Erika Kullberg’s Flight Delay Compensation: What You’re Entitled to and How to Get it

Chris Butsch

Writer

About 77% of domestic flights arrived at their destinations as scheduled in 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). Unlucky passengers of the less punctual 23% will be disappointed to learn that U.S. airlines are not legally required to compensate passengers for delayed flights — at least not yet. 

That said, you might be able to get some compensation for the inconvenience. These rights may be guaranteed in your travel insurance policy, your credit card travel insurance benefit, or an airline’s contract of carriage.

Erika Taught Me

  • To get compensation the delay must be due to something that was in the airline's control, such as unplanned maintenance.
  • Typically, in the event of an overnight delay, airlines can provide you with hotel and meal vouchers.
  • Airlines typically don't offer compensation unless it is requested, so be sure to ask.

How long can a flight be delayed before compensation is available?

Most major U.S. airlines will provide delayed passengers with at least a meal voucher if their flights are delayed by three hours or more due to controllable circumstances. But there are a few small policy variations from one carrier to the next that travelers should keep in mind before they take to the skies. 

Here’s a look at some of the highlights (and lowlights) from the four largest U.S. airlines’ flight delay compensation policies.

American Airlines delayed flight compensation

American Airlines’ flight delay policy guarantees that passengers will be rebooked on the next available flight. If there’s no available American Airlines flight until the following day, the passenger will be rebooked on one of the carrier’s 24 partner airlines.

A passenger facing an overnight delay away from their city of residence can ask American Airlines for:

  • A hotel voucher or reimbursement for “reasonable hotel costs” if no voucher is available 
  • Arranged transit to and from an approved hotel, a transportation voucher or reimbursement for out-of-pocket transit expenses

Passengers delayed three hours or more after the scheduled departure are entitled to meal vouchers. However, the policy does not mention reimbursements for out-of-pocket expenses. The airline will provide snacks and water to passengers during onboard (tarmac) delays of two hours or more.

Delta delayed flight compensation

The Delta flight delay policy provides a meal or meal voucher if your flight is delayed more than three hours. The airline will automatically rebook you on the next available Delta flight, or a flight operated by one of its partners, at no cost. Delta representatives provide gift cards and travel vouchers. And also, miles for SkyMiles members for passenger inconvenience when warranted by “individual circumstances,” although the qualifying circumstances are unclear.

If you’re delayed away from your home or destination overnight, Delta will provide:

  • Complimentary hotel accommodations and transit to or from the hotel
  • Reimbursement for reasonable hotel and transit costs if a Delta-contracted hotel is not available
  • A credit based on the value of a Delta-contracted hotel rate

Southwest delayed flight compensation

The Southwest flight delay policy provides compensation comparable to American Airlines and Delta. The airline will rebook you on the next available Southwest flight. If you decline, the airline will issue a refund for the unused portion of your ticket.

Some policy details include: 

  • For controllable delays of three hours or more within the airport, Southwest will provide a meal voucher or meal reimbursement. Additionally, they may offer complimentary snacks and beverages.
  • In the event of a controllable flight delay or cancellation that causes an overnight delay, Southwest will arrange accommodation near the airport or honor reasonable reimbursement requests.
  • In the event of an uncontrollable overnight delay, Southwest will attempt to arrange a discount for nearby accommodation.
  • Southwest doesn’t belong to an airline alliance. So, while Southwest will rebook passengers on one of its flights for free in the case of a significant delay, it can’t rebook passengers on a partner airline.

United delayed flight compensation

The United flight delay policy indicates that in the event of a significant delay, United will either transport passengers to their destination on one of its flights or arrange for air or ground transportation via another carrier. 

For delays of four hours or more between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., United will offer a night’s lodging. Or, upon request, reimburse accommodation as an electronic travel certificate applicable to future United travel. They will provide snacks and/or food and beverage vouchers if the passenger experiences an extensive, controllable delay. The criteria for what qualifies as an “extensive delay” are unspecified.

Other airlines delayed flight compensation

If you're not flying via one of the “Big Four,” search online for “[airline name] contract of carriage” or “[airline name] customer service plan” to review your rights as a passenger, as the DOT's Airline Customer Service Dashboard includes a table summarizing flight delay compensation policies for the 10 largest U.S. airlines.

Related: Baggage delay insurance: How it works

International flight delay compensation

If you’re traveling internationally, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with relevant overseas flight delay laws.

European flight delay compensation policies are more generous than U.S. flight delay compensation policies. They legally apply to any flight originating in the European Union (and some European countries outside the Union). Regardless of whether or not the carrier itself is European. They also apply to European carriers that depart from areas outside Europe.

The amount and type of compensation may vary for an international flight delay or cancellation. It depends not only on the flight's jurisdiction but also on its distance and delay length.

For example, if a Ryanair flight from London to Rome has a controllable delay, passengers are entitled to complimentary meals and refreshments. If a United Airlines flight from Paris to New York is canceled a few days before its scheduled departure, passengers are entitled to 600 euros (around $650) as well as reimbursement or rerouting.  

In June 2023, the Biden administration proposed a law that would require U.S. airlines to compensate travelers with cash for delays of three hours or more. This may result in U.S. flight delay compensation policies becoming even more consumer-friendly than policies across the pond. And there's evidence to suggest that U.S. airlines may spontaneously become less tardy if they enact this law. A study published in the journal Transport Policy found that flights regulated by EU Air Passenger Rights legislation are 5% more likely to arrive on time than their unregulated counterparts.

How to get compensation for a delayed flight

Check if the delay qualifies

A wide range of controllable circumstances may lead to compensable flight delays, according to Ben Weiss, a technology leader at travel software company GO7 and a former operations leader at American Airlines.

“Airlines can be forced to delay a flight due to unplanned maintenance, late crew (typically delayed from a connecting flight), delays related to catering or refueling the airplane and even boarding delays or other glitches in the turnaround,” Weiss explained. “Malfunctioning computers or antiquated IT infrastructure can also play a part, for example, if agents have to manually board a flight.”

However, airlines generally won’t compensate for “force majeure” delays, i.e., circumstances beyond their control, like foul weather. According to Andrew Appelbaum, a staff attorney for the airline passenger advocacy organization FlyersRights, force majeure circumstances explain a relatively small percentage of flight delays. 

“In 2022, the airlines caused more delays than severe weather, routine weather, air traffic control, and congestion combined,” Appelbaum said. 

If the airline doesn’t announce the reason for the delay, ask for clarification from one of its staff members and write down the staffer’s name and response. But don’t blindly accept the airline’s explanation if it claims the delay is force majeure. 

“We recommend passengers look at weather reports and whether other flights and other airlines are operating normally,” Appelbaum advised. 

Optimize communication

Many airlines’ customer service plans note that they will provide passengers with compensation “upon request.” If a delay appears to qualify for compensation according to the airline’s policy, don’t expect the airline staff to take a stack of Hyatt Regency vouchers and make it rain. 

“We do not see airlines proactively reaching out to inform passengers of their rights to compensation. Passengers must be proactive in demanding any compensation that is owed to them,” Applebaum said.

No matter which party initiates the compensation procedure, you can minimize headaches by being accessible to the airline.

“Some airlines will actively push vouchers via their digital channels (app, email, or SMS), while others may require you to see an agent,” Weiss said. “As in any relationship, being open to communication is vital. Download their app or give your email and cell phone number when you check in to ensure the airline can keep in touch with you.”

Save those receipts

If your delay occurs late at night, an airline’s staff may only have vouchers for airport restaurants t or hotels that are fully booked. Hopefully, the airline’s policy stipulates that it will reimburse applicable food and lodging expenses in these circumstances.

Always photograph and save the receipts for the meal, hotel room, and related transportation services you purchase out of pocket. Also, keep any unused vouchers the airline gave you. This is your ammunition if you have to appeal to the airline for post-factum monetary compensation. Along with proof that you don’t live close to the airport, like a current driver’s license.

Woman sitting delayed flight. Guide to flight delay compensation.

Other ways to get compensated for a flight delay

Buy travel delay insurance 

If you plan to fly via an airline that doesn’t specify adequate flight delay compensation in its contract of carriage, consider purchasing a separate travel insurance policy like from VisitorsCoverage that includes a travel delay clause. 

Third-party travel insurance may offer several noteworthy advantages over relying on a U.S. airline’s paltry compensation policy:

  • Both incidental trip expenses incurred due to a delay (meals, hotels, etc.) and prepaid trip expenses that you miss out on due to a delay (like that front-row ticket to finally see Tom Jones live) can be reimbursed up to a daily limit, e.g. $200.
  • The policy may provide compensation for the kinds of force majeure delays. Those that aren’t covered by an airline’s contract of carriage, like bad weather or civil unrest.
  • Your policy will likely include coverage for many other travel snafus, like medical expenses and lost luggage.

Use credit card flight delay insurance

Some travel credit cards offer trip delay reimbursement as part of their insurance packages. However, the amount of time that qualifies as a compensable delay varies. High-end travel cards with enormous annual fees may reimburse you for expenses after a 6-hour delay. Cards with low or no annual fees only compensate for delays of 12 hours or more, if they offer this coverage at all. Read our full guide on

Which credit cards offer trip cancellation insurance? 

As trip cancellation insurance is a pretty valuable benefit, it’s typically reserved for high-end travel rewards cards that charge an annual fee of $95 or more. 

Here are just some of the credit cards that include complimentary trip interruption insurance: 

It’s good to note that not all trip cancellation benefits are the same. You’ll see differences between cards' coverage limits — or the maximum dollar amount you can be reimbursed. 

For example, the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card will reimburse you up to $2,000 per person, per trip if something goes wrong. That’s probably enough for most folks who travel domestically and stick to a modest travel budget. 

Related: Trip Cancellation Insurance: How it works

Weiss advises travelers to use credit cards strategically when initially booking travel and making purchases during a delay period. “Check your cards' benefit packages and book your tickets with the card that offers the most protection,” he recommended. “The same goes for booking your hotels and excursions. If you book everything on the same card, and that card has the right benefits, you may be able to claim for everything you lose due to your delayed or canceled flight, even if it's beyond the airline's control.”

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Author picture

I'm an award-winning lawyer and personal finance expert featured in Inc. Magazine, CNBC, the Today Show, Business Insider and more. My mission is to make personal finance accessible for everyone. As the largest financial influencer in the world, I'm connected to a community of over 20 million followers across TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. I'm also the host of the podcast Erika Taught Me. You might recognize me from my viral tagline, "I read the fine print so you don't have to!"

I'm a graduate of Georgetown Law, where I founded the Georgetown Law Entrepreneurship Club, and the University of Notre Dame. I discovered my passion for personal finance after realizing I was drowning in over $200,000 of student debt and needed to take action-ultimately paying off my student loans in under 2 years. I then spent years as a corporate lawyer representing Fortune 500 companies, but I quit because I realized I wanted to have an impact; I wanted to help real people and teach them that you can create a financial future for yourself.

Advertiser Disclosure

Our aim is to help you make financial decisions with confidence through our objective article content and reviews. Erika.com is part of an affiliate sales network and receives compensation for sending traffic to partner sites, such as MileValue.com. This compensation may impact how and where links appear on this site. This site does not include all financial companies or all available financial offers. This in no way affects our recommendations or article content.

Advertiser Disclosure

Our aim is to help you make financial decisions with confidence through our objective article content and reviews. Erika.com is part of an affiliate sales network and receives compensation for sending traffic to partner sites, such as MileValue.com. This compensation may impact how and where links appear on this site. This site does not include all financial companies or all available financial offers. This in no way affects our recommendations or article content.

Advertiser Disclosure

Our aim is to help you make financial decisions with confidence through our objective article content and reviews. Erika.com is part of an affiliate sales network and receives compensation for sending traffic to partner sites, such as MileValue.com. This compensation may impact how and where links appear on this site. This site does not include all financial companies or all available financial offers. This in no way affects our recommendations or article content.