Last spring and summer, when the sudden eruption of the pandemic threw flight schedules into chaos around the globe, this was a common refrain: “You are owed a refund if your airline cancels or significantly changes.”
Although cancellations are—thankfully—less prevalent this summer, it could come in handy to remember the rule is nonetheless still true. Especially as flight schedules are still shifting for the weeks and months ahead. “As travel demand continues to scale up, especially over the summer, and people are traveling even more, airlines are going to need to deploy additional planes, and it's just inevitable that there are going to be flight changes,” says Jesse Neugarten, CEO and founder of Dollar Flight Club.
For domestic flights, schedules are more locked in at this point, according to Brett Snyder, an airline expert and president of Cranky Concierge. “Flight times may shift and things like that, but it shouldn’t be the same kind of upheaval that we’ve seen in the last year,” he says.
But for most international flights, which are still subject to a complex web of travel restrictions, it's a different story. “There is still so much uncertainty, and the airlines are doing their best to put [international] schedules out there they think they can fly, but the reality is that they just don’t know," Snyder says. "They know they can fly to like four or five countries in Europe. The rest, they’re not sure.”
Travelers with flights abroad booked for later this summer might start to see those flights shift over the next few days. “At this point airlines are beginning to pull down flights for July in countries that haven’t opened up yet,” Snyder says. “They need to have some more advance notice to fill up those airplanes with people. Some of the places are opening up or talking about opening up and haven’t done it yet, those are the places where the biggest risk is.”
So if an airline changes your flight time or cancels it altogether, what are your rights? According to federal regulations from the Department of Transportation, if an airline cancels your flight, you're owed a refund. If the carrier changes your flight times, it's a little more complicated.
“The tricky thing about the federal regulation is that they don’t define precisely what constitutes a significant schedule change," says Scott Keyes, founder of Scott's Cheap Flights. "They leave it up to the airlines, which in my view is a dereliction of duty.”
So if you don't like the new flight an airline has assigned you and want to make a change for free, you'll have to track down your airline's individual policy. These can be found online in their contract of carriage agreements. According to Keyes, the timeframes that qualify for a “significant change” range anywhere from a 30-minute change (United), to 60 minutes (JetBlue, Alaska), 90 minutes (Delta), all the way to four hours (American, although that's for a full refund; shorter delays might allow for free flight changes).
Also important? Acting fast. “The goal is going to be to get it taken care of relatively quickly once you’re notified of the schedule change,” Snyder says. “You don’t want to sit on it for too long because other flights that you might like as good options, they might disappear, they might sell out. If you do get a schedule change, get on it, talk to the airlines or your travel agent, whoever it is who you booked through, and try and understand what your options are.”
Doing your research, and being persistent, are also crucial. “They’re not always going to be super forthcoming about what your rights are, what your options are,” Keyes says. “In the airline’s mind, they would prefer you just stick with whatever flight you’ve been reassigned to. Rather than just accepting whatever they give you, knowing what your rights are is the most important thing.”
For travelers who are nervous about potential flight changes—and haven't yet purchased fares—one way to simplify matters is to book directly with the airline or use a travel specialist who can help. Using a third-party discount site could make changes more difficult. “When your flight changes, it's going to be a huge headache for you,” Neugarten says. “You're dealing with two refund and cancellation policies.” Third party ticket sellers have their own rules in addition to the airlines'. “It's a time-saver to book directly with the airlines,” he says.
Although it is primarily frustrating, if an airline changes your flight time it's not always a bad thing, according to Keyes, who has been repeatedly adjusting transatlantic flights he booked for this spring. “It was essentially a blank check that I could write my new ticket on without having to pay any extra money,” Keyes says. “Taking advantage of that when you do have a significant schedule change is one of the best opportunities you have as a traveler to get a better flight at no additional cost.”
Fortunately, these issues will be less problematic than last year. “This summer is a lot better than it has been,” Synder says. “Things are a little more stable than they were before, and that’s good news for everyone.”
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler