Memorize This: Your Family Flight Rights

‘Tis the season of packed airports, crowded planes, and weather-related cancelations. As hard has holiday travel is on everyone,
it’s particularly harrowing for families. If your plane gets canceled or severely delayed, it helps to know the rules. Read on for that information,
and click here for my tips on what to do when your plans go sideways.

Get me there:  When traveling with kids, you dread the airplane—until someone tells you you can’t get on.

Get me there: When traveling with kids, you dread the airplane—until someone tells you you can’t get on.

Holiday travel news—stories about jam-packed airports, missed connections and sky-high ticket prices—have become a news cycle staple, as predicable as stories on pumpkin spice, Wal-Mart stampedes, and pre-Thanksgiving Christmas décor. And as much as delayed flights are difficult for business travelers, they’re really stressful when you’re flying with kids.

So along with your stroller, your diaper bag, your car seat and luggage, arm yourself with information. Read on for your family flight rights. And click here for my 10 point action plan if your plan gets canceled or delayed.

Let’s go over the basics, but here’s the gist if you’re flying in the US of A: You are at the mercy of your airline. Still, if something goes wrong, you can get a refund.

If Your Flight is Delayed or Canceled

This may come as a surprise, but there are no federal regulations on air transportation when your flight is severely delayed or canceled. Notes the Department of Transportation (DOT), “Each airline has its own policies…there are no federal requirements.”                      

There are two things you can count on, thanks to every individual airlines’ contracts of carriage (i.e. the fine print you don’t have time to read):
—All airlines will try to get you on the next available flight(s) to your destination
—All airlines will refund you for the unused portion of your ticket when your flight is canceled
Other than these two measures, airlines’ policies vary greatly. So—and I can’t stress this enough—choose your airline carefully.

Tarmac time : It can be rough, especially when you’re dealing with a toddler.

Tarmac time: It can be rough, especially when you’re dealing with a toddler.

Let’s take the worst-case scenario, in which your plane is canceled and there’s no alternative flight until the next day, or later. There’s a big difference between Spirit Airline’s policy on flight cancelations (“if…the cancellation was due to our failure, we may offer overnight hotel accommodations for non-local guests”) and this from Southwest Airlines: “We will find a hotel or motel as near to the airport as possible, and at no additional cost to you.” In other words, Spirit may—or may not—cover the hotel expense. If you’re flying Southwest, they will cover that expense, and they might cover the transportation to the hotel as well.

No matter what the situation, experts will tell you can get your money back, you just have to work at it: “Everyone is entitled to a refund of their fare if a flight is severely delayed or cancelled, even if it’s a so-called non-refundable fare,” says Georgia Hobica, founder of Airfare Watchdog. Without getting into the nitty gritty, you have several layers of protection: “The cancellation and severe delay refund rule is still in effect in most airline contracts of carriage,” Hobica notes, and if you used a credit card to pay for your flight, the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA) provides a second layer of protection. This allows consumers to dispute the charge if you file your claim within the act’s time limit, which is 60 days after you receive your credit card bill.

All this takes time—time most parents don’t have. The good news is, you can outsource this refund hunt. Read about apps like AirHelp here.

If You Are Bumped From Your Flight

Guess what? There are federal requirements regarding compensation if you are bumped from your flight due to overbooking. If you volunteer to be bumped, the airline sets the terms for your compensation, typically flight vouchers, though this is negotiable. Now, parents, I strongly discourage volunteering to be bumped. I love a deal as much as the next gal, but a few extra hours at the airport­ with young children—let alone anything that requires you to lug car seats and strollers to and from the airport again—is, simply put, purgatory on earth.

If you’re involuntarily bumped from a flight and the airline can’t get you to your destination within one hour of your scheduled arrival time, you are due compensation by law, and not just any compensation—cold, hard cash. (Have kids been bumped without their parents? Yes they have, but it’s extremely rare. Have CNN on speed dial though, just in case.) Keep in mind that airlines will likely offer you flight vouchers instead of money, but you have a right to up to $1,350 per ticket, depending on the length of the delay and the circumstances. 

Please tell me, FAA:  Who, besides her parents, would want to sit next to this hot mess?

Please tell me, FAA: Who, besides her parents, would want to sit next to this hot mess?

If You Are Sitting on the Tarmac

I’d take a canceled flight any day of the week over sitting on the tarmac for three-plus hours with a toddler in my lap. It’s worth noting that the DOT requires airlines to give passengers the option to deplane after three hours of tarmac time. (After two hours, all you earn is food, water, and a working bathroom. Bring on the pretzels.)

If You’re Not Seated With Your Children

Take a nap! Just kidding.
Sometimes the absence of airline regulations in the U.S. just boggles my mind. Case in point: There are no Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations that give children and their parents the right to sit together on an airplane. (As if the Tom Ford suit in the aisle wants to sit next to your four year old instead.)

In 2015, the house passed the Families Flying Together Act, a law that requires airlines to seat parents and children together. Unfortunately, the FAA has yet to write the regulations, and has no plans to do so soon. This continues to be a big issue, thanks in large part to airlines that charge you for choosing your seat (any seat) in advance, and airlines that charge you for “premium” seats. Premium seats vary per airline, but are often any towards the front of the plane, as well as any window and aisle seats. Gamble the system and wait for the airline to auto-assign you seats in order to avoid extra fees, and there’s a chance you and your family will be scattered in middle seats throughout the fuselage.

The reality is that you will likely get to sit together. Ticketing agents and flight attendants, especially flight attendants, want you to sit with your children. “Airlines ask the age of the child when you’re reserving seats not because a child gets a discount but in order to see if they will need to seat you together,” says Hobica.

Still, it’s important to book your family’s tickets under the same reservation number. (Why wouldn’t you? This sometimes happens when booking tickets from different point pools, or when single tickets produce cheaper fares.) If you don’t in the name of better ticket prices, call the airline and ask them to manually link your family’s reservation numbers together. And if you pass on reserving seats, call your airlines 24 hours before your flight and speak with an agent about seating.
No luck getting seated together? Talk with a ticketing agent at the airport.
No luck? Ask the flight attendant for help when you board the plane. (Yes, it can come to this.)

Southwest Airlines, which doesn’t assign seat numbers, makes it easy on families by allowing them to board between groups A and B (the first two boarding groups), pretty much guaranteeing that at least one parent and one child will sit together. On my most recent Southwest flight, when a mother and child boarded late and the side-by-side seats were all taken, a flight attendant cajoled passengers to move until they were able to sit together.

Flying To or From Europe

Along with raw-milk cheeses and (generally) free healthcare, Europe has another leg up on the United States. Thanks to Flight Compensation Regulation 261/2004, people traveling to, from, and within the EU on a European airline are entitled to compensation between €250 to €600 (that’s currently $283 to $679) for canceled flights, denied boarding due to overbooking, and delays that are longer than two hours. That’s not all: If you’re delayed for over two hours during a mealtime, you have a right to meal vouchers, as well as reimbursement for any essential calls. Finally, if your flight delay requires an overnight stay, the airline is required to pay for the hotel and the transportation to the hotel. All of this adds up to quite a few euros when you’re talking about a family of four.

While the EU is quite strict in its interpretation of these passenger rights, leaving very little wiggle room for airlines, you do have to file claims to get your compensation. If you have the time, you can follow step by step instructions like these from British Airways. If you’re shuttling your kids from school to soccer to Mandarin to robotics and want to outsource this work for a fee, there’s a cottage industry of claims specialists that can do the legwork for you.

So there you have it. You’re now an expert on your flight rights. Now, what do you do if your flight gets delayed or canceled? Click here for my tips.

What else should families know about their flight rights? Leave a comment below.