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In many parts of the world, a delayed or cancelled flight may mean that your best hope is to get to your planned destination with extensive delay, or even way too early. For many flights to, from, and within Europe though, that is not necessarily the case.
This is thanks to EU261, a part of EU law that ensures that passengers experiencing extensive delays or cancellations while flying on EU-based airlines to, from, and within the EU as well as non-EU carriers flying within or from the EU receive compensation and assistance. Below, I've outlined what I see as the important things to know for anybody traveling in Europe, as well as a few of my own experiences using EU261 to seek compensation.
The basics of EU261 compensation are relatively straightforward, but still there are few details that have led many a traveler to confusion. For a flight to be EU261 eligible it must not be due to extraordinary circumstances such as bad weather, or in my example below, air traffic control. The basic details are as follows, but keep in mind the EU/non-EU-airline rules outlined above:
Valid Flights that cover less than 1,500 kilometers (about 932 miles) in distance and are delayed at least two hours are eligible for 250 euros of compensation (about $465)
Valid Flights within the EU that cover more than 1,500 kilometers & flights outside of, departing from, or arriving to the EU that cover more than 1,500 kilometers and less than 3,500 kilometers (about 2,175 miles) and are delayed at least three hours are eligible for 400 euros of compensation (about $420)
Valid Flights entirely outside of the EU or only departing from or arriving to the EU and are delayed at least four hours are eligible for 600 euros of compensation (about $640)
In addition to cash compensation, there are also rules around assistance and rerouting that an airline is supposed to provide. In my experience, I've rarely found that the assistance part is actively or clearly offered by airlines, but assistance generally just means having a phone to make calls if necessary, food and refreshments, and, if an overnight is an avoidable, a hotel room with transportation to and from it. If you're not in for an overnight wait and already have lounge access and a cell phone, you may find it easier to just use what you already have rather than track down an airline employee.
On the other hand, rerouting can be quite straightforward — major US carriers are all easy to reach via messaging platforms, though call center wait times can get long. Some airlines, though, don't have very many contact options, and if you find out about a delay or cancellation before leaving for the airport, you may not be that happy to rush to the airport to wait in a long line of people with the same situation as yours. I personally always just plan for my flight to be delayed or cancelled and have a plan in place, and tend to avoid airlines that are hard to reach where possible.
One last note before I tell you a little about my own experience: In many cases you can make claims for years back. So if you had a significant delay or cancellation, go back and try to claim it!
Sometimes, to folks that haven't received compensation from EU261, it can sound too good to be true — it's not! I've successfully received compensation now on a handful of occasions and can tell that it's generally pretty straightforward.
On one occasion, I had a nonstop flight from Europe to the United States on United Airlines, which was delayed more than four hours to Newark Airport. With no good alternatives to get me to Newark earlier, I decided to stick with the flight and arrive (very) late.
Once I got into the US, I sent United a pretty brief e-mail outlining my request for compensation under EU261 and within weeks they got back, detailing that I could take 600 euros, $1,000 in United credit, or 50,000 United miles. In my second example, I also received an offer like that.
The truth of the matter is that airlines can often save by paying you in credits that you're possibly unlikely to use, rather than paying out in cash. Compensation with miles also may save the airline money, but in my case, 50,000 United miles would rarely yield me as much value as having 600 euros in hand. I actually counter-offered United with 100,000 miles, since I would have had a use for it immediately, but they didn't agree to it. So in the end I agreed to 600 euros in pocket, provided my bank transfer information, and had the money in my account within a month.
On the other hand, I found TAP Air Portugal to take much longer to respond to my requests, even needing some reminders via various channels that they can be contacted on. I actually claimed with TAP on separate occasions, one of which was denied, and a few others which were approved.
The one that I was denied (and the only EU261 denial I've received) dealt with missed connecting flights at Lisbon Airport. TAP claimed that the very short (>30 minute) delay in the departure of my first was caused my an extraordinary circumstance created by air traffic control, and thus ineligible. My approved claims on the other hand all went smoothly, though it took months rather than weeks to hear back from TAP each time.
I often hear of folks using online third-party websites to file EU261 claims for them, but these generally take a huge chunk of the claim compensation money for something that you can easily do yourself. In the case where I was denied compensation from TAP, I actually tried using one of these websites and they were also unsuccessful.
In my experience, you're generally better off reaching out to the airline via their official complaint channel, and then following up with them if you don't hear back within a few weeks. A lot of times, getting what you want from an airline can mean asking a few times.
In the US, there's recently been talk of enacting a similar set of rules (New York Times), so it's worth staying up to date. If there are developments and a more traveler friendly compensation is scheme is turned to law, you'll find it here are on TravelPirates.
For more in depth info regarding EU261, you can find a ton of information on the official European Union website. I also sourced any information not already cited from there for this article.
*All photos in the body of this article were taken by David Greer, while the feature photo was not.
Keep in mind that this guide is only a collection of tips that have worked based on our own experience and is not to be considered any kind of legal advice.