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What to do when an airline cancels your flight

By Chris C., July 12 2018
What to do when an airline cancels your flight

Nobody likes it when their flight is cancelled, but whether you’re a real road warrior or you fly less often, it’s something you’re bound to encounter sooner or later: and when it happens to you, there are steps you can take to minimise your delays and costs.

Depending on your circumstances, you may also qualify for cash compensation from your airline, or for an extra serving of frequent flyer points for your troubles.

What to do when an airline cancels your flight

Here’s what to do when your flight is cancelled, so you can get back on track.

Step 1: Calmly contact your airline or travel agent

As you’d expect, getting in touch with your airline or travel agent as soon as you become aware your flight is cancelled will get the ball rolling.

This is where flight monitoring apps like TripIt Pro come in handy, because you’ll sometimes receive a cancellation alert before the airline sends out an alert of their own: and if you’re already on the phone sorting our your new travel arrangements, you’re ahead of the hundreds of other people in the same boat.

Some airlines allow you to choose your new flight via their website or mobile app, including Qantas, which takes into account your ‘customer value’ when deciding which flight options to present. More valuable customers get access to earlier, non-stop flights than less-frequent travellers. 

If you’re already at the airport when the cancellation occurs, the airline service desk in the lounge or in the terminal concourse is a better go-to, because the staff here can move you onto flights that are under “airport control” – that is, flights that are departing in the next few hours, which telephone reservation staff may not be able to secure.

Remember, your first priority is to get yourself a confirmed seat on another flight, so that you can arrive at your destination as quickly as possible – everything else comes later.

Step 2: Ask about accommodation, if delayed overnight

If you’ve been moved onto a flight the following day and you can’t get onto an earlier service, you’ll need a hotel for the night, and depending on the reason your flight was cancelled, your airline may or may not cover the cost.

If your airline says “no problem”, check if you have to stay at a specific hotel and need a printed voucher for your stay, or whether you’re free to make your own arrangements for the airline to later reimburse: an important step to take before incurring any accommodation costs yourself.

It doesn’t hurt to ask the airline about transfers to and from that hotel, meal costs incurred during your delay and telephone expenses, as there may be rules or limits you have to follow, or that ‘free meal’ might only be available at in-house hotel restaurants, as opposed to room service or off-site locations.

Should your airline not come to the plate with accommodation – or there are mass cancellations and you’re unable to reach the airline – it’s time to book your own hotel, for now.

Step 3: Request an “insurance letter” from your airline

Next up, you’ll want the airline to confirm your flight cancellation in writing, along with the details of your new arrangements. Most travel insurers require this as standard before a claim can be considered, but you may not receive this unless you ask.

With Qantas, you can request a letter through its Customer Care site – just click “Insurance Letter”, the reason your flight was cancelled and the details of your new flight in the text box – whereas with Virgin Australia, you’ll need to complete and return a Word document in a similar way.

For any other airline, just Google “(airline name) insurance letter”, such as “Cathay Pacific insurance letter”, to find what you’re after.

Step 4: Check if your flight is eligible for EU261 or UK261 compensation

If your travel plans to, from or within Europe are delayed by a flight cancellation – as well as other events like denied boarding – you may be entitled to claim compensation from the airline, including on flights booked using airline frequent flyer points.

The EU261 Flight Compensation Regulations cover journeys departing from EU member states on any airline – including Qantas flight QF6 from Rome to Perth and Sydney – as well as flights to EU member states from abroad if those are operated by a European airline.

The ruling applies in the following situations:

  • when you’re travelling from an EU airport on any airline
  • when you’re travelling to an EU airport on an EU-based airline

For example, Singapore Airlines flight SQ25 from Frankfurt to Singapore would fall under the ruling, as it’s departing from an EU member state. However, SQ26 from Singapore to Frankfurt is not covered by EU261.

Passengers flying the same route with Lufthansa, on the other hand, would be covered in both directions between Singapore and Frankfurt, as Lufthansa is based in Germany, an EU country.

The United Kingdom has its own version too: the Air Passenger Rights and Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, most commonly referred to as UK261. 

