Lost Bag? Overbooked Flight? 3 Air Passenger Rights You Didn’t Know You Had

Domestic and foreign air travel in the U.S. has reached an all-time high. That means airports are more crowded, and flights are frequently delayed or overbooked.

And the worst part? Not knowing what to do when your reservation is affected. 

You feel like the airline should compensate you for your delayed flight, but the gate agent is saying it won’t. Who’s correct? 

Airline passenger rights are complicated, and even frequent travelers don’t know all of them. (I sure learned a few things while researching this article!)

Don’t wait until you’re at the airport, fuming, frustrated and running out of options. Learn your rights now and know what you’re entitled to when — er, if — the airline screws up your holiday travel. 

Airline Passenger Rights You May Not Know About

Having a problem with your flights? 

Per the rules and regulations listed in the Department of Transportation’s Fly Rights, here’s what to do when… 

Your Flight Is Delayed or Canceled

Unfortunately, the federal government doesn’t require the airline to do anything for domestic delays or cancellations. If you’re traveling internationally, you may be able to file for reimbursement under Article 19 of the Montreal Convention. 

Still, many airlines will offer some form of compensation in the name of good customer service. If the delay is caused by weather, they usually won’t give you anything — but if it’s a mechanical or scheduling issue, they might. 

Here’s what to ask for: 

  • Vouchers: If you’re stuck at the airport for a few hours, be sure to request food vouchers so you can eat at the airport restaurants. If you’re delayed overnight, ask for hotel and/or taxi vouchers. 
  • Airline miles: If you have a frequent flyer account with the airline, ask for extra miles for the inconvenience. I’ve successfully done this on a few occasions.
  • Lounge passes: If you have to be at the airport for several hours, ask the agent for a lounge pass. I don’t know if this works, but it’s worth a shot!

In addition to the airline, look at your credit cards for compensation, too. 

If your flight is delayed more than 12 hours or requires an overnight stay, and you paid for at least a portion of it with your Chase Sapphire Preferred card, for example, Chase will reimburse you up to $500 per ticket for reasonable expenses like food and lodging.

To avoid delays and cancellations in the first place, book flights leaving early in the day, and look for direct routes. If you must have a connection, stay away from airports that are really busy or notorious for weather delays (e.g. Chicago O’Hare). 

Your Flight Is Overbooked

Airlines regularly overbook (sell more tickets than there are seats) flights to make up for no-show passengers. Though this isn’t illegal, it can cause problems if more people show up than expected. 

When this happens, airlines ask for volunteers, offering incentives like vouchers and upgrades to entice passengers to give up their seats. If not enough people volunteer, airlines are forced to bump some passengers against their will. 

Though it’s a huge bummer to get involuntarily bumped, keep cool and remember your rights; you could end up with a pretty nice chunk of change. 

Here’s what you’re owed if you arrive…  

  • Within an hour of your scheduled time: $0
  • One to two hours late: Double the price of your ticket, up to $675
  • More than two hours late: Quadruple the price of your ticket, up to $1,350 

Some airlines may try to take advantage of you and offer airline credit in exchange for the inconvenience. Don’t accept this offer. And don’t sign any paperwork, as it could remove your right to further compensation. 

Stand your ground and, if necessary, cite this Department of Transportation page

Want to reduce the likelihood of being bumped before you even get to the airport? Check in to your flight early (you can do so 24 hours before your scheduled departure) and add your frequent flyer number to the reservation. The airline is less likely to bump loyal travelers.

Your Baggage Gets Lost

Standing at baggage claim and never having your bags show up is not fun. 

Your first stop should be your airline’s baggage office. Sometimes luggage comes in on an earlier flight or is accidentally placed in the oversize luggage area. 

Still not there? Time to ask for compensation. 

Airlines are required to compensate passengers for reasonable expenses for loss, damage or delay in the carriage of passenger baggage, according to DOT rules.

Each airline interprets this differently, but in general, expect a stipend of at least $50 per day to spend on necessities like toiletries and clothing. Just be sure to keep your receipts so the airline can reimburse you later. 

Also, if you paid for your ticket or fees with a credit card, check its benefits. The Chase Sapphire Preferred, for example, offers a stipend of up to $100 per day for clothing, toiletries and charging cables when your baggage is delayed by six hours or more. 

If your luggage gets lost permanently, then you’ll need to file a second claim. The airline must compensate you for the value of your luggage, up to $3,500. 

Something’s Gone Wrong, and You’ve Hit a Dead End

The first thing I do when I’m not getting the help I need? Jump on social media. I use Twitter to explain my situation — and @mention the airline — and often the company will address it right away. 

You can also call the airline’s customer service line from the airport. Sometimes its phone reps will give you a different answer than the gate agents, which gives you leverage when resolving your issue. 

And please, as difficult as it can be sometimes, always treat the gate agents with respect and patience. Airline mishaps usually aren’t their fault, and they have to deal with a lot of cranky people. Not only that, but you’d be surprised how far they’ll go to reward someone who’s nice. 

If you do receive great service, don’t forget to return the favor by submitting a comment form on the airline’s website. Alternatively, you can submit complaints about rude or unhelpful agents. I’ve actually complimented and complained about different agents in the same message! 

Be sure to write down information — agent names, dates and flight numbers — while it’s fresh in your mind. You can refer back to this if you need to contact the airline later; providing details always strengthens your case. 

If your trip is over and your complaint hasn’t been resolved, try AirHelp, a company that lobbies airlines on behalf of passengers who were involuntarily bumped. Or check out Service, a company that helps resolve customer service issues at no cost to the customer. 

Whatever you do, don’t let this holiday travel season get the best of you. Stay calm, remember your rights and seek the compensation you deserve! 

Susan Shain is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder.