Flight cancellations: what are your refund rights?

With flight cancellations and chaos at airports across the country expected to continue into the summer holidays and beyond, we explain your rights, how to claim a refund and compensation

Passengers queuing in airport terminal
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you've been caught up in flight cancellation chaos, make sure you know your refund rights to ensure you are not left out of pocket. After travel chaos blighted half term getaways, it looks like summer holidays for many could also be affected. 

Earlier this week, Heathrow cancelled 61 flights, impacting 10,000 passengers, and has imposed a daily passenger limit until 11 September due to low staffing numbers. But with airlines continuing to sell tickets, more flight cancellations are expected as airports struggle to cope with the volume. 

Planned strike action across a number of airlines has also compounded the problem. Hundreds of British Airways check in staff and ground crew have voted to strike over pay –  with specific strike dates yet to be announced.

EasyJet cabin crew at Spanish airports including Barcelona, Malaga and Palma are set to strike for nine days in July, after demanding a 40% pay rise. Ryanair staff across Europe in France, Spain and Italy are currently striking over pay and conditions while Air France pilots are also in dispute with their airlines which may mean more delays and cancellations.

If you're in the process of looking for cheap flights to get away this summer, we explain what you can do if your flight is affected by a delay or cancellation. 

WHY ARE FLIGHTS BEING CANCELLED?

Staff shortages are being blamed for delays and cancellations after thousands of staff across the travel industry were let go after the pandemic. Staff sickness - due to Covid - plus IT failures have also been blamed. Meanwhile, supply-chain issues linked to Brexit and Covid are causing disruption too. The planned strikes will mean more cancellations this summer.

“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” warned aviation analyst Alex Macheras via Twitter, “a summer of disruption for air travel – as airlines, airports & travel companies begin to grapple with the industry’s staff shortage amid the surge in passenger demand."

Heathrow airport's boss John Holland-Kaye recently said the disruption could last up to 18 months.

Some airlines are using charter planes to cope with high demand and staff shortages, according to media reports.

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MY FLIGHT HAS BEEN CANCELLED - DOES THE AIRLINE HAVE TO REBOOK ME A NEW ONE? 

If an airline cancels your flight, it must offer to rebook you onto another one. This should be on a route that gets you to your destination as close to your arrival time as possible. This may mean flying with a different airline, or even with Eurostar (opens in new tab) if it is to a location like Paris or Brussels.

This applies to all passengers regardless of the reason for the cancellation or how much notice you were given about the cancellation.

According to the regulator the Civil Aviation Authority, if the cancelling airline has another flight on the same day, it can rebook you on that. This extends to partner airlines (for example, for British Airways, that includes Iberia, Aer Lingus and Qatar Airways).

If the replacement route is from or to a different airport, the cancelling airline must provide or pay for any additional transport. For example, if you were supposed to fly from Heathrow and this flight has been cancelled, and BA has rebooked you a new ticket on a plane departing from Gatwick, it would also need to arrange transport or pay your expenses to get to Gatwick.

However, airlines can be reluctant to rebook an alternative route for affected passengers. If this happens, you can buy your own ticket and then claim it back.

You can claim it back online for BA and EasyJet. But beware, airlines can be slow to process these claims so it could be weeks before you get your money back.

WHAT ARE MY REFUND RIGHTS?

If your flight has been cancelled, you have a right to choose between a full refund or to be put on an alternative flight to your destination.

So, you can only choose a refund or rebooking, not both. 

You are also entitled to a refund for the full price of your ticket if you miss a connecting flight due to your first flight being cancelled.

Any refund should be a cash refund (in practical terms, this means having the cost paid back to you via the original payment method that you used to book the flight). Airlines may offer vouchers or air miles - but you do not need to accept this. EU Regulation 261, which was written into UK law at the end of the Brexit transition period, means you are entitled to a full cash refund.

If the airline is unhelpful and you paid for your flight with a credit card, an alternative is to contact the card provider to ask for a refund, as it is jointly liable along with the airline under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974.

CAN I CLAIM FOR MEALS AND/OR A HOTEL STAY IF MY FLIGHT IS CANCELLED?

If your flight’s delayed for at least two hours, and the journey is less than 1,500 km (for example Glasgow to Amsterdam), then the airline must provide you with “a reasonable amount of food and drink, often provided in the form of vouchers”, according to the CAA.

The airline also has to give you a “means to communicate” (this typically means paying for two phone calls or emails), and free hotel accommodation and hotel transfers if an overnight stay is required.

For longer flights, the delay has to be bigger before an airline’s obligation to provide you with refreshments kicks in. For journeys of 1,500km-3,500km (for example, East Midlands to Marrakech), the delay must be at least three hours. Meanwhile flights over 3,500km (such as Heathrow to Hong Kong) must endure a delay of at least four hours.

If you are given a voucher and feel it is inadequate, you can claim for reasonable additional expenditure.

However, bear in mind that airlines are unlikely to reimburse you for alcohol or luxury hotel stays. 

AM I ENTITLED TO COMPENSATION?

Airline passengers who receive little notice about their cancelled flight may be entitled to compensation. 

If you received fewer than seven days’ notice of the cancellation, you can claim compensation based on the timings of the alternative flight. If the flight is under 1,500km, you can claim £220 for delays of at least two hours. 

For 1,500km – 3,500km journeys, you must be delayed by at least three hours to receive £350 redress.

Passengers on long-haul flights of over 3,500km are entitled to compensation of £260 or £520 depending on the delay. 

If you are told about the cancellation between seven and 14 days before you are due to fly, the compensation rules are slightly different, with the amounts ranging from £110 to £520.

If you receive more than 14 days’ notice, you are not entitled to compensation. However, you must still be offered the chance to rebook your journey or be given a full cash refund.

While many passengers should be able to claim compensation for the ongoing disruption, not all delays qualify. Reasons for an airline to refuse compensation include technical issues with an aeroplane, security risks, severe weather and drone disruption.

CAN I CLAIM ON MY TRAVEL INSURANCE?

Your travel insurance may offer cover for delays. 

Some insurers may pay out a lump sum based on the length of delay, while others will refund you for costs such as overnight accommodation or alternative transport.

However, delay cover usually only kicks in if the delay is due to adverse weather, strikes or mechanical aircraft failure. So, it may not cover the delays caused by the recent cancelled flights.

Dig out your policy and check the wording to find out if you can make a claim. If you have a packaged bank account, your bank may provide travel insurance, so double-check the terms and conditions on that policy too.

Anna-Marie Duthie, travel insurance expert at the financial analyst Defaqto (opens in new tab), commented: “When an airline has cancelled a flight, you are entitled to a refund or another flight; however this may not be sufficient if you have booked onward travel and cannot get there in time. This is where travel insurance can offer a real safety net to help keep your holiday on track.

“If your flight is cancelled, insurers will expect you to have sought resolution from the airline first. Once you have tried this, they will consider your claim, although not all policies cover delay or cancellation as standard and so it is important to check this before you go.’’

According to Defaqto, the majority (94%) of policies only pay out £50 or less if your flight is delayed.

Ruth Emery is contributing editor at The Money Edit. Ruth is passionate about helping people feel more confident about their finances. She was previously editor of Times Money Mentor, and prior to that was deputy Money editor at The Sunday Times. A multi-award winning journalist, Ruth started her career on a pensions magazine at the FT Group, and has also worked at Money Observer and Money Advice Service. Outside of work, she is a mum to two young children, a magistrate and an NHS volunteer.

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