It seems like there’s an endless array of disasters just waiting in the wings to ruin your holiday sometimes, doesn’t it?

The recent failure of the UK’s National Air Traffic Service (NATS) resulted in thousands of flights being cancelled, leading to chaos.

Yet this isn’t the only reason for flights being cancelled. Over the last few months we’ve also had cancellations and delays due to extreme weather abroad (and in the UK). In addition, there’s been strike action by ground staff or air traffic control employees in other countries that resulted in grounded flights. Finally, political upheaval has meant some flight plans have had to dramatically change, adding on time to flight plans and resulting in… you guessed it… cancelations.

Why does this matter? If your flight is delayed or cancelled and your airline is EU or UK based, then after three hours delay you’re entitled to compensation. But only if the problem is the fault of the airline, or something that they could have anticipated and avoided, like their pilots going on strike.

In all of the other scenarios I mentioned, monetary compensation doesn’t apply. But that doesn’t mean the airline can wash its hands of you. Here’s a guide to your rights.

Your rights if your flight is grounded and it’s not the airline’s fault

Even though a situation might be out of the airline’s control, they still have an obligation to get you to your destination – as long as it’s safe to do so. This can involve putting you on one of their own flights or failing that, on that of a competitor.

Your airline may also offer you a refund, but don’t agree to this unless you’re happy to rebook yourself. Rebooking a flight will generally be more expensive in these situations, so I’d wait for your airline to rebook you.

But by far the biggest source of complaint that I hear is from people who tell me that they can’t get hold of their airline. So what do you do if you’ve not been given an alternative flight? Or if the options are rubbish?

As soon as your flight is cancelled, check online to see if your airline has any decent options. Failing that, check the competition. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has said if a flight is available on the day of travel, the passenger must be booked on it – even if it is on a rival airline. That makes things much quicker.

Some airlines are terrible at paying out refunds or compensation, so I’d take screenshots of your online searches and note down when you tried to call the company so you can prove you exhausted all options. If you use a credit card to book the replacement flight you may also have other protections further down the line with your card provider if the airline refuses to pay out.

You are also entitled to some support if you are stuck waiting for a flight, including:

  • Food and drink. Look for someone handing out vouchers but if you don’t see anyone then buy yourself and keep receipts. Aim cheap though.
  • A way for you to communicate with people about the situation. This is usually calls but I’d argue you could wrangle airport Wi-Fi and other communications costs out of this.
  • Free accommodation – but beware. If the airline isn’t around to organise this, think budget not five star.
  • Transport to and from the airport or accommodation. Again, this might apply to other destinations if you have to travel to or from a new airport. If there’s a train, get it. Airlines don’t like paying out for cabs.

Situations like this aren’t avoidable, but if it happens to you, I’d suggest having a couple of decent phone charging batteries and cables handy – your airline app and email will become vital sources of information. And keep a credit card handy for emergencies, if you do have to pay for accommodation or a new flight upfront.

Martyn James is a leading consumer rights campaigner, TV and radio broadcaster and journalist.

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