Southwest cancel or delay your flight? Here's what airlines owe you (and how to get it)

  • Airlines are required by the Department of Transportation to offer a refund when they cancel a flight.
  • Passengers are also eligible for refunds due to significant delays, but airline definitions vary.
  • Airlines may be quick to offer flight credit or vouchers. Getting money back may take extra steps.

Many Southwest passengers weren't where they wanted to be when they woke up Monday morning after a weekend of flight cancellations that stretched into a third day.

One in 10 Southwest flights was canceled Monday, and more than 1,000 flights were delayed as of 3:30 p.m. EDT, according to FlightAware, which tracks cancellations and delays worldwide in real time.

Southwest offered stranded travelers an array of refunds, flight credits and travel vouchers, but for customers who had to book flights on other airlines, stay extra hotel nights, rent cars to drive home or miss out on time-sensitive plans, that may not be enough, and it can be confusing to figure out what they are owed.

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There is a disconnect between what passengers think they are owed and what airlines owe them when flight plans go haywire due to a patchwork of federal regulations and airline policies.  

Rules covering refunds for cancellations and significant flight delays by the airline are dictated by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Hotel and meal vouchers and expense reimbursement are up to individual airline policies spelled out in dozens of pages of legalese known as a contract of carriage

"In Europe, it's uniform. In Canada, it's uniform. In the United States, you are at the mercy of the contract of carriage," said William McGee, an aviation adviser to Consumer Reports who has pushed for an air passenger bill of rights for years. Over the summer, he joined other consumer advocates taking their case to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. "In the past 20 years, those contracts have gotten much harder to read, they've gotten lengthier, and they've gotten much weaker from a consumer standpoint."

What's a stranded traveler to do? Know your rights and persistently pursue them, including taking airlines to task on social media. 

"Like a lot of issues with the airlines, consumers are at a disadvantage, and it's going to take perseverance," McGee said. "It’s sort of like you have to play a little (game of ) chicken with the airline."

Unclaimed baggage wells up between carousels for passengers arriving on Southwest Airlines flights at Denver International Airport Oct. 10.

Can I get a refund if my flight is canceled? 

The Department of Transportation requires airlines to offer a refund when they cancel a flight. It doesn't matter if the reason for the cancellation was outside their control, such as weather, or within their control, such as maintenance issues or flight crew shortages. And it doesn't matter what kind of ticket was bought, including nonrefundable tickets or basic economy tickets.

Airlines prefer to automatically rebook you on their next available flight, but you are under no obligation to take it. Keep in mind, though, that a refund a) might not be instant and b) probably won't cover the cost of a new last-minute ticket unless your original ticket was pricey, so the next-available flight might be the least-expensive option for getting to your destination or back home when things go awry last minute.

If you opt for a refund, you are eligible to get your money back, not just a travel credit or voucher. Airlines are quickest to offer those, so travelers who want their money back often have to take extra steps. Southwest and Delta typically automatically issue travel credit, so travelers who want their money back have to request it.

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My flight delay is too long. Can I get a refund?

The same DOT rules apply to significant delays, meaning passengers are eligible for a refund regardless of the cause of the airline's delay. The only wrinkle is that airlines' definitions of "significant delay" vary. American offers refunds for delays exceeding 90 minutes; Delta, Spirit and Alaska for two hours, for example.

The airline can't get me on another flight until tomorrow (or later). Do they pay for a hotel? 

Here's where things get trickier and involve those contracts of carriage. Airline policies generally state that they pay for a hotel only if the flight cancellation or overnight delay is their fault and only if you don't live in the city you're stranded in. The earlier you request one, the better, as airport hotels sell out quickly when there's flight cancellation mayhem.

Weather and air traffic control issues are outside airlines' control, so passengers whose flights are scrubbed for those reasons generally aren't given free hotel stays. (Many airlines do offer discounted hotel rates for those affected by weather cancellations, so be sure to ask.)

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How do you know the reason for your cancellation? 

"I think passengers, quite frankly, have a right to be suspicious," McGee said. "Airlines are not forthcoming on a lot of issues like this."

But the former airline flight dispatcher said passengers often don't understand how weather across the country can have a ripple effect on an airline.

Savvy travelers should jot down gate announcements or conversations with employees about the reasons for the delay, as well as screenshot any alerts sent about the delay via text or the airline's mobile app to plead their case for reimbursement if the airline denies hotel accommodations because of weather.

I can't wait days for another flight. Can I fly a different airline? 

Stranded passengers are free to check options on other airlines, but whether the airline that canceled the original flight picks up the tab is another question.

Most major airlines, except for Southwest, have so-called interline agreements with competitors, so they can easily transfer passengers when they don't have room. Airlines prefer to keep travelers on their flights, so the option isn't usually offered upfront.

Spirit and other budget carriers don't have interline agreements. Spirit's contract of carriage states, "With limited exceptions, Spirit will not reimburse guests for flights that they book on other carriers."

Will the airline reimburse me for meals?

Like hotel stays, meal vouchers are generally doled out only when the airline causes cancellations and long delays, but it never hurts to ask. Some airlines, including Delta and Southwest, have been known to roll in snack carts or order pizza during extreme weather and other situations outside their control.

Don't expect the airline's money to go far at the airport, airport hotel or area restaurants, if you can find one open. The going rate is $12 per passenger at American and Alaska, for example. Delta says meal money varies by city. Some airlines, including American, say the vouchers can be used for food delivery services such as UberEats.

Contributing: Eve Chen