Holiday Travel Woes? Here’s Exactly What Each Airline Refunds

A woman waits for her plane by a Christmas tree at the airport.
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Traveling by air for the holidays is hard enough. There are long lines at airport security, potential winter storms and seemingly random flight rebookings or even cancellations. These days, it’s nearly impossible to travel without something going awry.

Airlines are not usually up front about their refund policies — you as the traveler often have to directly ask to be refunded or credited for things like a rebooked flight, lost baggage or alternate transportation.

Whether you’re traveling for the holidays this winter or planning a trip next year, don’t head to the airport without first knowing your refund rights as a traveler.

The U.S. Depart of Transportation Has Your Back

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has outlined “Fly Rights” that protect airline travelers in certain situations. While the DOT’s rules don’t cover every misstep an airline might make, the DOT does protect travelers whose baggage is lost or flight is canceled.

Lost Baggage 

For domestic flights, airlines must reimburse customers for the contents of bags that are lost. Customers can claim up to $3,800 in missing items from their lost baggage, but this does not mean that the airline will necessarily reimburse a customer that amount.

Internationally, customers may claim approximately $1,700 in missing items from their lost baggage.

Airlines may include exceptions to what customers can claim in lost baggage in what is called a “contract of carriage.” A contract of carriage is the airline’s policy for its services; some airlines will exclude the ability to claim fragile items, electronics or high-value items from lost baggage claims. Be sure to read the airline’s contract of carriage before purchasing tickets. and remember: By purchasing tickets with any airline, you are agreeing to their contract of carriage.

In addition, a customer is entitled to a refund of their checked bag fee if their airline has declared their bag lost.

Canceled Flights

If your flight is completely canceled — not just delayed — you are entitled to a full refund for flight.

In addition, if your flight experiences a “significant delay,” and you choose not to travel, you are entitled for a full refund as well. Be aware that the DOT has not defined what a “significant delay” means in terms of hours or days, so you may face an uphill battle with your airline to get that refund.

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Seat Downgrade

If you are downgraded from one seat class to another, such as from first class to economy, you are entitled to the difference between the two fares. Airlines cannot downgrade you without reimbursing you, so don’t agree to a downgrade without the airline first offering a refund of the difference.

While the DOT has passed broadly-defined laws to protect airline customers, airlines are also entitled to having their own policies about refunds. Take a look at these common airlines’ refund policies for canceled flights and bag fees:

A Look at The Airlines Refund Policies


Canceled and Significantly Delayed Flights

If your flight or entire itinerary on United airlines is canceled, you are eligible for a full refund or travel credit, according to the company. However, if a portion of your ticket has already been used (like if you have multiple flights in one itinerary) at the time of flight cancellation, you will be refunded a prorated amount by the airline. If you choose to accept alternate transportation, such as a rental car or alternate flight, provided by the airline, no refund will be issued.

United decides when your flight is considered significantly delayed. In the case of a significantly delayed flight, if:

  • You change your travel plans, United will waive any change fees even if your trip normally wouldn’t qualify.
  • You cancel your trip, United will provide a travel credit or refund for the part of your trip you didn’t fly.
  • You’ve made it to a connecting city in your itinerary, you may ask to return to your origin and receive a travel credit or refund if no other flights are available.


In general, checked bag fees are non-refundable. However, if your flight is canceled or impacted by a significant delay and you opt not to travel, you are eligible for a refund from United.

According to United’s contract of carriage, passengers who are eligible for a refund of tickets, bags, or other fees, must request a refund within “90 days of the date the fee(s) was original paid or flight date, whichever is later.” Beyond that time frame, United is not obligated to provide a refund.

United will only compensate damaged or lost baggage and baggage contents up to $3,800 and they exclude numerous items from being claimed (all items are listed in their contract of carriage), such as: antiques, flowers and plants, eyeglasses and musical instruments.


Canceled and Significantly Delayed Flights

If your itinerary on Delta Airlines airlines is canceled, you are eligible for a full refund. Just like with United, if a portion of your ticket has already been used at the time the flight is canceled, you will be refunded a prorated amount by the airline. Same deal with accepting alternative transportation: If you accept Delta’s offer of alternative transportation to your destination, no refunds or travel credits will be issued.