Similar triggers and equivalent stipulations apply: UK261 relates to UK airlines (such as British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and EasyJet) as well as non-UK airlines departing from UK airports.

More info on EU261 and UK261 can be found here

Step 5: Contact your travel insurer

If a cancelled flight puts you out of pocket beyond the expenses your airline will cover, it’s time to talk to your travel insurer. Be sure to keep receipts for every purchase and expense you’ve incurred, as these will be needed to substantiate your claim, along with the insurance letter you requested earlier.

Depending on your insurer, you may not be able to submit a claim unless you’ve already contacted the airline and asked for your expenses to be covered, so check the claims process with your insurer carefully, including any deadlines for making a claim.

If your trip wasn’t covered by a paid-for insurance policy, check to see if your credit card offers any insurance as a backup – offered on many Gold, Platinum and Black cards, and often activated when you pay for a return trip using your card, or by charging a certain amount of travel expenses to the card before beginning your journey.

Step 6: Claim “original routing credit” from your frequent flyer program

After a flight has been cancelled, you may sometimes be booked onto a new flight with a different airline, or onto a different route than you’d originally planned.

This could mean earning fewer points and status credits than the ticket you’d originally paid for. That’s not fair, because the cancellation isn’t your fault, so many frequent flyer schemes allow requests for “original routing credit” in these circumstances.

It won’t happen automatically – you’ll need to contact your frequent flyer scheme and explain what happened with a copy of your original reservation – but if you’ve been short-changed on frequent flyer points and/or status credits, those can be fixed up.

As an added bonus, if you were rebooked onto a competing airline, you may be able to double-dip on points and status credits: both from the flight you took in the normal way, and the flight you booked for which you can request “original routing credit”.

For instance, if you were due to fly from Singapore to Sydney with Qantas, your flight was cancelled and Qantas decided to rebook you onto Singapore Airlines, you could attach your KrisFlyer or Velocity number to your new flight, and also request “original routing credit” from Qantas, giving you Qantas Points and status credits as per the ticket you booked, as well as Velocity points or KrisFlyer miles for the flight you took.

Chris C.

Chris is a a former contributor to Executive Traveller.


22 Oct 2012

Total posts 317

EU261 compensation can prove very expensive for an airline. Consider the QF2 that departed LHR last weekend, only to return 5 hours later. All pax were delayed 24 hrs or more. Imagine if all 484 pax applied for their 600 euro compensation, that'd be about $460,000. Rumour has it that Qantas did not advise pax of this entitlement. Can anyone confirm?

29 Mar 2014

Total posts 79

It is not mandatory for airlines to hand out 600EUR to each passenger; ONLY if you request it. It's unlikely all 484 passengers would know of their compensation.

24 Apr 2012

Total posts 2519

It is mandatory, however, for the airline to provide you with a printed letter at the airport explaining your passenger rights, which includes eligibility for compensation and how to lodge a claim. Often the airline will inhibit boarding until they've confirmed you've received such a letter, so sometimes if you've changed flights under an EU261-type situation, you'll get a red light at the boarding gate if the airline hasn't previously confirmed you've received such a letter. Whether people bother to submit a compensation and expense claim is obviously up to them.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

20 Sep 2013

Total posts 467

We all need to be prudent when it comes to what little rights we have as Chris states compensation varies by different parts of the thing I do know is you really have to push it with these airlines,and status helps.


11 Jul 2014

Total posts 894

I’ve always wondered if the free insurance on credit cards etc actual work, or should I always buy insurance cover

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

13 Nov 2015

Total posts 36

If you fulfill all the criteria in their PDS, then there's no reason why free credit card insurance won't work. However often they have stricter conditions and higher excess fees than paid insurance.

24 Apr 2012

Total posts 2519

The things that seem to trip people up most often are actually qualifying for the credit card insurance in the first place, whether that's booking the flight on the right card, pre-paying the right amount of expenses on the correct card, holding a return ticket if required with a trip length within that covered by the policy (most commonly 30 days, 3 months or 6 months), being within the age limits of the policy, not travelling to destinations not covered by the policy, travelling for a purpose covered by the policy (not all personal cards cover business trips), being the right cardholder to be covered by the policy (not all cards offer insurance to supplementary cardholders, and have strict definitions as to who is and is not covered when a primary cardholder travels - such for as spouses and children), or continuing to remain eligible for the cover (some cards require you continue to charge a certain percentage of your total expenditure to that card while overseas: if you don't, the cover lapses), or in the case of CBA, remembering to opt-in for the full suite of insurances every time you travel.

