Winter Weather Delays, Lost Luggage: How to Get Reimbursed for Holiday Travel Catastrophes

Winter storms have led to over 3,800 US flights being canceled ahead of the Christmas holiday.

Dashia Milden Editor
Dashia is a staff editor for CNET Money who covers all angles of personal finance, including credit cards and banking. From reviews to news coverage, she aims to help readers make more informed decisions about their money. Dashia was previously a staff writer at NextAdvisor, where she covered credit cards, taxes, banking B2B payments. She has also written about safety, home automation, technology and fintech.
Nina Raemont Writer
A recent graduate of the University of Minnesota, Nina started at CNET writing breaking news stories before shifting to covering Security Security and other government benefit programs. In her spare time, she's in her kitchen, trying a new baking recipe.
Dashia Milden
Nina Raemont
13 min read
Plane coming in for a landing at SFO

You may receive a refund if the airline cancels your flight. 

James Martin/CNET

Hopefully you've packed some patience in your carry-on next to those Christmas gifts, because you'll need some with this year's holiday travel chaos. Airlines canceled 3,800 US flights Thursday and Friday due to the winter storm sweeping across parts of the country, Reuters reported. With a winter storm and subzero temperatures heading into this Christmas weekend, expect some travel delays or cancellations as you make your way home for the holidays. 

Long TSA lines, delayed flights due to winter weather and lost luggage are all factors of the flying experience you need to expect before you step foot in your airport. Plus, flights are up over 40% from 2020 right now, so these inconvenient, unforeseen problems may be especially acute during the busiest travel time of the year. One big question is, can you be paid for airline headaches that made you miss a flight or go home without your bags?

Some US airlines, such as Delta, American Airlines and United Airlines, are waiving change fees and fare differences for travelers going to winter storm-affected parts of the country, according to Reuters. 

Even though there's no one single policy when it comes to travel problems (see more below for the latest from popular airlines), there are a few similarities between airlines, both domestic and international. But there are also some major differences too. 

Rest assured that there are a few ways to claim vouchers, refunds and other accommodations for luggage, canceled flights or any difficulties you experience with your flight. Here's what you need to know about missing flights, being bumped from a full flight, lost luggage and how to file a claim for travel headaches and nightmares. 

When am I entitled to a travel refund from my airline?

In the US, you'll typically have more luck receiving a refund on your ticket price if:

  • The airline cancels your flight.
  • There's a "significant delay," according to the Department of Transportation (it isn't clear how long that would be).
  • You're involuntarily moved to a lower service class from the one that you paid for, like being moved from your first class booking to an economy seat.
  • You can't use a service you paid for, like a seat upgrade you didn't get, or if you paid $50 to use in-air Wi-Fi but it's broken.

Your checked bag fees are also refundable if the flight is canceled. But if you pay for checked bags that you don't end up checking, you might wind up eating the cost.

How long will it take the airline to issue a refund?

If the airline owes you a refund, it must pay you within seven business days if you paid by credit card and 20 business days if you paid by check or cash, according to the DOT. If you booked your flight with a travel agency, the agency would issue the refund instead of the airline. 

Will the airline refund my money if I need to cancel my flight?

It depends. The DOT's "24-hour rule" requires airlines to hold a flight reservation for 24 hours without making you pay. If you change your mind after you've paid, the airline must give you a full refund. The catch is that you only have 24 hours after buying a flight to cancel it. And if you book a flight that departs in less than a week, the 24-hour rule won't apply to your ticket.

Sometimes, airlines are flexible. Take United Airlines, for example -- you may be able to change your flight for free (or a lower fee) with a specific type of ticket and destination. Oftentimes you can expect to pay a fee to change flights and you may have to cover the difference in the new ticket price. It all depends on the airline's policies for your ticket type.

You can often use the airline's app or website, like Southwest Airlines permits, to initiate a refund for a delayed or canceled flight. 

Will airlines reimburse me for flight delays, cancellations or 'acts of God'?

They can, but they're not required to. The DOT says that even if you miss a connecting flight the airline is not required to cover your prepaid trip expenses -- such as a hotel room or cruise. Airlines may cover your hotel stay and free meals through gift certificates for your inconvenience, but there's no federal law mandating either.

But suppose the airline rebooks you on a new flight that doesn't work for you. In that case, the airline may be able to offer you a flight from a different airport from the same airline. You'll get faster service than calling if you rebook online, through your airline's app or by using a kiosk at the airport.

Many airlines will book you on the next flight with available seats if there's a flight delay. (For example, here's American Airlines' policy.) If no flight is available by 11:59 p.m. local time your airline may arrange an overnight stay only if it's caused by the airline (like a maintenance issue with your plane). 

If the flight delay is due to weather or an "act of God" (a real classification meaning events like floods, hurricanes or natural disasters that are out of the airline's control), you'll be responsible for your hotel accommodations. But even if you're not entitled to a reimbursement or perk of any sort, it doesn't hurt to request it. Ask nicely and treat the airline customer service agent respectfully and you may get what you want.


Flights can be delayed due to events such as hurricanes or flooding. 

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

How can I be compensated for being bumped from a full flight?

One big inconvenience for passengers is to be involuntarily bumped from a flight. In a case like this, the airline often oversells the flight and can choose which customers cannot board. When this happens, the airline will explain how it determines who won't board (late arrivals to the airport can be the first to go). It happens all the time and might not seem too bad when you're getting paid for the inconvenience. Usually, you'll get compensated and the airline must also cover additional costs, such as your checked baggage. And no matter the change, you'll get a flight credit or trip voucher (there's a big difference between the two) to rebook your flight. 

To get the money, you'll need to have been checked in by your airline's deadline -- the time can vary, but typically it's one hour before departure. You also must have a confirmed reservation, so if for example the airline contacted you by email to confirm your flight and you didn't confirm it, and then you're involuntarily bumped, you may not be able to get the money. There are specific rules for international flights and you also won't receive these benefits if the airline removes you from the flight for health, safety or unruly behavior.  

How much will the airline pay me if my flight is overbooked? 

The amount that an airline can pay you for an overbooked flight depends on a few factors. The DOT says that airlines can cap the maximum amount at $775 for any domestic or international flights from the US with a delay that's one to two hours. Usually, the amount is twice as much as a one-way ticket. You may be lucky enough to get more depending on your airline. If you have over two hours' wait for a rebooked flight, you may get up to 400% of the value of your one-way ticket for a rebooked flight. But the airline can cap the maximum amount at $1,550. 

If you're rebooked for a flight and your wait is less than an hour the airline doesn't have to pay you, but you can always ask for miles or a credit for the inconvenience. It's best to check with your airline to see how much they'll offer you. The good news is that you're guaranteed compensation if you wait at least an hour. The question for the airline is, "How much?" 

Can I get a refund if I'm too sick to travel?

It's a big question, given the ongoing pandemic. You may be able to send a doctor's note (more below) or proof of a positive COVID-19 test to change your flight without losing money. The same rules still apply: You can change your flight without a change fee, as long as it's within a specific time period (this may depend on the airline and your ticket type). Or, you can request a travel voucher to book a new flight at a later date. Keep in mind that some vouchers have blackout dates where they cannot be used, usually during holidays. Remember to read the policy and understand any exceptions before agreeing to a voucher instead of a refund.

Some airlines aren't budging on their cancellation policies -- JetBlue is one of them. Its nonrefundable ticket policy doesn't have exceptions. Nonrefundable tickets are indeed nonrefundable, even during the pandemic. You may be able to cancel your flight and leave the ticket as "Open" to book travel at a later date. The ticket will be available for one year. But you'll have more flexibility as a Mosaic member or with a refundable ticket.

What if I have a doctor's note saying that I can't fly? 

Sometimes, having a doctor vouch for your illness can help you avoid paying extra fees or losing out on money. Before you submit a doctor's note to an airline, check the policy to see if there are any exceptions to the rules if you're sick. Ask your doctor to provide as much information as possible to back up your medical condition. 

Don't wait to get in touch with the airline. It may be less than accommodating if your flight is within the next day or two. Keep in mind that the airline may not waive your fees or give you a credit, depending on its policy.

Can airlines charge me for being a no-show?

Again, different airlines have different rules. For example, Delta Airlines updated its no-show policy for customers who don't notify their travel agent or Delta. You'll lose your ticket (and its value) if you don't change or cancel your flight before the departure time. One of the reasons for the policy change is to give other travelers access to seats that would be left open to book or change reservations. 

JetBlue has a similar policy for nonrefundable tickets. However, if you need to change a flight, you may pay a difference in the airfare. So even though most airlines won't charge you, you'll likely lose your money if you don't change your flight before the departure time. 

What if I miss my flight? 

Sometimes the unthinkable happens and you miss your flight due to traffic, long security lines or procrastination. We've all been there. What happens next all depends on the airline and customer service. You may be able to go standby on the next flight, but it's not guaranteed. And depending on the airline, you may have to pay a pretty steep fee, upward of $200, to rebook. Or you may have to pay the difference in airfare or buy a separate ticket depending on the airline. So ask nicely.

Rolling luggage going up the escalator at the airport

If your luggage is missing, you'll need to file a report with the airline before leaving the airport. 

Bing Guan/Bloomberg/Getty Images

What happens if the airport loses or damages baggage?

Airlines will typically deliver your lost or delayed bags as soon as they can, usually within 24 hours. This may take longer for international flights, especially if you're changing destinations. The same goes for cases where your phone number, address or other information aren't up to date, or if flights to your destination are few and far between. 

In the meantime, the airline will cover the cost of items you need right away, like toothpaste and contact lens solution. Travel experts suggest packing essentials, including medication, in your carry-on bag just in case. Most full-service airlines let you bring one carry-on bag (such as a small suitcase) and one personal item (like a purse or book bag) for free. Others, like Spirit Airlines or a super economy ticket, may charge you for carry-on luggage.

