The 2023 winter holiday season took off smoothly for most U.S air travelers. Despite a record number of passengers taking to the air, the flight cancellation rate was a low 0.8 percent, according to the Department of Transportation. This is in sharp contrast to 2022, which saw an 8.2 percent cancellation rate for the same period.

The 2022 fiasco was largely influenced by Southwest Airlines’ cancellation of more than 16,000 flights during the busy holiday travel season, which led to millions of the airline’s passengers being stranded.

But it calls into question: If your airline flight is suddenly canceled, can you be reimbursed for the money you shelled out on your ticket? Here’s what airlines are required to provide — including for those additional, unexpected expenses you incurred on food or hotel stays because of a disrupted itinerary.

Airline refund policies and the DOT

If your flight is canceled or significantly delayed, you have the right to consumer protections that include a refund of your ticket price and baggage fees under the U.S. Department of Transportation’s consumer protections.

Most major airlines will rebook you on another flight with the same airline without additional payment, but you’re not required to accept the change — even if you have a non-refundable ticket. What you’re entitled to depends on the circumstances:

  • For canceled flights, no matter the reason, you have the right to a full refund if you decide against a rebooking on another flight.
  • For schedule changes and significant delays, you have the right to a full refund if you decide against continuing your travel. Note that there’s no set definition of a “significant delay,” and so it’s possible you’ll need to file a complaint and wait for a resolution.
  • If your class of service is downgraded — for example, you’re asked to give up a business-class seat for economy — you have the right to a refund of the difference between fares.

These protections apply whether you purchased your ticket directly with an airline, through a travel site or even through a travel agent. And while you’re not entitled to a refund on incidentals, for delays of more than three hours, your airline may offer to reimburse you for meals and even necessary hotel stays.

Bankrate senior industry analyst Ted Rossman offers this: “My best advice to someone affected by cancellations would be to start with whatever the airline is offering and then pull in their credit card as a backup, if the card offers travel protections.”

Credit card travel insurance

Many top credit cards offer travel insurance as a benefit that kicks in after unexpected events disrupt your travel plans. If your domestic or international travel is interrupted by weather-related issues, for instance, your credit card might protect you from resulting monetary losses.

Your card’s travel insurance might also cover medical emergencies that occur while you’re away from home. If you or your travel companions fall sick during a trip, for example, your card might reimburse you for medical costs you paid out of pocket, or evacuation to a nearby medical facility.

If you need to stay at a hotel due to travel delays, your card’s insurance could take care of those expenses too. Same goes for missing or lost baggage: Your card’s travel insurance might supplement coverage offered by your airline or homeowners policy.

If you’re not sure whether your credit card offers travel insurance, check with your card issuer and ask exactly what protections it offers.

How to file a complaint

If your flight is canceled or significantly delayed, you should first try to resolve any complaints you have directly with your airline or a ticket agent. Typically, you’ll find airline customer service representatives at the airport available to address your concerns. You could also file a complaint directly with an airline. The DOT requires airlines to acknowledge consumer complaints within 30 days of receipt and address or resolve the issue within 60 days.

If you aren’t satisfied with the resolution the airline provides, consider filing a complaint directly with the DOT. You can submit a complaint online, call 202-366-2220 or mail your complaint to:

Office of Aviation Consumer Protection
U.S. Department of Transportation
1200 New Jersey Avenue SE
Washington, DC 20590

The bottom line

If you find yourself without a flight due to an airline cancellation or a significant delay, you may be eligible for a refund of your ticket costs. You may also be reimbursed for food and hotel stays, depending on the airline. Start by contacting your airline and asking for a refund to your credit card. And look into whether your credit card comes with travel insurance that can cover expenses airlines wont.

If you’re still unhappy with the help you’re getting, consider filing a complaint directly with the airline or the Department of Transportation as a last resort.