Understand airline policies
Federal regulations are still on the books (for now), so know how you’re protected. Under the government's 24-hour rule, as it’s known, travelers can cancel a flight within 24 hours of booking it and receive a full refund. If you find out that your flight originating in the United States is overbooked when you get to the airport, you could receive up to $675 if your “substitute transportation” arrives between one and two hours late or after the original flight was scheduled (or up to $1,350 for delays over four hours on international flights). The DOT outlines passenger rights regulations on its site, and you can also file a consumer complaint.
Read the airline's contract of carriage because that's where you'll find what each company says it will do for you. Some contracts of carriage are vague — they note that they “may” provide hotel accommodations in case of cancellations and delays, for example — but others are more specific. American Airlines states that if “we don’t board to your final destination before 11:59 p.m. local time, we’ll arrange an overnight stay at your connecting airport, if available.” Here are contracts of carriage for American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest and United.
Consider a European airline
Under a European Union (EU) regulation known as EC 261, you may be entitled to up to 600 euros (about $745) if your flight was canceled or delayed by three hours or more, and if you don’t arrive at your final destination within two hours of the scheduled arrival time. It also applies if you’re denied boarding. The regulation covers EU airlines flying to the EU, as well as any airline flying from the EU. So if you’re traveling from New York to Paris, the rule applies only to airlines such as Lufthansa. But if you’re flying to the United States from Europe, it applies to U.S. airlines as well.
European airlines are also required to offer accommodations, even if a delay is not their fault. This happened in 2010 when a volcano in Iceland grounded flights to Europe. Because consumer rights are much stronger in the EU than in the U.S., says George Hobica, an airline expert and former president of Airfarewatchdog, “when possible, I always suggest booking on an airline registered in the EU.”
Address compensation issues immediately
Ask for a voucher or compensation for bumping or accommodations during your delay while you're still at the airport, Elliott says. "Once you’re home and you contact the so-called customer service department, they’ll come up with 100 different ways to say no.”
When submitting a written complaint, it helps to cite the specific rules violation. For example: If an airline oversold the flight, no one gave up his or her seat, and you were denied boarding, note that you're entitled to cash compensation under DOT regulations.