The European Union has the most consumer friendly policies when it comes to what passengers are entitled to in the event that their flight is significantly delayed or canceled. For example, if your long haul flight is delayed by at least four hours, you could be entitled to 600 Euro cash, which is huge. In this post I wanted to go over everything you need to know about how this policy works.
What is EU261 flight delay compensation?
Regulation 261/2004 (commonly referred to as EU261) is the European Union’s official rule that dictates what airlines owe passengers in the event of flight delays or cancelations. This can include everything from cash compensation, to hotels, to meal vouchers. This is truly the most generous protection you’ll find anywhere in the world when it comes to airline passenger rights.
Europe flight delay compensation basics
Under what circumstances are you entitled to compensation in Europe if your flight is delayed or canceled? As you might expect, this can be difficult to understand at times, since rules differ based on the airline you’re flying with, the cause of the delay, etc. In this post I’ll go over all the details.
Which airlines & countries are covered by EU261?
EU261 rules apply in the following situations:
- If you are traveling from a European Union airport on any airline
- If you are traveling to a European Union airport on a European Union-based airline
In other words:
- If you’re flying from Frankfurt to Newark, EU261 would apply regardless of whether you’re traveling with Lufthansa or United
- If you’re flying from Newark to Frankfurt, EU261 would only apply on Lufthansa, and not on United (since United isn’t a European Union-based airline)
A couple more things to note:
- Even though Norway and Switzerland aren’t in the European Union, EU261 applies for these countries as well; furthermore, the United Kingdom has separate rules that are almost identical to EU261
- You’re only eligible for EU261 coverage if you have a confirmed reservation, and are traveling on a revenue or award ticket (in other words, staff travel or other industrial discount tickets don’t qualify)
How much money is EU261 compensation?
The amount of cash compensation you’re entitled to under EU261 varies based on the length of the flight… sort of:
- If your flight covers a distance of under 1,500km (930 miles), you’re entitled to 250 Euro compensation if you’re delayed by at least two hours
- If your flight covers a distance of 1,500-3,500km 930-2,200 miles), you’re entitled to 400 Euro compensation if you’re delayed by at least three hours
- If your flight covers a distance of over 3,500km (2,200 miles), you’re entitled to 600 Euro compensation if you’re delayed by at least four hours
So as you can see, the longer the flight, the longer the delay has to be in order to get compensated. However, you’re also potentially going to get more compensation.
There are a couple more details to be aware of:
- A delay is calculated based on the time that you arrive at your gate and the doors open, rather than based on when you touch down at your destination
- Furthermore, the delay is calculated based on how late you reach your final destination; in other words, if you’re flying from Berlin to Frankfurt to New York, and your Berlin to Frankfurt flight is delayed by an hour and causes you to miss your connecting flight and arrive in New York at least four hours late, you’d be entitled to cash compensation
Which delays qualify for EU261 compensation?
If you’re looking for compensation through EU261, you’re entitled to that for any delay or cancelation that isn’t due to “extraordinary circumstances.” The issue is that this can be a bit of a gray area, and airlines have been known to play games. That’s because what constitutes “extraordinary circumstances” isn’t explicitly defined.
As a general rule of thumb:
- Weather delays, air traffic control delays, delays due to strikes, delays due to political instability, etc., would be considered extraordinary circumstances, so EU261 compensation wouldn’t apply
- A mechanical problem, a late inbound aircraft, a crew-related delay, etc., wouldn’t be considered extraordinary circumstances, so EU261 compensation would apply
Do flight cancelations qualify for EU261 compensation?
Not only does the above compensation apply if your flight is delayed, but it also applies if it’s canceled. EU261 compensation applies in the event that your flight is canceled within 14 days of departure. If your flight is canceled further out than that, then the compensation wouldn’t apply.
Furthermore, as is the case with delays, extraordinary circumstances are excluded from being eligible for compensation.
How do you claim EU261 compensation?
Claiming EU261 compensation is potentially the tricky part, as airlines often do everything in their power to get out of paying this compensation. There are two general ways you can approach this:
- You can contact the airline to try to claim EU261 compensation, and some airlines have forms on their websites through which this can be done
- You can use a third party service that helps consumers with this, though they usually take a significant cut; I’ve never used one of these so can’t personally vouch for any, but you can easily find them online
I’d always recommend doing everything in your power to request the compensation directly, so you can keep the entire amount. If you’re going to claim EU261 compensation, a few things to keep in mind:
- This isn’t something you need to do at the airport, so don’t take this up with airport staff, but rather take it up with customer relations after the fact
- I’d recommend keeping as much documentation as possible, including taking pictures of the flight status page reflecting the delay, keeping boarding passes, etc.
- Expect that airlines may try to do everything in their power to get out of paying this compensation; this can include claiming that there were “extraordinary circumstances,” just not responding for a long time, etc.
Does EU261 cover hotels & meals?
Not only does EU261 offer cash compensation in the event of a delay or cancelation, but it also offers passengers other forms of assistance, including:
- Hotel accommodation in the event of an overnight delay, including transport to & from the hotel
- Meals and refreshments
- Two telephone calls or emails
This should be offered proactively in the event of a significant delay or cancelation. There’s no promise of how efficiently any of this will be offered, though. For example, if you have a flight canceled at an outstation (non-hub airport), you might have two agents trying to work on hotels for hundreds of passengers, which could take hours. So be prepared to be patient.
What’s also nice is that the duty of care applies even if the delay or cancelation is due to extraordinary circumstances. So if your flight is delayed overnight due to weather, you’d still be owed a hotel room.
Should EU261 compensation impact how you plan travel?
As I said, EU261 is the most consumer friendly government regulations out there when it comes to flight delays and cancelations. In the United States, airlines can delay your flight by 12 hours or cancel your flight, and you’re entitled to exactly zero dollars compensation. So it’s great to see that in at least some part of the world there’s some protection for consumers.
EU261 compensation certainly makes me feel less frustrated in situations where my flight is delayed or canceled. But I think there’s also an interesting angle here in general, which might put consumers at ease.
Many European airports have unrealistically short minimum connection times, and then they encourage passengers to book very short connections. Often people will misconnect, though perhaps one silver lining here is that you could end up getting EU261 compensation.
As mentioned above, the length of the delay is measured based on how late you arrive at your final destination. Say you’re flying Lufthansa from Chicago to Munich to Berlin with a 45 minute connection. If your Chicago to Munich flight is delayed by an hour (causing you to misconnect), and you end up being rebooked on another flight that gets you to Berlin more than four hours late, you’d be entitled to 600 Euro cash compensation.
That certainly takes the sting out of misconnecting a bit…
The European Union has the most consumer friendly rules that you’ll find anywhere in the world when it comes to flight delays and cancelations. Under EU rules, you’re entitled to 600 Euro in cash compensation in the event that you’re traveling long haul and arrive at your destination at least four hours behind schedule.
While there are some terms to be aware of, in many ways the rules are as good as they sound. Actually getting an airline to pay, especially in a timely manner, could be a different story, though.
Hopefully the above is a useful rundown of how EU261 works. While there’s a bit more nuance, I tried to strike the right balance between keeping this brief and easy, and being thorough.
Have you ever been able to get EU261 compensation? If so, what was your experience like?