My kids did. All it took was getting bumped from a flight and spending the better part of 24 hours in Newark airport. I couldn’t believe it when my daughter called and told me they had checks in hand for $900 each. “Are you sure it wasn’t a ‘sorry-about-your-vacation-here’s-your-money-back’ check?” Nope, they had guaranteed seats on a flight later that day, 900 bucks richer with food vouchers to boot. I thought it must be the work of a United rep taking pity on these poor kids, losing their seats after having their flight canceled the night before (and getting up at 4:45 am to get back to the airport), but turns out it’s the law. Can you guess which part of their trip got them the cash- the cancelled flight, the delay, or the bump? Read on to find out.
Remember the days when flying was special, and folks dressed up for the ride? What a drastically different experience we have now as we’re herded through security and crammed on the plane, paying a pretty penny for the privilege. With the extra crowds and frequent storms in summer, our travel plans can be easily disrupted. So what can we expect when that happens? What are our rights as passengers?
Weather delays and outright cancellations happen often, and unfortunately for you as a passenger, you’re at the mercy of the airline. When events are beyond the airlines’ control, they have discretion whether to help you out — or not. Many delays of course are resolved within a few hours, but it’s also not uncommon for a flight, particularly an end of day flight, to be cancelled rather than delayed. You may be lucky and offered a meal voucher, or hit the jackpot with a hotel room, or you may be on your own to wrangle a seat in the boarding area and claim it as your bed for the night.
Forget about getting to the items you checked though; your bag will be stored in a big disorganized pile for the night (not unlike the stranded people sleeping in the airport). That’s one of the reasons it’s a good idea to pack a change of clothes and some toiletries in your carry-on bag. During one memorable if not enjoyable two-day sentence served in the Atlanta airport, we ended up buying fresh clothes in the Disney store — souvenirs to remind us to pack clean shirts from then on.
Being bumped from a flight is a different story — you have the upper hand in negotiating here. When a flight is overbooked, an airline may ask for passengers to be voluntarily bumped to a later flight in exchange for some type of compensation. Have nowhere special to be? It might be worth your while to spend a few hours in the airport and get yourself a voucher to fly again another time, or maybe even some cash. Airlines often sweeten the pot if they don’t get any bites on the first offer, so you may not want to jump right away. Find out the details of what they’re offering too — will you have enough time to make the flight they bump you to? What kind of restrictions come with the voucher they give you?
With overbooking a major issue in the industry, the Department of Transportation stepped in and upped the ante as far as what kind of compensation you are entitled to should an airline bump you from a flight against your will. If you’re bumped and the airline can get you to your destination within an hour of the original time, no compensation is required.
However if you are delayed between one and two hours on a domestic trip (one to four for international), you are entitled to double what the price is that day of a one-way fare to your destination, up to $650, and if your delay ends up being longer than that, you are entitled to four times that price, up to $1,300. That’s in cash (or check), not in the form of a voucher. Chances are the airline will not volunteer that cash, offering a voucher for future travel instead, so you may have to push if you want the money. Depending on the terms of the voucher though, it may be more valuable to you to take that. What happens if you booked on frequent flyer miles or points? You can still be compensated. The amount that gets multiplied in this case is the lowest amount charged for a ticket on that flight, in the same class as yours.
Going hand in hand with flight delays is the dreaded lost luggage. I think anyone who’s ever flown has experienced that sinking feeling of watching the empty carousel go round and round, craning your neck to see if just maybe there are more bags coming out. When the time comes that you’ve given up hope and you make your way to the service desk, remember you have rights in this department, too.
Be sure to file your initial report immediately, and ask the agent for a copy. At this point, your bag is considered delayed, rather than lost, and the airline should offer to deliver it to you free of charge when it turns up. Agents have some discretion to provide compensation for toiletries or clothing you need in the meantime; be persistent, but remember that old adage about catching more flies with honey than vinegar.
At some point, if your bag does not surface, it becomes “lost.” That could be a couple of weeks, or even a month, depending on the airline. In that case, the airline is required to compensate you up to $3,300 for your lost items, including those incidentals and the cost of the bag. You’ll be asked to make another report, detailing the bag’s contents and original values. You won’t necessarily get that amount or the replacement cost; instead the airline is only required to reimburse the depreciated value.
It’s a good idea to take a picture of the contents of your bag before checking so you’ll remember. Note that things like electronics, jewelry, cameras, documents and medications are not covered for domestic flights so think twice before checking them. And how about this — if the airline loses your luggage, you can get your baggage fee refunded (not with a delay, only a loss). Airlines are notoriously difficult when reimbursing for lost or damaged items, so take good notes of who you talked to and what was said, as well as keeping in mind the option for small claims court should you not get satisfaction. Your homeowners’ insurance policy may be another resource for your loss. Travel insurance offers quick resolution to help you get back to vacation, and can help with issues from trip delays and cancellations as well. Whether that is a good buy or not is fodder for another column.
When you agree that your bag is lost, you sign over rights to it to the airline, and should it be found one day, they won’t tell you. But you just might find your stuff on the Unclaimed Baggage website. Don’t trust the airlines to find your bag? Check out Trakdot, a device that sits inside your bag and texts you its location. It costs $49.99 upfront with a first year fee of $21.98 and $12.99 annually thereafter.