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Can I Cancel a Flight and Get a Refund? Rules for Refunds, Reimbursements, and More | Frommer's Shutterstock

Can I Cancel a Flight and Get a Refund? Rules for Refunds, Reimbursements, and More

Sorting through the fine print of an airline’s policies can be tedious and confusing, and it doesn’t get any easier when things go awry.

From meal and hotel vouchers to refunds, policies may differ from one airline and situation to another. What's more, some policies have evolved over the last few years in response to pandemic disruptions.

Add in public pressure and proposed regulations by the Biden administration to redress flight delays and cancellations, and your head may be spinning by now.

The good news: After the air travel meltdowns of last summer and this past holiday season, things appear to be running more smoothly so far this summer—but it’s still fairly early.

In the event you do run into trouble, here’s what to know about the rules and recent developments surrounding flight refunds, reimbursements, and compensation.

Can I get a refund if my flight is canceled?

Yes, if you choose not to fly.

U.S. Department of Transportation policy requires airlines to issue refunds to passengers whose flights are canceled, are significantly delayed, or undergo a significant schedule change, if the passenger ultimately elects not to rebook and fly later.

It doesn’t matter if the disruption was the airline’s fault, weather-related, or anything else.

And, as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg reminded customers on social media amid last summer’s chaos, airline miles won’t cut it—you’re entitled to a cash refund.

A caveat: The government does not specify what constitutes a “significant” delay or schedule change. Instead, the Transportation Department determines whether you’re entitled to a refund on a case-by-case basis, weighing delay length, flight length, and your personal circumstances, the agency says

To take an example: Say it’s Saturday morning. You’re flying to New York City to see an afternoon Yankees game, with plans to fly back the next day. A storm cancels your flight. The airline offers to rebook you for later, but, by that point, you’d end up missing the game. The trip now feels pointless. 

You’re entitled to a flight refund if you scrap the trip.

My flight isn't canceled, but I want to cancel my ticket. Can I still get a refund?

It depends.

If you just booked your ticket, then you can likely get your money back.

Per government policy, airlines must either allow penalty-free cancellation within 24 hours of booking if the trip is at least 7 days away, or the airline must allow you to place a 24-hour hold on your ticket and fare without your having to pay immediately.

Beyond that 24-hour window, the possibility of getting a refund for a ticket you cancel (rather than for a flight the airline cancels) comes down to the carrier and the type of ticket you booked.

A number of U.S. airlines offer a combination of fully refundable and nonrefundable fare types, while some carriers offer a sort of middle ground that refunds you in the form of future airline credits—but not cash.

For instance, with Southwest Airlines’ "Wanna Get Away" and "Wanna Get Away Plus" fares, you can cancel up to 10 minutes before departure and get credits for future flights. If you pay a bit more for an “Anytime” or “Business Select” ticket, though, you can get a full refund.

(Southwest Airlines fare categories screenshot)

The refund policy for United Airlines, meanwhile, notes that "most fares are nonrefundable,” but adds, “the value of your ticket may be eligible to be applied toward the price of a new ticket for a fee.” 

Generally speaking, budget airlines and basic economy tickets tend to be the most restrictive when it comes to making changes to a reservation.

When booking a flight be sure to scan the fine print for your ticket’s cancellation policy. It should spell out somewhere whether you’re entitled to a full trip credit, partial trip credit, full refund, or nothing at all should you need to cancel.

As you can see below, while booking a Delta Air Lines trip for July from Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., to Atlanta, if you click the cheapest basic economy fare, the list of restrictions warn you can only get partial e-credit if you cancel, versus full trip credit if you cancel a regular main cabin ticket.

(Delta Air Lines basic economy vs. main cabin comparison)

Delta also has an option for a refundable main cabin ticket that will allow for a complete refund if you cancel—albeit for a more expensive price.

Am I entitled to reimbursements for meals and hotel stays if my flight is delayed or canceled? 

There’s been a lot of talk over the last year about the types of expenses airlines will reimburse or outright cover in the wake of flight delays and cancellations.

After all, when you get stranded, the costs can pile up from extra meals, taxi rides, and sometimes even an unexpected night spent at a hotel.

The Biden administration has pressured airlines to cover these costs, and the Transportation Department has made an effort to make it easier for customers to see what they’re owed via a customer service online dashboard first rolled out last year.

According to the dashboard, every U.S. airline scrutinized by the government guarantees meals or cash/vouchers for meals when a cancellation or delay results in a 3-hour wait or longer.

Additionally, every airline except Frontier guarantees complimentary hotel accommodations for an overnight cancellation or delay, as well as complimentary ground transportation to and from the hotel and airport.

Keep this in mind, though: These guarantees only apply to “controllable” cancellations and delays, meaning the issues fall under the airline’s responsibility because they have to do with matters such as aircraft maintenance or staffing. That does not include weather.

Another caveat: At the moment, these are technically optional gestures on the part of airlines rather than guarantees regulated by the government.

But the Biden administration wants to change that.

Are there new airline compensation rules on the horizon?

In May, the Transportation Department announced plans to propose a new rule that would require airlines to provide compensation for those meal, ground transit, and hotel expenses tied to delays and cancellations.

Again, this would apply only when the delay or cancellation is the airline’s fault. However, this proposed rule would clearly define what constitutes a disruption that’s within the airline’s control.

And in those clearly defined cases, compensation to consumers for delays and cancellations would no longer be voluntary but required by law. 

The International Air Transport Association, a trade group representing airlines, criticized the government’s proposal as an “added layer of expense” that would “likely have an impact on ticket prices.” 

Things you can do when your flight is canceled or delayed

With those policies in mind, here are some steps you can take when your flight is delayed or canceled.

See if you can rebook on the airline app

Many airlines will let you quickly rebook yourself on the carrier’s mobile app when your flight is canceled or delayed. This can be a way to avoid waiting in line or languishing on hold.

Ask why the flight is delayed or canceled

If you know the reason is, say, maintenance or crew staffing (and not weather), you’ll know there’s a better chance of getting some sort of financial assistance from the airline.

It doesn’t hurt to ask for reimbursement.

Even if the gate agent didn’t say anything about vouchers, you can always ask!

The airline may still be willing to reimburse you for costs you end up incurring—again, if the disruption is the airline’s responsibility. Keep all receipts and try contacting the airline through online customer service channels.

Don’t forget about credit card protections.

Check your credit card policies. Some travel credit cards offer protections for costs tied to trip delays. This can be especially helpful if your flight faced a weather-related disruption the airline won’t cover.

If you think you were wrongly denied a refund, file a complaint.

If the airline denied you a refund and you think you were entitled to one, the Transportation Department suggests filing a complaint with the agency. (Our step-by-step guide will take you through doing just that.)