Holiday travel: A flyer's bill of rights

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Holiday travel: A flyer's bill of rights

Holiday travel is intense, especially if you and your gifts are flying cross-country. You can minimize (figurative and literal) bumps, but there's no failsafe for flight or baggage delays. Seriously. Airlines don't have to guarantee flight times, mostly because things like weather, security and mechanical failures put scheduling out of their control.

That doesn't mean you don't have any recourse when something goes awry. To make the best of a bad holiday travel situation, here's a primer on what airlines must do if they muck up your travel plans.

Bumping

If you volunteer to get bumped, the airline doesn't have to give you anything. It can offer as much or as little compensation it wants when negotiating with passengers. And, yes, since Americans really hate getting bumped, this sometimes translates to thousands of dollars.

If you get bumped involuntarily, the airline must pay:

  1. Nothing, so long as it gets you where you're going within one hour of your original scheduled arrival time
  2. At least 200% of your one-way fare, with a $675 maximum, if your new domestic flight lands one to two hours after your original arrival time. That timeframe changes from one to four hours if you're flying internationally.
  3. At least 400% of your one-way fare, at at $1,350 maximum, if the delay goes over those two-to-four-hour deadlines.
  4. By check if you don't want a free ticket or voucher
  5. Reimburse you for optional services such as in-flight Wi-Fi or a special seat assignment you didn't use

Those rules go out the window, though, if you don't have a confirmed reservation or miss the check-in deadline.

Luggage problems

If your bag is delayed, the airline must reimburse you for reasonable expenses, like any toiletries you need to get through the night.

If your bag is straight-up lost, the airline must reimburse you for its contents, up to $3,500 per passenger. (International flight maximums vary.) Plus, they have to reimburse your baggage fee.

If your bag gets smushed, the airline usually pays for repairs or its depreciated value. Prepare for negotiations.

Delays

If you're stuck on the tarmac, airlines must:

  1. Provide working bathrooms and medical attention the entire time
  2. Give you food and water at least two hours after the delay began
  3. Get you off the tarmac in three hours or less - absent a few security-related exceptions - or they'll face major fines. (There are no regulations saying passengers should see any of that payout, however.)

If you're stuck at the airport a half hour past your original departure time, airlines must provide regular updates. They don't have to pass go, feed you or give you $200.

If your flight time changes within seven days of departure, the airline must let you know.

Cancellations

If you cancel: You can do so without penalty within 24 hours of booking so long as you're more than a week out from the flight. Beyond that, you're subject to the airline's cancellation policy — which is why travel insurance comes in handy.

If the airline cancels: Airlines can cancel your flight whenever and they don't have to offer any compensation if they do. They must reimburse you for optional services, like baggage fees, that you paid for, but didn't use.

Complaints

You are entitled to air your grievances. When it comes doing so, the airline must:

  1. Tell you how you can formally complain on their website, e-ticket confirmations and, upon request, at ticket counters or gates.
  2. Acknowledge a written complaint within 30 days and respond to it within 60 days.

For more helpful resources on flyer's rights, see the U.S. Department of Transportation's website or FlyersRights.org. And, if you're traveling with little ones during the holidays, check out our holiday travel crib sheet for parents.

Image: Mike Powell