When it comes to air travel, it often seems that what can go wrong, will go wrong. For some problems, it’s up to each airline’s contract of carriage and customer service policy to decide what to do. In other situations, such as receiving compensation for when you get involuntarily bumped off a flight or when your luggage is delayed, federal law governs the airline’s response. In recent years, new federal rules have expanded airline passenger protections; however, most air travelers are still unaware of their legal rights. This article discusses some of your most important air passenger legal rights that you may not be aware of. Remember, knowledge is power (and sometimes cash in your pocket, too!).

Your right to cash when involuntarily bumped off your flight

When it comes to getting “bumped” off your flight, there are two types of bumping: voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary bumping occurs when the airline asks for volunteers to give up their seat. Involuntary bumping occurs when the airline forces you to give up your seat on a flight for which you have a ticket. Travelers who are involuntarily bumped from their flights may be entitled to compensation (in the form of cash or a check) depending on the price of their ticket and the length of their delay.

    • If the airline provides you with substitute transportation that gets you to your final destination (including later connections) within one hour of your original scheduled arrival time: you are not entitled to compensation.
    • If the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to arrive at your final destination between one and two hours after your original arrival time (between one and four hours on international flights): the airline must pay you an amount equal to 200% of your one-way fare to your final destination that day, with a $650 maximum payout.
    • If the substitute transportation is scheduled to get you to your destination more than two hours after your original arrival time (four hours for international flights), or if the airline doesn’t make any substitute travel arrangements for you: the airline must pay you an amount equal to 400% of your one-way fare, with a $1300 maximum payout.
    • If you’re bumped off your flight (either voluntarily or involuntarily), the airline has to pay you for “unused ancillary fees” (fees passengers pay for optional services such as aisle seating, priority boarding, or checking your luggage) if you didn’t receive these services on the alternate transportation provided to you by the airline.


    • These compensation rules don’t apply to charter flights and planes that hold less than 30 passengers, international flights inbound to the U.S. (e.g., Barcelona to Atlanta), and flights between two foreign cities (e.g., Barcelona to Paris).
    • Also, to be eligible for compensation, you must have a confirmed reservation and must be at your gate by the airline’s check-in deadline (each airline sets their own check-in deadline, but on domestic flights it’s usually between 10 and 30 minutes before the scheduled departure time).

Note: If you’re involuntarily bumped off your flight, the first thing your airline will normally do is try to offer you free tickets or air travel vouchers for future travel. Be aware that you’re entitled to payment in the form of cash or a check. Since free tickets and vouchers often come with restrictions and you may never get around to using them, I highly recommend requesting compensation in the form of cash or a check. According to federal law, the airline is required to give you this cash/check compensation on the day and place the denied boarding occurs. If the airline arranges alternate means of transportation that departs before the payment can be prepared and given to the passenger, tender of your cash/check payments shall be made by mail or other means within 24 hours after the time the denied boarding occurs.

Your right to cash for delayed luggage

According to the Department of Transportation Consumer Fly Rights, if your luggage has been delayed, then you may be entitled to the following compensation and services:

  • Necessities/Emergency Purchases: Most airline carriers set guidelines for their airport employees that allow them to disburse some money at the airport for emergency purchases. The amount depends on whether or not you’re away from home and how long it takes the airline to track down your bags and return them to you. If the airline doesn’t provide you a cash advance, it may still reimburse you later for the purchase of necessities. Discuss with your airline carrier the types of articles that would be reimbursable—and keep all receipts.
  • Sporting Equipment: If the airline misplaces sporting equipment, it will sometimes pay for the rental of replacements. For example, if the airline misplaced your snowboard and didn’t return it to you until the seventh and final day of your ski trip, they may reimburse you for your six days of snowboard rental fees.
  • Replacement Clothing or Other Articles: The carrier might offer to absorb only a portion of the purchase cost of replacement clothing or other articles, on the basis that you’ll be able to use the new items in the future. (The airline may agree to a higher reimbursement if you turn the articles over to them.)
  • Fresh Foods/Other Perishable Goods: If you checked fresh foods or other perishable goods that got ruined because the airline delayed their delivery to you, the airline won’t reimburse you.
  • If the airline loses your bag: They’re required to compensate you for any baggage fee you may have paid. For example, if you paid $50 to check your bag and and also paid an additional $25 because your bag was oversized, and then the airline lost said bag, the airline is required to reimburse you $75.

Your right to hold your airline reservation for 24 hours without payment

Most people don’t know this, but so long as it’s at least a week out from your departure date, you can reserve an airline ticket and lock in the price you see for 24 hours, without payment. Pursuant to new airline regulations that went into effect January 2013, “passengers will be able to hold a reservation without payment, or cancel a booking without penalty, for 24 hours after the reservation is made, if they make the reservation one week or more prior to a flight's departure date.” To hold your reservation without payment for 24 hours, you normally will have to call your airline.

For you frugal flyers, this means that during this 24-hour, no-payment hold period, you can monitor the prices of your flight. If the price drops, cancel your original booking and put the new reservation on another 24-hour, no-payment hold. Once again, monitor changes in fares for your flight, then accordingly cancel and rebook your reservation or book your original reservation.


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