I knew something was up when my flight hadn’t started boarding even though we were supposed to depart in 35 minutes. Next thing I knew, the gate agents were announcing a mechanical delay of “at least two hours, but it could be longer”. All said and done, we left Amsterdam more than four hours late. That’s frustrating, and in many cases disruptive, but at least I was eligible to file an EU flight delay claim.
Regulation EC 261/2004, better known as EU 261, establishes compensation and protection for travelers who experience flight delays, cancellations, or denied boarding for travel in the European Union. It’s meant to hold airlines accountable for delays that were in their control.
This is a big deal: long delays and cancellations can lead up to 600 euros in compensation!
Today I’m focusing on the flight delay portion of EU 261 because I think it’s the most common aspect of the regulation.
To start, consider these main takeaways:
- If you are flying to or from the EU (or even just connecting through there) and there is a flight delay of 3+ hours, you may be eligible for compensation. You can wait until it specifically happens to you to ask the airline for a print-out of your rights…as long as you know to request it!
- Compensation only applies if the delay was based on something in the airline’s control, so things like bad weather do not count.
- If the airline preemptively offers you something, make sure it is the best you are eligible for so you don’t accidentally disqualify yourself from a better offer.
- Save all paperwork including boarding passes, ticket numbers, and any expense receipts from the delay in case you need it to file a claim.
As long as you understand the general concept, you can always look into the fine details later!
So, What Financial Compensation is There for EU Flight Delays?
The amount of compensation depends on how long the delay is and how far you are flying.
Keep in mind: if the airline rebooks you on a different flight that’s on a similar schedule to your original flight, you might not be eligible for compensation. On the bright side, you got to your destination as expected!
Some of the Major Fine Print
As far as I’m concerned, some of the fine print is perfectly reasonable. You, the traveler, need to be traveling on a publicly available fare and you need to check in properly and show up at the airport for the airport.
The biggest piece of fine print: the delay had to have been caused by something fully in the airline’s control. Weather DOES NOT COUNT. If there’s an outage with air traffic control systems, it does not count. If baggage staff are on strike, it does not count.
The fine print that everyone overlooks:
- Only E.U. based airlines are required to uphold EU 261 for flights to Europe (like New York – Frankfurt)
- All airlines flying from Europe (like Frankfurt – New York) are bound by EU 261
- If you’re connecting through Europe, you have to break it up by segment (like New York – Frankfurt – Johannesburg; each segment may fall under different rules)
What does that mean? If you fly to Europe on an airline like Lufthansa or Iberia, you’re covered in both directions. But if you’re flying on an airline like Delta or United, you’re only covered when you depart Europe.
There are also mixed reports of receiving compensation when a flight may only be delayed an hour or two but that causes you to miss a connection and it dominoes to 4+ hours overall. In theory, this counts as long as everything was on a single reservation (not separate tickets), but I’ve read accounts of airlines wiggling out of it if multiple airlines are involved.
For cases that aren’t clear cut, you may want to look into hiring a legal service to help you. Websites like AirHelp can file claims, and in some cases fight in court on your behalf. In exchange they take a ~25% cut of your compensation.
In my case, the airline handled the in-airport experience quite poorly. Gate agents flat-out refused to rebook anyone who knew they’d miss their connection because of the delay, which meant most travelers just sat in the airport worrying about how they’d get home.
The smartest travelers were proactive: the airline website and app allowed free rebookings if you did it independently and for complicated rebookings (like mine), phone agents were available and helpful. Remember, no one will advocate for you better than yourself!
>>>>> Related Post: 8 Secrets to Coping with Flight Delays
Additionally, EU261 states that airlines are supposed to provide food and drink during flight delays. In my case, the airline came around with cookies. That’s not a great substitute for a real meal — not to mention there was no beverage to speak of. Theoretically, I could have put up a fight or been refunded for the $13 I spent on food and drink at the airport during the delay, but that wasn’t worth my energy.
Also worth noting: when I arrived in Newark, I had an automated email from the airline saying “We’re sorry. Click here to accept compensation.” I was happy to have an immediate acknowledgement of the issue, but disappointed when I was offered $100 in vouchers or 5,000 miles. EU 261 offers far more than that, as long as you know to ask for it!
How to File an EU Flight Delay Claim
Like all complaints, you’re best off by sticking to the facts and keeping things polite. You’ll want to share pertinent information without rambling and include back-up materials whenever possible (like screenshots and receipts). No matter what, don’t lose your temper. You want them to sympathize with you to keep the process as quick and painless as possible.
In general, you’ll probably have the best luck dealing with someone in person before you ever leave the airport. Airport staff are usually already aware of the delay, so there’s less to catch them up on and in clear cut cases, you may leave the airport with cash in hand. However, none of the agents at my departure or arrival airport were willing to help me, so I had to reach out by email instead.
Sample EU Flight Delay Claim Letter
I was recently on Flight 456 from YYY-ZZZ on July 1 (Record locator ABC123 and ticket number 0123456789). The flight departed over 4 hours late, due to a mechanical issue. Both ground staff and flight crew acknowledged the technical problems and delays and confirmed we were eligible for compensation. Therefore, I am writing to formally request compensation under EC 261/2004. A check may be mailed to the address submitted with this form.
A screenshot of our departure delay (from the airline app) is attached.
As always, I appreciate all of the excellent service I receive on Preferred Airline.
(You can also fill out and attach this complaint form if you’d like to cover all bases).
I got an auto-response that someone would get back to me in 7 business days, which felt like an eternity. Sure enough, in less than a week, someone acknowledged that I qualified for compensation under EU 261 and gave me several options:
- 600 euros, as expected, paid by check in 4-6 weeks
- US $900 in airline vouchers, sent within 24 hours
- 27,500 airline miles (which I valued at about $400)
I chose the vouchers, since I was 100% confident I could use them and wanted the immediate payout rather than having to keep track of records for another six weeks until I got a check in the mail. For many people, the cash may be the best option since there are no expiration dates or strings attached.
When is it worth it to use a service to file your flight delay claim?
Filing a claim usually costs 25% of your compensation, so it’s obviously tempting to file yourself. However, a service is very motivated to fight hard on your behalf (since they only get paid if you do), which might mean you get something instead of nothing. On top of that, they know precisely who to talk to and how to make sure an airline doesn’t try to wiggle out through a loophole or a “he-said-she-said” type argument. Plus, they’ll go to court if they have to…something I’m sure you won’t do on your own.
My recommendation is AirHelp, for their easy to use interface and prompt communication.
Please Don’t Overlook the Value of Travel Insurance
Having travel insurance is always a good idea because it can help reimburse unexpected expenses even when EU 261 doesn’t kick in. Some of you may remember when I was stranded in Panama for 4 days while U.S. east coast airports were closed for snowstorms.
It will also reimburse costs like a rental car if you are rebooked into an alternate airport or the costs of buying a change of clothes if your luggage is left behind while you’re rebooked on a different airline.
Lastly, the airlines are not required to reimburse you for consequential losses, but insurance probably will cover you. So, if your flight is so delayed that you forfeited a night of prepaid hotel, contact your travel insurance.
I personally use and recommend RoamRight.
- Do You Need Travel Insurance?
- Traveling Smarter (Because Life Happens)
- My Experience Filing a Travel Insurance Claim
- Comparing FREE versus Paid Travel Insurance
Want to Hear More?
I give a brief overview on passenger rights in the European Union + my experience with an EU Flight Delay Claim on the Miles To Go Podcast!
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