A Record Number of Travelers Will Fly This Memorial Day and Summer—Here’s What to Do as Soon as Your Flight Is Disrupted

If your air travel plans are less than smooth, use these tips and strategies to get your trip back on track.


The more planes that are flying, the higher the chances of delays and cancellations.


Memorial Day Weekend—also known as the unofficial start of the busy summer travel season—is upon us, and already we’ve experienced two of the busiest travel days of the year in the lead-up to the long weekend. This past Friday and Sunday each saw more than 2.8 million fliers heading into the skies, more than any other days thus far this year. And in the days and weeks ahead, United Airlines is forecasting its busiest Memorial Day weekend and summer travel season ever in its 98-year history.

While airlines and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) are working to assure travelers that they are ready for the busy season, a high number of travelers and increased air traffic unfortunately bring greater chances for flight disruptions. Add to the mix a sudden storm, a mechanical issue, or a staffing shortage, and the risk that a flight could be delayed or canceled only grows. If you happen to find yourself stuck in transit because an airline has canceled or delayed your flight, here’s what to do.

First, you have a right to compensation or being rebooked on a new flight

A new rule issued last month by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) mandates that airlines flying to, through, or from the United States provide travelers with immediate cash refunds in the event of a cancellation or significant delay is slated to go into effect in October 2024—unfortunately, not in time for this summer.

But in the meantime, an Aviation Consumer Protection website created by the DOT in 2022 can help travelers track down what kind of refunds or compensation their airline has committed to providing when there is a cancellation or delay (it includes a table of compensations broken down by airline).

Currently, airlines aren’t required to compensate passengers when flights are delayed or canceled due to problems deemed beyond the company’s control, like bad weather. That is gearing to change in October. They also aren’t required to provide a refund when the passenger initiates the cancellation or flight change.

But even now a refund is required by U.S. law when the airline cancels, delays, or alters a flight, or passengers are involuntarily bumped from a flight that is oversold or due to issues originating from the airline, such as operational or staffing problems.

Additionally, after the federal government began cracking down on airlines this year, all of the major U.S. airlines vowed to provide meal vouchers for delays of more than three hours and to provide transfers and hotel stays to passengers affected by an overnight cancellation. They have all also agreed to rebook travelers on an alternate flight at no added cost due to a delay or cancellation and most will also rebook on a partner airline.

How to get rebooked on a different flight

If you want to continue with your travel plans, you will need to get rebooked on a different flight (unless your flight is delayed, not canceled, and you have decided to stick with it). If you need to rebook, here are some steps to take.

Use your airline’s app to select a new flight

If you have downloaded your airline’s app and have your flight information linked to your account, you may not need to deal with an actual human in the event of a flight delay or cancellation. As soon as your airline knows your flight will be delayed or canceled, they will send you an update within their dedicated app. Whether it’s delayed or canceled, they should give you the option to rebook on a different flight directly within the app (if they haven’t automatically placed you on a different flight). In this case, it pays to act quickly—after all, you have a whole plane full of travelers in the same situation.

If your flight is simply delayed and you’re not at risk of missing a connection, you might opt to stick with your current itinerary. In this scenario, you don’t have to do anything but it’s helpful to know if your flight is at risk of further delays. To do this, look up where your plane is coming from and then use a flight tracking app app like FlightAware to check if it’s en route or not. Your new departure time is much more likely to get pushed back again if your plane hasn’t even let the airport it’s flying from yet.

If that didn’t work, talk to a gate agent or call customer service

If you aren’t able to rebook via the app on a flight that meets your needs, then it’s time for plan B: getting in touch with a gate agent or customer service representative. Often, calling a customer service agent can be quicker than speaking to someone in real life. (You also can and should multitask and try calling while waiting in line.)

Try to remain calm and friendly

You can only imagine the amount of frustration fliers have when flights get canceled or delayed. Good ol’ fashioned friendliness can help make headway with a weary gate, airline, or customer service agent who isn’t having an easy day (week? year?). If you’re on the phone with an agent who just does not seem like they want to help, don’t hesitate to make an excuse for ending the call and try back for another person who maybe is more willing. Yes, we know that could mean another prolonged period of sitting through lounge music while on hold.

Research alternate flights with the same airline, partner airlines, even competitors

Before you hop on the phone or talk to a gate agent, look up flight alternatives with the airline you are booked on, partner airlines (especially for international flights), and even with competing carriers. If you know of a specific flight that has empty seats, it can be helpful to bring that knowledge to your conversation—even if it’s not on the airline you have a ticket with.

Don’t be shy to “go to a different carrier and say, ‘How can you get me to [my destination]?’” says former airline pilot and FlightAware spokesperson Kathleen Bangs. In some situations, even competing airlines with a mutual agreement to do so can allow you to transfer over a ticket. Use Google Flights to see all the options available to you.

Use your fliers’ rights knowledge as leverage

According to Willis Orlando, senior product operations specialist at flight-deal tracking service Going (formerly known as Scott’s Cheap Flights), “Knowing [your] rights kind of gives you priority in getting yourself rebooked.” He notes that when you approach the airline agent via phone or text message, “and you say, ‘I understand under law that I can ask for a refund and go home, but I prefer not to do that. I found this itinerary that I would like to be rebooked on’—they are highly incentivized to help you out. You’re bringing something to the table that the other customers are not. They very often will go the extra mile for you.”

Lean on your travel advisor, friends, and family members

“If you used a travel agent, that is someone who can advocate for you. You paid for this person’s services, and when things hit the fan, this is the time to take advantage of those services,” says Orlando.

You can also contact a company that specializes in urgent air travel assistance, like Cranky Concierge, which has a staff trained in this kind of research and rebooking, for a fee.

Another strategy is to provide your flight numbers and travel details to a trusted friend or family member who can help keep flight status watch for you and provide helpful info via text or even do some behind-the-scenes research and rebooking while you are up in the air. Adds Orlando, “It’s not a bad time to call on favors.”

Getting compensated during or after your travels

As mentioned above, if you decide not to continue with your travel itinerary, you are entitled to a full refund of the flight if a flight cancellation or significant delay was the fault of the airline. But even if you do continue with your travel plans, you are entitled to compensation for the inconvenience.

Always ask for miles

If an airline rebooks you onto a different flight after a flight was canceled, it can (and should) at least offer you miles “for the inconvenience” if it doesn’t offer you other compensation, such as payment for meals or an overnight hotel stay, says Bangs. “I would just say to the airline, ‘What can we do to make this fair?’” she adds.

If you are not given anything in the moment, you can request compensation by filing a complaint (usually online) with the airline you had a ticket with.

File a complaint with the DOT

If the airline wasn’t cooperative in providing a required refund or requested assistance, file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation, which can be done online. It can help ensure you (finally) do get a response from the airline.

Whatever you do, be kind

Most importantly, don’t forget to (hopefully) enjoy wherever it is you are going and to be kind to all the people who are helping to get you there often under trying circumstances. (We see all of you, tired airport staff, pilots, flight attendants, air traffic control crew, and everyone else working to make our travel dreams come true.) Travel is and will always be such a privilege.

This story was originally published in November 2023 and was updated on May 23, 2024, to include current information.

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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