If your flight is cancelled, what should you do, and what are your rights? Firstly, find out if the airline can put you on the next available flight. If that’s not feasible, or will result in such a delay that the purpose of your trip is frustrated (you’ll miss a meeting, say), then enquire about a fare refund. Your rights depend on a number of factors:

  • Why the flight was cancelled
  • The place of departure
  • Where the airline is based

For instance, if you’re in Europe or flying with a European airline (for aviation purposes, this means the European Union, UK, Iceland, Switzerland, Norway and Liechtenstein), your rights are:

  • You should get a full refund for that flight, including any connecting flights you will miss, or return flights. Alternatively you should get a free replacement flight to get you to your destination (with that airline, or even another).
  • You should be able to claim compensation for other associated costs while waiting for the replacement flight, such as a hotel overnight, taxis to and from the hotel and sustenance (reasonable meal costs), if the cancellation delays you by more than two hours.
  • You might be able to claim additional financial compensation for the inconvenience (see below). The most popular excuse airlines give is that the cancellation has been caused by “extraordinary circumstances” or for “safety reasons” – in which case they do not have to compensate passengers. Many expensive legal cases have been fought over what these exclusions mean. An Icelandic volcano could qualify as both; messing up the pilot staffing rota isn’t.

Most airlines will provide you with vouchers at the airport for snacks and light meals, arrange wifi/email access, necessary phone calls and even accommodation. If not, keep all your receipts for relevant expenditure. Bear in mind that won’t get money reimbursed for alcohol, “expensive” meals or “luxury” hotels.


In addition to getting costs reimbursed, you are sometimes also eligible for compensation for the inconvenience, claimed after the event. You can only claim if your replacement flight was more than two hours later than the original, or if your flight was cancelled more than seven days before departure.

The amount of compensation depends on a few variables, namely: the flight distance; when the flight cancellation was announced; and the departure and arrival times of the replacement flight. In Europe compensation varies from €125 to €600, depending on how inconvenienced you were. There are online calculators you can use yourself on the Which? (the Consumers’ Association) and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) websites given below.

It’s the airline operating that particular flight you have the claim against, even if you booked via another airline.

Claims will need to be put  in writing, but fortunately  there are excellent resources  to help you with this. Which? has a letter template and detailed guidance, and the CAA also provides useful information. It’s important you keep records of the flight, the claim and all correspondence. If your claim is still not making any progress, you may need to escalate it via the Civil Aviation Authority, which runs a Passenger Advice and Complaints Team (PACT) to deal with problem claims.

It’s best to claim this compensation directly from the airline but if this route is not going well, then you can try through your own travel insurance policy.

If you are outside Europe – for example, departing from  the US with a non-European airline – use much the same tactics, but the details of compensation etc vary between countries. For advice on this, contact the CAA as your first option. You can email it a form via caaportal.icasework.com.

As a last resort, there are legal firms that specialise in flight cancellation cases. One is Bott & Co solicitors, + 44 (0)1625 415850 (bottonline.co.uk), which claims to handle more than 90,000 flight compensation cases a year, and which also claims to have a 99 per cent success rate; many of its cases are on a no win, no fee basis.

Outside the UK, Airhelp (see airhelp.com) claims to be the largest specialist firm in  the world dealing with these kind of cases. It even has an online tool that allows you to check your eligibility for compensation by entering the details of your flight.


  • You are eligible for a free replacement flight, or your money back.
  • Your essential costs – sustenance, calls and overnight hotel – should be covered by the airline.
  • If the airline isn’t helpful, keep receipts and note the sequence of events, the flight numbers and other details.
  • You may be eligible to claim compensation for inconvenience caused, but always read the small print.
  • Study the relevant info on caa.co.uk and which.co.uk to make sure you know your rights; never assume.
  • If none of the above are working, consider getting legal help, as detailed above.