For these reasons, many travellers simply choose to purchase their own individual travel insurance policy just to make sure they're covered, or if travelling for business, will most likely have travel insurance provided by their employer as part of the company's duty of care.

Delta Air Lines - SkyMiles

16 Oct 2017

Total posts 154

Very useful info, thanks Chris. I'd add that much of what is mentioned here can also apply when your flight is diverted to a different port. You may need overnight arrangements if it is not scheduled to carry on to your booked port until next day, or it may terminate at the diversion port and you'll need onward travel arrangements.

02 Dec 2016

Total posts 90

Very helfpul. Thanks Chris. With EU261, is there anything comparable here in Australia, or even the USA?

Also, what about flights booked using points? Does EU 261 still apply?

24 Apr 2012

Total posts 2519

Nothing like this in Australia, and while the USA had something similar many years back, I don't believe they have anything comparable now (unless you're flying USA-Europe on a European carrier, of course, which falls under EU261).

Your last question was covered in the article.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

13 Jan 2017

Total posts 72

Very useful article and information.

Not sure Jazzop's question was answered.

Perhaps "does EU261 compensation apply regardless of whether the flight was booked with cash or reward points?".

24 Apr 2012

Total posts 2519

Again, this was covered in the article.


Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

23 Sep 2017

Total posts 156

This is a very useful article thanks Chris, and a useful discussion thread.

We were delayed within Europe a little while back and notified of the EU 261. I had no idea of it beforehand.


Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

10 May 2017

Total posts 86

So once my Jetstar flight MEL to SIN was cancelled ("business" class)

I managed to get them to put me on a QF flight in J same day, few hours later though.
I still consider that the best Jestar experience I have ever had!

18 Nov 2013

Total posts 46

Good point on the double dip of loyalty points Chris. I got lucky in a slightly different way. I'd booked a flight to Canada with Qantas during a double status credits promotion. The return was delayed and when I was finally re-booked they put me in the last available seats which ended up being the the flexible fare bucket, thus earning twice the status credits before they all got doubled for the promotion.

The downside was that because the ticket looked like a one way booked last minute, I ended up with SSSS on my boarding pass.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

04 Mar 2014

Total posts 206

Cancelling is one thing but "re-scheduling" is another and can be harder to push back on, any advice when this happens?

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

09 Jun 2011

Total posts 88

If you do want to claim original routing credits QF needed to see (via a photo emailed to them) my AC boarding pass to verify I actually took the flight. So hang on to any BPs issued for the new airlines

24 Aug 2011

Total posts 1192

Remaining calm and civil is the most important thing you can do. The person you are speaking to at the counter or on the phone is just doing their job and is not responsible for the delay/cancellation.

In fact, being polite and behaving in the same way you expect to be treated will often be of greater assistance as the counter staff will be pleased to assist you rather than being threatened and defensive.

Cathay Pacific - The Marco Polo Club

13 Jul 2018

Total posts 1

Last November I led 25 passengers on a tour of Israel. We were due to return on Sunday 12 with Cathay Pacific. Initially our flight was delayed an hour and then cancelled. I opted to stay with Cathay who could only get us all out on their Tuesday flight. Cathay arranged transport to our hotel in Netanya (hotels in Tel Aviv were full). All our meals were covered. On arrival at the airport on Tuesday we were ushered through security, given our new boarding pass and a gift voucher of $150 US for use on the flight or against our next Cathay ticket.

We were also given a letter explaining our entitlement to 3070 Israeli Shekles. I applied on behalf of the group and it was attended to very promptly etc.
It pays to keep your cool and treat the staff with respect, which is why we were so well treated.
I will lead a further group to Israel next February.
Guess which airline we will use?

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