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Your rights when a United flight is delayed or cancelled

by on Wed January 4, 2017 • 4 Comments


Delayed flights are incredibly frustrating, leaving you at the mercy of the airline when they strike. If you haven’t suffered through a bunch of them, you probably don’t know the full extent of what airlines like United will and won’t do when they strike.

Airlines rely on a ‘contract of carriage’ to define the bare minimum of what they will do in the case of a delay. In United’s case, the bare minimum is getting you on the next available United flight in your cabin of service if your flight is cancelled or you misconnect.

Basic flight delays aren’t covered by the contract, but United does have some policies that aren’t well publicized that might help you out.

Some of them are outlined in this briefing for travel agents, and we’ve interpreted them here to give you a sense of what you can expect from United, but beware these are policies that can change anytime. Armed with this knowledge, you can better negotiate a good outcome that gets you going faster, while other passengers are throwing fits at the counter.

If your expected arrival is delayed 1 – 2 hours…

You can change to the next available United flight. They’ll put you in any seat available in your original cabin, but if you’re in coach and only first class seats are available on the next flight, you won’t be able to get on that flight. Instead you can standby free of charge in case someone misses the flight.

Note: Your arrival time is what matters. For example if your departure time is 1 hour late, but the flight is still expected to arrive just 30 minutes late, you won’t be eligible for delay help.

If you’re stuck with a delay of 2 hours or more…

You can request airports within 500 miles of your original. For example, if you’re trying to get to Los Angeles, you can request airports within driving distance like San Diego and Las Vegas, but you’re on the hook for getting from the new airport to where you want to go. This allowance can open up options when you’re in dire straits, and agents don’t always look proactively at these options.

You can change your date up to 7 days later. If you just want to rest for a while and try again, you can rebook up to 7 days later without additional fares.

You can request airlines other than United. If no United flights are available in a reasonable timeframe (within 2 hours or so) they’ll first consider options on Star Alliance partners like Air Canada or Lufthansa, and then as a last resort may consider options on other carriers like Delta or American, but only if United or Star Alliance options aren’t available.

BEWARE THAT OTHER AIRLINES ARE ENTIRELY AT UNITED’S DISCRETION. So be polite when asking about these options, and they might not be able to book everything you see on other airlines. Sometimes other airlines won’t release the seats, and other times there might not be an agreement in place, or enough time to reach the other airline’s terminal. United will always put you on its own flights first if they are available.

You can get a refund and / or be sent back home. You can decide you want to give up, and get a full refund. If you’re in a connecting airport, United will fly you back to your starting airport for no additional charge.

What can you do to help?

Check the United app. If your flight is cancelled, you’ll often see options to rebook directly on the United app. The United app and site are free to use on inflight Wifi, so you can take care of some things before you even land.

Do your own research. If you don’t see a rebooking option on the United app, pull up on your phone and search for flights that you can suggest to a phone or airport agent. If you a seat for sale on and it’s in your cabin, there’s a good chance you can talk your way into getting booked on that flight.

Get on the phone. You might as well get in line on the phone (1-800-UNITED-1) before you get to an agent in the airport, and get help from the one that is ready first. In severe situations, United will activate its ‘Service Recovery Center’ on 1-877-826-0254. You might get through faster on that line than the regular United phone line.

Phone agents can do the same rebookings airport agents can, but they can’t offer up vouchers for meals or hotels.

Be patient. The agents you talk to don’t want your flight to be delayed. Air travel is unpredictable and things happen, but armed with the right information the best you can do is be specific and flexible with your requests. If you don’t get anywhere with a reasonable request, politely say no thanks, and try to seek out someone else – either a different phone agent or another airport representative. Asking to escalate things rarely helps.

Keep checking for better options. If you don’t like what you get at first, like an option two days later, keep checking the United site for flights that are for sale. During bad weather situations, seats are constantly changing hands as people rebook, miss flights, or give up altogether.

And that means if there were no options when your delay first hit, something better can open up an hour later. United isn’t going to check on your behalf once you’re rebooked, so it’s on you to keep looking, and request something new if you find it.

Will United hold a flight?

If you don’t reach the gate before the time that says ‘Boarding Ends’ on your boarding pass (that’s different than the ‘Departure’ time of your flight), United can and will remove you from the flight, even if boarding is still in process and the door is still open. The ‘Boarding Ends’ time is usually 15 minutes before the departure time of domestic flights and at least 30 minutes for international flights.

So it’s unlikely United will hold a flight if it’s not clear your connecting flight has arrived with enough time for you to reach the gate close to the ‘Boarding Ends’ time.

What about hotels and meals?

If your delay is mechanical, or due to something in United’s control, and you’re stuck overnight for four hours or more, you can request a hotel and meal voucher from the gate agent or customer service desk.

But if it’s due to weather, air traffic control, or crew delays caused by weather, you’re out of luck. All United can offer is a discounted rate for an airport hotel.

A good way to protect is to book your flight with a credit card that offers trip delay coverage. For example the Chase Sapphire Preferred will reimburse you up to $500 for delays of 12 hours or more, and the Citi Prestige will do the same for delays of just 3 hours.



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4 thoughts on Your rights when a United flight is delayed or cancelled

  1. tdc

    Our Flight was initially delayed due to a mechanical issue which was announced after we were on the plane. Then we were delayed because they couldn’t find an inspector to sign off on the repair. Then they couldn’t get the “paperwork” as they called it, to the plane. Then the Flight crew left the plane which caused yet another delay as we had to wait for a new crew to arrive. Over 2 hour delay, what can be done? the initial mechanical issue isn’t what the complaint is about, it’s everything after that. They had no clue what to do or how to handle the situation. All the while, the Captain kept telling us “just 5 more minutes” for the entire delay.


      @tdc – It’s a frustrating situation for everyone. You can write in and they’ll probably give you some voucher good for dollars off a future flight. Next time, since it’s mechanical, you could check on the phone or your phone’s browser to see if there are other flights on United or another airline that get you in earlier. When it’s mechanical they’re more wiling to rebook you on the spot. But with a 2 hour delay it’s unlikely something else would have got you there sooner. It’s those 4 hour plus delays where that helps out.

  2. Jeannie

    United canceled my afternoon flight and rebooked me on an evening flight. That one was delayed several times yesterday. Finally we were all told the plane would not fly last night but to return this morning and our flight would leave at 9. At 5:25 am, that flight was canceled and I was rebooked on a flight leaving two hours later. Within minutes I was rebooked on one leaving 8 hours later–30 hours after my original flight. At that point I had no choice but to drive to New York from North Carolina. I believe I will be refunded; I said I needed to cancel completely and get my money back. United agreed, but what about being compensated for a sleepless night, rental car, 12 hours on the road, and missing a very important meeting? Should I ask for additional compensation beyond a refund?


      @Jeannie – Sounds like a terrible situation. Weather in New York was a mess last night – waves of storms even past midnight that made it unsafe for flights to operate as scheduled. That probably trapped the plane scheduled for your morning flight. Next time one option is to ask United to try to get you on another airline like American that might not have the same delay, though all the airlines had problems last night.

      When weather is involved there’s really not much they can do since it’s not something they control. So they rebook you for free, or let you refund like you did. Writing in you might get a gesture of goodwill, but unfortunately don’t expect much. If it were a mechanical problem on their part, then you may get more compensation.

      Also next time keep an eye out for ‘weather waivers’ that let you change plans ahead of time. United had one before yesterday to let people try to get out early for free, or book the next day before flights got full.


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