How do I file a claim for lost or damaged luggage?

If you don't have your bags after landing, it's best to file a report with the airline before leaving the airport. You can also make a claim online or over the phone. Many airlines require you to report lost luggage within a specific time period. For example, United Airlines suggests filing a claim within 24 hours of arrival, but you'll have seven days to report damaged bags and 21 days to file a claim for lost bags on domestic and international flights. 

When submitting your claim, you'll need to have your flight information, bag tag number (don't lose this) and photo ID handy. And take photos of your bag before checking it -- they can be helpful when describing it to airline staff. You may also be asked to provide receipts or proof of purchase for the items in your bag. By law, airlines can be held liable for up to $3,800 for lost, damaged or delayed bags. If a bag is lost, you will be reimbursed for checked baggage charges.

How can I file a complaint for a flight problem?

If you run into a problem with bagging, boarding or any other common problems you can file a complaint with the airline or the DOT. However, it's recommended that you work with the airline to try to resolve the problem first. Airlines are required to address complaints within 30 days. Check your airline's website for the best way to submit complaints. Some offer an email while others have an online form. 

If you're not satisfied with the airline's response you can still file a complaint with the DOT online. You'll need to include contact information and your flight itinerary. You can attach pictures or other files, too. You may get a flight credit or flyer miles for your troubles, but money is unlikely.

What about delayed or canceled international flights in the EU?

Most countries have different rights for travelers, but there are some similarities to US domestic flights. European Union flight rights apply to passengers to or from 27 EU member countries. EU rights apply if your flight departs or is within the EU on any airline. Or if your flight arrives in the EU by an EU airline. But if the airline compensates you for any troubles, the EU won't credit you again for the same problem.

If you miss a connecting flight due to a delay of three hours or more in Europe and it's not an "extraordinary circumstance," (such as a massive storm) the airline must compensate you. If the airline cancels your flight, you're entitled to a full refund. And if you're already at the airport and your flight is canceled, you're entitled to meals, snacks and a hotel stay if you're rebooked for the next day. You may also get a refund depending on the circumstances. 

If your departure is delayed by at least two hours, you're entitled to snacks and meals while waiting. The airline is required to pay you if the delay is at least three hours. If the delay or cancellation is due to bad weather or aircraft damage or other "extraordinary circumstances," you may not get a full refund but the airline must offer a reimbursement or rebooking. You are also entitled to food in this case. 

If you're flying from the EU to the UK, the rights within European airlines don't apply to UK flights or others that are not by an EU carrier unless your circumstance falls under UK laws. 

What if my luggage is lost or damaged on an international flight?

In the EU, you can always ask for a refund, rebooking or a return flight -- especially if you are notified less than 14 days before your flight. But keep in mind that you may not get money back if the airline defines the disruption as an extraordinary circumstance. 

However, a strike could be considered an extraordinary circumstance. You may be refunded if the airline cannot prove that the strike is related to the flight delay or cancellation or cannot prove that it cannot be avoided. Your airline should provide more information on refunds under these circumstances, but if not, contact your national organization for help (PDF). 

Baggage carousel at airport

Travel insurance can help ensure that your items are covered if there's a flight. 

Angus Mordant/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Can I be refunded for airline shortages or strikes? 

In the EU, you can always ask for a refund, rebooking or a return flight -- especially if you are notified less than 14 days before your flight. But keep in mind that you may not get money back if the airline defines the disruption as an extraordinary circumstance. 

However, a strike could be considered an extraordinary circumstance. You may be refunded if the airline cannot prove that the strike is related to the flight delay or cancellation or cannot prove that it cannot be avoided. Your airline should provide more information on refunds under these circumstances, but if not, contact your national organization for help

What do airlines offer passengers who have flights canceled or delayed?

You can find a list of the accommodations different airlines make for passengers who have experienced delays or cancellations while traveling by visiting the Airline Customer Service Dashboard. The dashboard provides travelers with information about which amenities, like free hotel bookings and complimentary ground transportation, US airlines provide to their customers in the case of cancellations or delays. 

Everything else to consider when booking your next flight 

Before you book any domestic or international flight, it's best to understand all of your rights before buying a ticket. 

  • Some airlines and credit cards offer travel insurance to ensure your items and flight purchase are covered if there's an issue with your luggage or flight.
  • Carefully read your ticket limitations and travel itinerary to avoid unexpected costs.
  • Review the airline's policies no matter how good an airfare deal you found. Some tickets are nonrefundable and cannot be transferred -- even during a pandemic. 

Traveling right now can be frustrating and stressful, but Google's travel features can help you plan your next vacation as the pandemic continues. Be sure to hold onto your vaccine card if you're fully vaccinated -- especially if you're planning to go abroad. 

If you're curious about your preferred airline's delayed and canceled flights policies we've compiled the most popular ones here: