Even before a big winter storm looms into the forecast, you should be aware of your travel rights for winter storm flight cancellations—which can come in sudden, widespread waves, causing airport panic that makes it hard to think clearly. Because passengers actually do have an array of rights in winter weather cancellations.
The first fact you need to know is that, in recent years, airlines have adopted a policy of making widespread, preemptive cancellations in advance of an actual storm. They rely on weather reports in order to manage their planes and flight personnel more efficiently, to make sure planes and crews are in a position to re-start operations most readily, and to avoid the huge fines they have to pay if they strand you on the tarmac for more than three hours. While this approach occasionally means cancelling flights that could really have operated, for the most part, preemptive cancellations seem to work better.
Your Rights in a Winter Storm Flight Cancellation
Airlines establish their advance cancellations on an ad-hoc basis—not by any fixed rules—and policies vary in important details. But one thing that doesn’t change is your basic right to compensation.
A Full Refund
Regardless of whatever other options your airline may offer, if your flight is cancelled, you are entitled to a full refund of your ticket, or the unused portion of it. This applies to all airline tickets, including those that are sold as nonrefundable tickets. If you haven’t yet begun your trip, your best option is usually to cancel your trip and start over with the reimbursed amount.
Or a Rebooking (with Strings Attached)
But if you need/want to get on with your trip as best you can, it’s important to know that airlines vary in their approach. When you want to rebook your canceled ticket without either a change penalty or an increase in fare, here are the stipulations they’re likely to respond with:
Covered airports: Airlines vary in how wide a geographical net they cast for new flights covered by cancellations. Some limit cancellations to just one affected major hub; others cancel throughout a wider, more regional area anticipated to be affected by weather.
Covered cancellation dates: Most advance cancellations apply to flights on either the one day or two days closest to when the storm is expected to hit the affected area. If there’s a blizzard that affects a large swath of the country, a few days might be included.
Rebooking time limit: Typically, you have to arrange your replacement seat within 24 hours of the cancellation to avoid a ticket change fee.
Alternative flight dates: The travel window for no-fee, no fare-change alternative flights varies a lot. Some lines allow you to fly the day before the cancellations; others don’t. Some limit your replacement flight window to as short as two days after the cancellations; others give you up to a week to fly.
Fare type requirements: Most lines do guarantee a replacement seat without any fare difference, but not always. It’s not unheard of for an airline to require that replacement seats must be available in the same “inventory,” meaning that if your original fare was in one of the lowest fare categories, you have to find a replacement seat in the same low-fare category—which could be impossible over a busy holiday period—even if higher-fare seats are available.
Alternative airports: When you fly to or from a metro area with multiple airports—such as Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Washington—airlines consider all of the airports in the area to be equivalent, and you can book a replacement flight to/from any mix of the ones your airline serves. Some airlines also allow you to reschedule to/from different airports in the same region—Milwaukee for Chicago, for example, or Philadelphia for New York—without paying a change fee and a fare difference. From there they might cover alternative transportation like rail or bus.
Round-trip ticket limitations: If your canceled flight is the return portion of a round-trip ticket, you can reschedule without fees or paying extra fares within the airline’s stated limits. But if your canceled flight is the outbound portion of a round-trip itinerary and your return date falls outside the rebooking window, you could face penalties if you want to delay your return due to the necessary timeline of your trip. Most airline fine print is silent on this point. Unless your airline specifically allows you to reschedule a return along with the new departure flight, you should probably opt for a refund if you can.
As for planning a future winter trip, Southwest’s no-change-fee policy sets it apart from its many competitors, and is a good reason to fly Southwest in the winter. But even on Southwest, you might face a fare change on a replacement flight if it falls outside the storm dates.
Hotels, Rental Cars, and Cruises
If you prepay for a nonrefundable hotel room or rental car—through an online travel site like Expedia or Booking.com, for example—each supplier decides whether to allow you to change dates without forfeiting your prepayment. If you call the online agency, customer service agents may try to negotiate something for you, but with no promises. If a delayed flight causes you to miss a cruise departure, your options depend primarily on how you booked your flights. If you have booked through the cruise line’s program, the line will try to get you to the ship’s first port at no extra expense to you. But if you’ve arranged your air independently, you can’t look for any no-cost help from your cruise line.
Because of the financial risks of prepaid accommodations and cruises, many experts recommend travel insurance that covers weather contingencies.
Are You Prepared for Winter Storms?
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More from SmarterTravel:
- The 12 Best and Worst Days to Travel This Holiday Season
- 10 Holiday Travel Tips You Need to Know Now
- The Worst Winter Travel Gear (and What to Pack Instead)
Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2013. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.