways, United Airlines, SWISS, and Lufthansa) have been making it deliberately difficult for passengers to request refunds by either:

  • Forcing them to call in and wait on hold for hours for a refund (when refunds were previously requestable online)
  • Directing them to areas of their websites which suggest that they’ll be offered a refund but which actually only offer them the option to request a voucher for future travel (British Airways is very guilty of this)
  • Lying to them by saying that they cannot process refunds at all and letting them believe that a travel voucher is their only viable option.

Other airlines (like American and Qantas) have been trying to persuade customers not to request the cash refunds to by offering them incentives on top of the travel vouchers they’re automatically entitled to.

In all these cases, what the airlines are trying to do is to minimize the amount of cash they have to give back to travelers so that they can shore up their own finances and, by issuing travel vouchers, airlines are effectively getting customers to provide them with interest-free loans. Moreover, not only are the travel vouchers effectively interest-free loans to the airlines, but they’re also loans that expire.

Most of the travel vouchers that the airlines are currently issuing are valid for a period no longer than 24 months from when the originally booked travel was due to take place so if a passenger doesn’t use their voucher(s) in that time, the voucher is useless and the airline owes them nothing in return. That’s a phenomenal deal for the airline and can be a very poor deal for the customer.

Related Reading: Can You Request A Refund If An Airline Has Already Issued You With A Travel Voucher?

Know The Risks

No one knows what the airline industry will look like in 12, 18, or 24 month’s time and there’s a very real chance that not all the airlines in existence today will be in existence when all of this has blown over…at least not in their current guise. Airlines around the world have spent all of the spring and summer begging their governments to bail them out of trouble and although most have had their wishes granted (at least temporarily), some airlines are still teetering on the brink.

Yes, eventually most (probably all) of the bigger carriers are likely to be bailed out in one way or another (some more than once), but there’s absolutely no guarantee what all of those bailouts will look like and there’s still a chance (at least in some jurisdictions) that passengers holding promissory notes for future travel from a distressed airline may see themselves categorized as unsecured creditors and, as a result, never see a dime of value out of their travel vouchers.

If you have the legal right to a cash refund why would you put yourself in a position where you have exchanged that cash for a voucher that may turn out to be worthless?

Sure, as I’ve already mentioned, some airlines are offering added incentives to passengers who accept a voucher for future travel in place of a full refund, and if the airline in question is one that has been bailed out already or is an airline that is unlikely to be allowed to collapse into oblivion (e.g. the major US carriers), accepting those incentives may be a smart choice for people who know they’ll be able to make the most of those incentives and travel credits before they expire.

Everyone else should be very aware of what the rules and regulations covering their bookings say and should be prepared to quote those rules (when relevant) to any airline that is very obviously trying to circumvent those rules.

Bottom Line

If an airline has canceled your flight(s) to/from/within the United States or the European Union (and select European countries that are not part of the EU) you are legally entitled to 100% of what you originally paid in the original currency you used – that means that you’re entitled to all the money you handed over (fares + surcharges + taxes + ancillary fees) as well as any miles, points, and co-pays that you handed over.

It is not your job as a traveler to support billion-dollar corporations with interest-free loans (that you may never see repaid). Get your money back and don’t settle for vouchers unless the airline in question is sound and is prepared to offer you an added incentive to accept a voucher.

24 COMMENTS

  1. This now appears to be an industry wide practice. EasyJet is saying that you can only have a refund if you contact their customer service centre, but they terminate all calls – you cannot even hang on the line. Last week the refund option was provided on the website, now it has mysteriously disappeared. No vouchers are being offered by EasyJet – you have to re-book your flights to another date (and pay the difference in price of flight).
    KLM guidance is entirely misleading as it makes no reference to the fact you are entitled to an actual refund and not just a voucher.
    Both airlines are not responding to calls, tweets, Facebook messages etc.

    The best option if you have paid with a UK credit card is to try and get a refund under S.75 Consumer Credit Act 1974 (for flights over £100) as You have booked for a flight on a certain date and not an expiring voucher to fly on a date unknown

  2. I contacted JetBlue yesterday and I purchased the tix through flight hub without any insurance. I was surprised how nice and got a voucher for the total amount good for 1 yr from my date of purchased. No hassle at all and wrote the date on my calendar and all my electronic stuff.
    Now the problem is with CSA who I purchased the insurance from through Flight Hub. I contacted CSA and said I have to go by Flight Hub rules. I contacted Flight Hub on the phone and
    was told that at present CSA would give me a refund of $758.88 or get a voucher for the total amount of $1,356 from the date of purchase 1/22/2021. My flight is in May 2020 to Egypt and I have no issue going later in the year. My question should I take the refund now change the date of the flight.

  3. What happens if you booked through a travel agent and you used half of the travel? Meaning one airline canceled the first leg on the way back, and travel agent (ASAPtickets) would not change carriers. Agent said no refund and no voucher, airline said they couldn’t give us anything because we booked through agent. One ticket was a one way and had insurance on it and still told me they won’t honey that.
    We rebooked with a different agent and airline so we could get back home.
    This is a international flight.

