What to do when an airline cancels your flight

Nobody likes it when their flight is cancelled, but whether you’re a real road warrior or you fly less often, it’s something you’re bound to encounter sooner or later: and when it happens to you, there are steps you can take to minimise your delays and costs.

Depending on your circumstances, you may also qualify for cash compensation from your airline, or for an extra serving of frequent flyer points for your troubles.

What to do when an airline cancels your flight

Here’s what to do when your flight is cancelled, so you can get back on track.

Step 1: Calmly contact your airline or travel agent

As you’d expect, getting in touch with your airline or travel agent as soon as you become aware your flight is cancelled will get the ball rolling.

This is where flight monitoring apps like TripIt Pro come in handy, because you’ll sometimes receive a cancellation alert before the airline sends out an alert of their own: and if you’re already on the phone sorting our your new travel arrangements, you’re ahead of the hundreds of other people in the same boat.

Some airlines allow you to choose your new flight via their website or mobile app, including Qantas, which takes into account your ‘customer value’ when deciding which flight options to present. More valuable customers get access to earlier, non-stop flights than less-frequent travellers. 

If you’re already at the airport when the cancellation occurs, the airline service desk in the lounge or in the terminal concourse is a better go-to, because the staff here can move you onto flights that are under “airport control” – that is, flights that are departing in the next few hours, which telephone reservation staff may not be able to secure.

Remember, your first priority is to get yourself a confirmed seat on another flight, so that you can arrive at your destination as quickly as possible – everything else comes later.

Step 2: Ask about accommodation, if delayed overnight

If you’ve been moved onto a flight the following day and you can’t get onto an earlier service, you’ll need a hotel for the night, and depending on the reason your flight was cancelled, your airline may or may not cover the cost.

If your airline says “no problem”, check if you have to stay at a specific hotel and need a printed voucher for your stay, or whether you’re free to make your own arrangements for the airline to later reimburse: an important step to take before incurring any accommodation costs yourself.

It doesn’t hurt to ask the airline about transfers to and from that hotel, meal costs incurred during your delay and telephone expenses, as there may be rules or limits you have to follow, or that ‘free meal’ might only be available at in-house hotel restaurants, as opposed to room service or off-site locations.

Should your airline not come to the plate with accommodation – or there are mass cancellations and you’re unable to reach the airline – it’s time to book your own hotel, for now.

Step 3: Request an “insurance letter” from your airline

Next up, you’ll want the airline to confirm your flight cancellation in writing, along with the details of your new arrangements. Most travel insurers require this as standard before a claim can be considered, but you may not receive this unless you ask.

With Qantas, you can request a letter through its Customer Care site – just click “Insurance Letter”, the reason your flight was cancelled and the details of your new flight in the text box – whereas with Virgin Australia, you’ll need to complete and return a Word document in a similar way.

For any other airline, just Google “(airline name) insurance letter”, such as “Cathay Pacific insurance letter”, to find what you’re after.

Step 4: Check if your flight is eligible for EU261 or UK261 compensation

If your travel plans to, from or within Europe are delayed by a flight cancellation – as well as other events like denied boarding – you may be entitled to claim compensation from the airline, including on flights booked using airline frequent flyer points.

The EU261 Flight Compensation Regulations cover journeys departing from EU member states on any airline – including Qantas flight QF6 from Rome to Perth and Sydney – as well as flights to EU member states from abroad if those are operated by a European airline.

The ruling applies in the following situations:

  • when you’re travelling from an EU airport on any airline
  • when you’re travelling to an EU airport on an EU-based airline

For example, Singapore Airlines flight SQ25 from Frankfurt to Singapore would fall under the ruling, as it’s departing from an EU member state. However, SQ26 from Singapore to Frankfurt is not covered by EU261.

Passengers flying the same route with Lufthansa, on the other hand, would be covered in both directions between Singapore and Frankfurt, as Lufthansa is based in Germany, an EU country.

The United Kingdom has its own version too: the Air Passenger Rights and Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, most commonly referred to as UK261. 

Similar triggers and equivalent stipulations apply: UK261 relates to UK airlines (such as British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and EasyJet) as well as non-UK airlines departing from UK airports.

More info on EU261 and UK261 can be found here

Step 5: Contact your travel insurer

If a cancelled flight puts you out of pocket beyond the expenses your airline will cover, it’s time to talk to your travel insurer. Be sure to keep receipts for every purchase and expense you’ve incurred, as these will be needed to substantiate your claim, along with the insurance letter you requested earlier.

Depending on your insurer, you may not be able to submit a claim unless you’ve already contacted the airline and asked for your expenses to be covered, so check the claims process with your insurer carefully, including any deadlines for making a claim.

If your trip wasn’t covered by a paid-for insurance policy, check to see if your credit card offers any insurance as a backup – offered on many Gold, Platinum and Black cards, and often activated when you pay for a return trip using your card, or by charging a certain amount of travel expenses to the card before beginning your journey.

Step 6: Claim “original routing credit” from your frequent flyer program

After a flight has been cancelled, you may sometimes be booked onto a new flight with a different airline, or onto a different route than you’d originally planned.

This could mean earning fewer points and status credits than the ticket you’d originally paid for. That’s not fair, because the cancellation isn’t your fault, so many frequent flyer schemes allow requests for “original routing credit” in these circumstances.

It won’t happen automatically – you’ll need to contact your frequent flyer scheme and explain what happened with a copy of your original reservation – but if you’ve been short-changed on frequent flyer points and/or status credits, those can be fixed up.

As an added bonus, if you were rebooked onto a competing airline, you may be able to double-dip on points and status credits: both from the flight you took in the normal way, and the flight you booked for which you can request “original routing credit”.

For instance, if you were due to fly from Singapore to Sydney with Qantas, your flight was cancelled and Qantas decided to rebook you onto Singapore Airlines, you could attach your KrisFlyer or Velocity number to your new flight, and also request “original routing credit” from Qantas, giving you Qantas Points and status credits as per the ticket you booked, as well as Velocity points or KrisFlyer miles for the flight you took.

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