Note that according to Delta’s contract of carriage, you must request a full refund for any applicable instances from Delta within one year of the original issue date of the ticket. Delta will not proactively offer you a refund on any services.

If your flight is significantly delayed — which Delta defines as a delay of 120 minutes or more — and:

  • You cancel your trip, Delta will refund you at your request.
  • You accept travel on another Delta flight and are seated in a seat class lower than what you originally purchased, Delta will refund you the difference between the classes.
  • You accept ground transportation offered by Delta, you will not be refunded.


In most scenarios, checked bag fees are not refundable with Delta. However, if your bag is lost or damaged, you can file a claim with Delta at their claim office within 24 hours of the bag being found damaged or designated as lost.

Beyond 24 hours, Delta’s contract of carriage states that they are not liable to pursue the claim. In addition, “written notification or loss must be received by Delta’s system baggage within 21 days after the alleged occurrence,” and Delta is likely to deny any claim beyond 21 days.

Delta notes in its contract of carriage that they will not exceed the DOT’s maximum liability amount of $3,800 for lost baggage, and that fragile and perishable items may not be included in that claim.

American Airlines

Canceled and Significantly Delayed Flights

Per the DOT, if your American Airlines flight or itinerary is canceled or faces a significant delay (which is not defined by American Airlines), you will either be rebooked on another American Airlines flight or you can be refunded the remaining ticket value.

If you choose not to accept the alternatives provided by American Airlines, you will not be refunded.

American Airlines notes in their conditions of carriage that if a flight disruption is their fault, such as not having enough crew or mechanical issues, or you are diverted to another city and the flight does not board before 11:59 p.m. on your scheduled arrival day, the airline will cover the cost of an approved hotel. If you go your own route and opt to book a hotel on your own, you will not be reimbursed by American Airlines.

To add to that, if a flight disruption is “beyond our control,” like inclement weather, American Airlines states that they are not liable to reimburse you for the cost of a hotel, meal or other expenses such as a rental car.


American Airlines states that bag fees may be refundable if you purchased a bag and “didn’t travel as planned.”

The American Airlines conditions of carriage states that you can file a lost or delayed bag report if your bags do not arrive within four hours of arriving at your final destination. If your bags are damaged, you should report them as such prior to leaving the airport and within 24 hours of receiving the damaged bag.

If you are seeking compensation, you must submit a Passenger Property Questionnaire within 30 days of filing your first report — be sure to request this from American Airlines. American Airlines has a long list of items they will not cover, such as antiques, artwork, computers, liquids, medications and multimedia equipment. The full list can be viewed in their conditions of carriage under “Baggage Liability.”

Southwest Airlines

Canceled and Significantly Delayed Flights

According to Southwest’s contract of carriage, if a passenger is faced with a significant delay (which is not defined by Southwest) or an involuntary cancellation due to Southwest, you may be placed onto another Southwest flight at no additional charge, be refunded the unused portion of your ticket or be provided with a flight credit.

You must request a refund from Southwest within one year from the date the affected ticket was issued.


If your itinerary is canceled, you are eligible to receive a full refund on checked bag fees.

Should your bag be lost or damaged, Southwest’s contract of carriage states that the passenger must notify Southwest and receive a baggage report no later than four hours after the arrival of the flight on which the loss or damage occurred or four hours after receiving the baggage — whichever is later.

Southwest passengers wishing to file a baggage claim must submit either a Lost/Delayed Report Receipt form provided by Southwest, a written notification of the baggage report number no later than 21 days after the occurrence — and, if your bag is lost, you must submit a Property Loss Claim form to Southwest.

Similar to other carriers, Southwest omits a lot of items from what you’re allowed to claim – and Southwest will only reimburse applicable items up to $3,800.

Some examples of claim-exempt items include jewelry, multimedia equipment, personal documents and furs such as fur coats.

Safe Travels!

While many airlines’ refund policies are similar, there are subtle differences between each carrier. Spend time reviewing an airline’s contract of carriage before booking – and before filing a claim — to ensure you are up to date on the company’s exact policies for reimbursing customers in the event of a flight disruption or baggage issue.

All airlines must make their contracts of carriage public, and if you can’t locate a carrier’s contract, reach out to their customer service department. It is your right as a passenger to have access to the contract of carriage.

Colorado-based writer Kristin Jenny focuses on lifestyle and wellness. She is a regular contributor to The Penny Hoarder.