What Should You Do If Your Flight Is Canceled?

Recently, about 30 minutes before my flight to Seattle was supposed to board, the status went from "On Time" to "Canceled." At first it seemed like the least funny joke I'd ever been told, but after waiting in line for 30 minutes JUST to have the airline employee tell everyone that had been waiting that it was for "first class and priority passengers" only (thanks for the heads up . . . ?), I found myself scrambling all the way back toward the airline check-in, back outside of security, at the departures drop-off zone, where a line of frustrated travelers already wrapped around the corner. Awesome.

What the hell are you supposed to do when this happens? I could see other flights to my destination being booked by the airline employees, and any hopes of getting to my destination that night evaporated as more and more planes filled with passengers from our flight. Hindsight: it's most definitely 20/20. So, what are the steps you should take the minute you find out the airline has canceled your flight?

1. Get on the phone with the airline immediately.

While your first inclination may be to wait it out in line with the 150+ other passengers doing the same thing you are, you should get in line to speak with someone at the airport who works for the airline, but while you are waiting you should call the airline and try to rearrange your flight or figure out your refund via a customer service member.

2. Know the airline's policy for canceled flights.

Do your research. Trust me. I know that no one wants to actually read all the fine print at the bottom, but you can use that fine print to your benefit when and if your flight is canceled by the airline.

3. Check the next flight times the airline has to your destination.

Find out ASAP online what time the next flights are with the airline you're already on. If they work for you, then try to get on that flight. But remember, there are many, many other people doing the same exact thing so this can be tough.

4. Do not take no for an answer.

You may encounter airline employees who don't fully know the airline policy, and it's possible they may feed you the wrong information. Bottom line: if your flight is canceled (and you didn't do the canceling), the airline should be helping you resolve the situation.

5. Take note of what other people are doing.

I got on the phone with one airline employee who tried to tell me that the only thing they could do for me was give me credit for the amount that my tickets cost. Airline policies differ, so for some this may be the case. However, in my case, I was watching other people ahead of me in line have airline employees coordinate rebooking their flights to our destination with other airlines at no charge. I watched another person in line with me get a full refund for the flight from the airline PLUS compensation for their Uber to the airport — all over the phone.

Yet the customer service employee I happened to speak with tried to tell me they would not only NOT refund my money to the credit card I paid for the tickets with, but that I would only get airline credit. I politely said goodbye, hung up, immediately called the same line back, and spoke with another customer service employee who, without hesitation, gave me a full refund for my flight.

6. Be firm but friendly.

The airline employee you are dealing with did not cause your flight to be canceled, so don't forget that while the situation is undeniable extremely frustrating, taking out your frustrations on the middle person will only make getting what you want that much more difficult. In my experience, being flexible, agreeable, and understanding, and most of all patient will get you a lot further than making a scene.

7. Get on the phone with another airline to book your flight, ASAP.

If you absolutely MUST get to your destination as soon as possible and waiting overnight is not an option, then get on the line with other airlines. Unless you were able to get to the front of the line of people waiting to rebook their flights, chances are the seats on other flights through different airlines to the same destination will be going like hot cakes. If you're able to (or desperate to get where you're going at any cost!), book a whole new flight with a different airline first to make sure that the next available flights don't fill up. Then follow up with your original airline about compensation/refunding.

In theory, the airline who canceled will hopefully give you a refund or compensation that you can then use toward the cost of rebooking a new flight. But, again, this depends on the airline policy — which is why I'll reiterate: read the fine print when you book your flight, otherwise you may be out hundreds of dollars just to get to where you need to be.

8. Avoid checking bags when you fly.

Sometimes you really do have to check a bag, especially for longer trips. But whenever possible, skip checking a bag and pack light instead. If you've already checked your luggage and your flight is canceled, you first have to go through the entire process of retrieving your bags before you can even then deal with switching flights and/or airlines.

9. When all else fails, book a hotel.

If it looks like you simply aren't going to be able to get on the next flight and you're stuck at the airport overnight, try seeing if the airline will compensate you for a night at a hotel. Many airlines will offer vouchers and/or transportation to/from the airport. Another time I had a flight cancellation, the airline got me a ride to the hotel, comped my room, and gave me meal vouchers to use at the airport for dinner and breakfast between my next flight (which they arranged for me).