Surviving Holiday Travel

E-mail Lis

“Attention passengers, your flight has been cancelled.”

Those are the words that every traveler dreads. “Stephanie” has heard them so many times that she plans to never arrive at her destination on time anymore.

“One time I sat on a plane that didn't move for six hours. There was a mechanical problem that the crew kept trying to fix, but it resulted in the air conditioning and bathroom services being knocked out. There was no food because, after all, most airlines have cut out meal service. After six hours, the airline finally cancelled the flight and sent us home because the next flight wasn't until the morning. But they didn't pay for my extra $100 in cab fares and refused to put me in a hotel because I lived in the area. When I arrived back at the airport the next morning, the flight was delayed another four more hours. I literally spent two days traveling for what should have been a two and a half hour flight.”

Read more from Lis: "Merry Everything"

Does this story sound familiar? Unfortunately, Stephanie didn't know she had certain rights in this situation, as do all travelers who encounter unexpected delays and cancellations. And with millions of travelers expected to flood the airports this holiday season, it's important that everyone take a moment to learn about travel rights and obligations.

First, know what the airline should give you, if they cancel your flight. All airlines are required to have provisions — usually called Rule 240 — in their policies that apply when flights are cancelled. Under Rule 240, which applies when a delay is due to the airlines fault such as mechanical problems or schedule changes, the major airline carriers must try to book you on the next available flight, even at a competitor airline, at no extra charge.

For overnight cancellations, airlines must pay for your hotel room, meals and ground transportation. This also applies to delays lasting longer than four hours for diverted flights. Unfortunately, Rule 240 does not apply when delays are due to bad weather or other reasons beyond the airline's control.

Travelers are also due certain rights when bumped from flights. Airlines regularly overbook flights and can legally give your seat to a “higher priority” customer if no one voluntarily gives up their seat. In this situation, airlines must put you on the next available flight and reimburse you for the cost of your ticket if you arrive at your destination later than planned.

Passengers also have certain obligations when flying, especially with restrictions on carry-ons. Even though screening at the airports has relaxed a bit since August, mistakenly carrying a prohibited item can subject you to a $10,000 fine, as well as criminal and civil charges. Check with your airline or airport before getting into the security line.

Leave your valuables at home. Airline regulations prohibit compensation for almost any claim for damaged or lost property, especially for more expensive items like jewelry or laptops. If you must bring these items, bring them in a carry-on instead of putting them in checked luggage.

Since millions of people will also choose to travel by car this holiday season, here is a quick rundown of car rental rights.

A common question is whether renters should pay for the extra insurance car rental companies offer. There is no harm in paying for the extra insurance, but first you may want to consider reading your own car insurance policy to see if you are covered for any problems while driving a rental. Most insurance policies, and credit card companies as well, do provide supplemental insurance. However, it can vary by state and country, so read yours carefully before you turn down the expensive insurance options offered by rental car companies.

If you reserve a car but the company does not have one available when you show up, unfortunately there are no legal rights to fall back on. So, try joining a frequent rental club to raise your priority rating. Also, make sure to cancel reservations if you drop plans to rent a car, otherwise you may be liable to the company for the full rental price or penalties.

No matter how you choose to travel, there are general tips that apply to everyone. If you are using a travel agent, check them out first to make sure they are legitimate. Most states have strict laws on the regulation, registration, licensing, or bonding of travel sellers.

With all the precautions you can take, nothing is ever fool proof. You can't predict the weather or road conditions. So consider travel protection for large travel investments and property with a plan from a reputable provider. And if all else fails, start early and set aside a couple extra hours for getting to Grandma's house.

Read more from Lis: "Merry Everything"


Consumer Travel Rights Center

Know your car rental rights

Flights Canceled, Delayed and Rule 240

Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently a professor of law at the New York Law School. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.