    • I am in the same boat….It seems travel agents make their own rules and not bound by DoT rules for refund. A good travel agent might offer a refund with low penalty.

  4. What US law or regulation requires airlines to provide a refund? The linked page is guidance from the DoT but does not cite any law or regulation as authority for requiring airlines to provide refunds. Thank you.

  5. Southwest’s position is that because the flight cancellations were a result of government actions they are not required to give a refund. I’ve complained to DOT.

    • On the grounds that the DoT hasn’t waived any of its rules relating to cancellations and there is no rule exception for the crisis we are in right now, Southwest is in breach of the rules by not offering a refund.

      The next time you’re in contact with the airline ask them to point you to the rule/legislation that says they don’t have to refund you.

      Also, contact your credit card issuer and request a chargeback (if you’re within the chargeback time limit)

  6. Does anyone know if the EU rules that entitle the passenger to a refund in case of flight cancellation are valid for French Polynesia (Tahiti)? I have flights to, in and from there and the airlines have cancelled the flights. Also, does anyone know what the law says about this in Australia and New Zealand?

  7. I am booked with KLM…flying to Amsterdam From Birmingham which I’m very doubtful with go ahead. I paid by my debit card not credit card 🙁 will i be able to get charge back on this? what law do I quote if they refuse. All they are saying on website is vouchers only

  8. […] If you booked your fare before today (3 April 2020) for travel in April or May 2020 and Delta has cancelled your trip, you are entitled to a cash refund and should pursue the airline for that refund. You also have the option to turn down the cash refund in exchange for a voucher for future travel (valid through 31 May 2022) but I strongly advise against this course of action. […]

  9. We booked an Expedia trip to Paris from Boston a few months ago. Air France has canceled the outbound leg and the hotel is shut until further notice. Spent three hours on phone with scumballs from Expedia/Travelocity this morning. Most of it on hold. The [redacted – name-calling adds nothing to the conversation] just kept saying Gobledegook non answers and putting us on hold for another 20-30 minutes. These people are evil and the author is naive if they think Joe Sixpacks have any chance of getting satisfaction….even in three miserable hours. Smell the coffee

    • Calling me (the author) naive (or any other name) is not a clever thing to do when you don’t apparently know the difference between an airline booking (what this post discusses) and a travel agency booking…but let’s move on from that.

      Based on the tone and the wording of your comment I’m going to guess that you have no idea how to keep your temper and get things done. You strike me as someone who rants down the phone as soon as you hit a stumbling block and that’s a surefire way to get absolutely nowhere…which is exactly where you have ended up.

      Good luck dealing with Expedia – if you’d bothered to do any research before booking your trip you’d know just how awful their customer service is.

  10. FYI. The return trip is Delta, which may or may not be canceled as waters are muddy. We’ve read many articles saying wait until 72 hours before trip. Ours was supposed to start this Friday. Again this author is giving people false hope as we try and recover $3000

    • No, “this author” isn’t giving anyone false hope. “This author” is giving people the information they need to make sure the airlines don’t take advantage of them.

      The laws in the US and Europe are very clearly on the side of the customers and as you don’t have to get a refund sorted out before travel was due to take place, customers shouldn’t be in any hurry to accept anything less than they’re due.

      Your attitude and tone (in both your comments on this post) are a great indicator as to why you’re not getting anywhere – if I was a CS agent dealing with you I’d probably tell you to go pound sand too.

  11. Look I have been booking trips for flights all over the world for the last 18 months had a great time worked really hard till I was 55 to do this I’m lucky I can take the current blow on the chin.If I was a 30 something I would be gutted .l currently have 5k wrapped up in cancelled flights and been offered vouchers by Expedia/ KLM Delta Norwegian. I did get my money back from a BA flight in March but lost £200 to Carlton travel who the took the booking . I think it’s a disgrace by these airlines who have rich backers and government bailouts not giving refunds in the way we all paid it seems to be EU law .Iv been nice talking to these companies but are we getting fobbed off with vouchers shall we all just wait for some big hitter to taken to court to get our money back . The insurance company I used for my expensive flights is no better it said it covered cancellation due to pandemics but refused to pay out as Iv been offered a voucher. Big trap Big trap. Uk to Orlando Booked with Expedia KLM operator virgin plane £2800 3 tickets flights only paid by debt card . I believe I should of got my money back in 7 days is this true .

  12. Ziggy, there are some very ungrateful people on here.
    Why book flights through Expedia when you can get them the same price direct?
    Why use a debit card when a credit card is more secure way of getting your money back (talking about the UK here – do not know situation in the US).
    Out of interest I had two first class Swissair London/Zurich/Delhi return tickets. Flights cancelled by Swiss who advised me. Telephoned London office. Very helpful. Refund came through in just under 8 weeks – a result these days.

    • That’s a remarkable performance from SWISS. Earlier this year they were at the vanguard of fobbing customers off. Glad it all worked out so well.

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