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Thousands of airline passengers are stranded. Here's what to do if you're one of them

Travelers wait in line for their security screening at the O'Hare International Airport on Dec. 22 in Chicago.
AFP via Getty Images
Travelers wait in line for their security screening at the O'Hare International Airport on Dec. 22 in Chicago.

Updated December 27, 2022 at 5:40 PM ET

Thousands of flights have been canceled since Christmas weekend, leaving passengers scrambling to find a way back home.

It's the result of a chaotic holiday season of travel with a turnout that resembled pre-pandemic numbers. Nearly 113 million Americans were expected to journey at least 50 miles or more from home from Dec. 23 to Jan. 2, according to the American Automobile Association.

And already overwhelmed airports experienced another challenge: a massive winter storm that forced airlines to cancel, or delay, thousands of flights. One major airline, Southwest, canceled 5,400 flights in less than 48 hours, stranding passengers across the country.

And as travelers attempt to find their way back home, the trouble persists. As of 5:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, over 3,000 flights were canceled on Tuesday, with over 5,300 delayed, according to FlightAware.

It is without a doubt a frustrating experience for consumers, who through no fault of their own find themselves in such a precarious position. Unfortunately, there appears to be little recourse for those seeking to recoup the additional costs from airlines, which are not beholden to federal regulations when it comes to this type of consumer protection.

What happens if my flight is delayed? Am I entitled to compensation from the airline?

The U.S. Department of Transportation says no.

"There are no federal laws requiring airlines to provide passengers with money or other compensation when their flights are delayed," according to the DOT.

Some airlines do offer to pay for meals or hotel accommodations when there are long delays, but it is not a policy across the board. The department says one can ask the airline to cover such costs, but it is entirely at the discretion of the company.

Can I switch to a different flight?

Maybe. Passengers can ask to be booked on another flight on the same airline. But the DOT cautions travelers to check whether the airline will charge an additional fee to make the switch or charge a higher fare for the new reservation.

It is also possible to request a seat on another airline if a seat is available. "However, there are no federal regulations requiring airlines to put you on another airline's flight or reimburse you if you purchase a ticket on another airline," the DOT says. This could also create new problems tracking or flying with checked luggage.

There's been a significant delay. Can I just get my money back?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But the DOT has not defined "significant delay," so the department "determines whether you are entitled to a refund on a case by case basis."

Eek! My flight was canceled. What happens now?

The good news is that most airlines will rebook you for free on their next flight to your destination as long as the flight has available seats. If there are none available, get ready to put on your most courteous voice. The DOT suggests asking to have your ticket transferred to another airline.

Here's one piece of potentially good news: If you choose to scrap your trip after a flight cancellation, "you are entitled to a refund for the unused transportation — even for non-refundable tickets," the DOT says. "You are also entitled to a refund for any bag fee that you paid, and any extras you may have purchased, such as a seat assignment."

If you can, try to get your money rather than a voucher, which can expire or sometimes carry restrictions, blackout dates, advanced booking requirements and limits on the number of seats.

The airline overbooked the flight and I've been bumped. What do I do?

These are called involuntary bumps, and George Hobica, founder of airfarewatchdog.com, told NPR they rarely happen because passengers are often booked on alternative flights.

But in cases where it is not possible to get you to your destination close to your originally scheduled arrival time, you could be entitled to as much as $1,550, or 400% of your one-way fare, according to the DOT.

I bought my ticket with a credit card. Can they help?

Yes! It turns out some credit cards offer much better protections than the government.

In many cases, benefits programs include trip cancellation/interruption insurance, trip delay insurance and baggage insurance. Credit card companies can also help arrange new itineraries and reimburse travelers for expenses resulting from delays or other postponements, including additional hotel stays, rental cars or extra meals. Some offer trip delay insurance, which "kicks in if your trip is delayed by a specified number of hours, or if it requires an unanticipated overnight stay," CNBC reports.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo
Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.
Giulia Heyward
Giulia Heyward is a weekend reporter for Digital News, based out of New York. She previously covered education and other national news as a reporting fellow at The New York Times and as the national education reporter at Capital B News. She interned for POLITICO, where she covered criminal justice reform in Florida, and CNN, as a writer for the trends & culture team. Her work has also been published in The Atlantic, HuffPost and The New Republic.