Knowing Your Air Travel Rights

On a trip to Miami a few years ago, my flight departing YVR was delayed due to a mechanical trouble. This resulted in missing my connection to Miami through Chicago. United Airlines did what would be the most economical resolution and booked me on their next flight to Miami much later that evening. I had somewhere to be, and so I reminded them of their obligation to put me on the next available flight, on any airline, and was on my way to Miami shortly after on an American Airlines flight. Had I not known my rights and accepted the airline’s first offer, I would have been stuck hanging out at Chicago O’Hare airport for several hours, missing the party in Miami. Likewise on a trip from Toronto to New York, United Airlines cancelled my flight due to “weather” (I think it was actually because the flight was only half sold) despite all competitors still flying at the same time on the same route. They automatically rebooked me me on a flight 3.5 hours later and with some pushing I was able to get to New York on an American Airlines ticket at my originally scheduled departure time.

Passenger rights vary from country to country, and airline to airline; I will not go into great detail into all of them but rather provide you with some general tips:

  1. If you encounter a delay, cancellation or involuntary bump, first jump on Google to see what your airline’s responsibilities are before you accept an offer from the airline. The most economical or first offer from the airline may not be the one most appealing to you. For example, I had been out for a few pre-flight beers when my flight to Australia was cancelled by Air Canada until the next day. They informed me I should go home and come back to the airport the following day and did not offer any compensation for additional costs as I was “local” (although I live 30 minutes away from the airport). I did not have transportation to/from the airport and was unwilling to pay the $70 taxi fare each way myself, and was able to have Air Canada pay for both taxi rides for me as this was an unnecessary expense for their delay.
  2. Be careful booking your own connections. For example, when I flew Air Canada to London, and then booked a separate ticket to Rome on Alitalia, I was warned to leave enough time for the connection as they would not be responsible if I missed this connection the same way as if I had booked with Air Canada the whole way in which case they would be responsible for re-booking the missed connection to Rome. Airlines often book their own tight connections knowing they will be responsible to re-book passengers if the flight is missed. You cannot take such liberties with booking.
  3. Those low cost carriers such as Sunwing, Air Transat, Allegiant, Ryanair, etc. do not have the same passenger rights as flying full service airlines such as Air Canada or WestJet. I try to avoid these airlines at all cost, especially after a significant flight change on Air Transat to Fort Lauderdale where I was simply told they had the right to change my flight by 12 hours without any other options provided. I remember explaining to the person I was travelling with why we paid more to fly Air Canada as we walked out the airport past everyone we had travelled to Mexico with while they were arguing with Sunwing about their luggage that never appeared.
  4. Delayed or lost baggage compensation varies by airline and is why you should always book on your travel credit card as suggested here. I had Lufthansa try to explain their super complicated compensation process when my bag was delayed on a trip to Wales (they wanted me to return the clothing I had bought by mailing it to them to get 100% reimbursement or I would only get 50%?) and I was grateful I had proper insurance through my CIBC Aerogold Infinite VISA as their process seemed onerous.
  5. The 24 hour grace period for booking errors is one I mention in my blog about booking here but should be mentioned again. Not all airlines or booking sites honour this, but it is great to be aware of in case you make an error while booking (or you book a flight impulsively before actually checking if you can get the days off work…)
  6. Europe has some serious passenger rights with minimum compensation for delayed flights. The airline isn’t going to advertise this or hold your hand through the filing process – the onus is on you to know about this. On a recent flight from Reykjavik to Copenhagen, I was compensated 400 euros for a 3 hour delay. That is more than I paid for my entire flight!
  7. Don’t forget food and drinks! With any cancelled or delayed flight situation, they’ll usually throw in some vouchers for food or drinks while you’re stuck waiting around. Don’t be shy to ask.

By knowing your rights (or at least Googling them at the time a situation occurs, because who really has time to read all that fine print when planning a trip) and following my tips on utilizing a travel credit card, you should never be left stranded, sleeping in an airport, or paying out of pocket for expenses that should be covered by an airline. The Canadian federal government is currently (2018) working on a Passenger Bill of Rights that I imagine will be similar to the one in the US. Although this is a fantastic step to protect passengers flying on those airlines who do not honour the same level of customer service, I do feel Air Canada already follows many of the guidelines that are introduced in this bill and by a little self advocacy, I have been able to ensure my travel experiences have been as smooth as possible during the delays, cancellations, and complications that are inevitable with air travel.

A great website to start your search on rights should you come into a situation while flying is: airefarewatchdog although I suggest that you verify any information you read on any blog with the actual airline website as policies can change faster than blogs get updated.

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