Getting A Fast Refund On Your Next Canceled Or Delayed Flight Will Be Easier Than Ever

In August 2022, the Department of Transportation (DoT) dropped a rule proposal that was music to every frustrated traveler's ears: Automatic refunds for delays or cancellations. Missed a connecting flight because of a delay? Or perhaps got denied boarding due to the flight being overbooked? The proposed rule aims to ensure you are compensated for getting the short end of the stick. "When Americans buy an airline ticket, they should get to their destination safely, reliably, and affordably," U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement at the time. "This new proposed rule would protect the rights of travelers and help ensure they get the timely refunds they deserve from the airlines." Ironically, this ruling itself was delayed, but fortunately, in April 2024, it finally became official, with the agency mandating all airlines to offer automatic refunds to passengers for canceled, "significantly delayed," and "significantly changed" flights, among other hiccups.


"Passengers deserve to get their money back when an airline owes them — without headaches or haggling," Buttigieg said. "Our new rule sets a new standard to require airlines to promptly provide cash refunds to their passengers." This is a huge win for travelers, as it clearly specifies when airlines must refund your money. Before this, DoT's Airline Customer Service Dashboard only outlined what they promised passengers in various situations. But thanks to the 2024 ruling, airlines are legally obligated to fork over refunds — without you even having to ask.

The Department of Transportation now requires airlines to issue automatic refunds

In the past, travelers often found themselves in the dark, unsure if they'd ever see their money again for delays beyond their control. While the DoT required airlines to issue refunds for canceled flights, the rules around "significantly delayed" flights were as clear as mud. The agency's website even admitted it had no specific definition for a "significant delay," leaving passengers entitled to refunds on a vague "case by case" basis.


The April 2024 mandate, which is now on the Federal Register, finally brings some much-needed transparency. Whether you've booked with a U.S.-based carrier or a foreign airline, you can get a refund if your flight is canceled or "significantly changed," and you decline travel credits or alternative transportation should there be any offered. "Significant changes" now have clear definitions: A departure or arrival time shift of over 3 hours domestically or 6 hours internationally, changes to different airports, increased connections, being downgraded from a higher-tier cabin, or decreased accessibility of connections or planes.

And gone are the days of filling out endless forms and submitting stacks of documentation just to prove that you deserve to get your money back. The DoT now requires airlines to issue refunds automatically to your original payment method within 7 business days for credit cards and 20 business days for other payment methods, including airline miles. And it's not just the airlines on the hook — travel agents and ticketing sites are included, too.


The new rule also covers delayed baggage and inability to travel due to disease

Similar to how airlines owe you when they lose your luggage in transit, with the new rule, they will also owe you if they fail to return your checked baggage promptly. For domestic flights, if your bag is delayed for 12 hours or more, you'll get back the baggage fee. For international flights, the wait time is 15 to 30 hours. Plus, if you don't receive the services you paid for, including but not limited to Wi-Fi, in-flight meals, or a seat upgrade, the airline must issue an automatic refund.


But that's not all. If you're suddenly unable to make a flight due to either a "serious communicable disease," the instruction of a doctor, or a government regulation from your departure point, the DoT rule mandates airlines to offer compensation in the form of travel credits or vouchers. And to make sure you can actually use them, they should be transferable and won't expire for at least five years.

The DoT has given airlines six months from April 2024 to start issuing automatic refunds and 12 months for the transferable travel vouchers or credits. Buttigieg knows airlines might not be jumping for joy over these changes, but they have to be held accountable. "I think if your customers are mad at you, that's not good for your business long-term," he told The Washington Post. "I want airlines to succeed, but I want them to succeed by providing good service."