When Your Flight Cancels, That Free Hotel Room From The Airline Isn’t Worth It, Do This Instead

When your flight is delayed and you miss your connection, or your flight cancels and you’re stuck in the airport on the way home, your airline will often provide you with a hotel room. Most airlines have committed to the government that they will do so when the reason you’re stuck in the airport is their fault – like lack of flight crew or mechanical problems, but not weather or air traffic control issues.

The truth is, though, you’re probably not going to like the process. You’re getting what you pay for.

  • You may have to way in a very long time to get a room, eating into the time you’re able to sleep
  • Even airlines that will provide you a room automatically through their app may not have any rooms available (at their discount rate) to provide you
  • Or they may overbook the hotel they’re sending you too
  • And it’s probably not a place you’d want to stay to begin with

I was reminded of what you get – not everyone has higher standards but many readers do – with this person sharing their room near the Charlotte airport.

This is what you get after waiting an hour in line.

And the quality of accommodations is hardly an outlier.

American Airlines flight attendants have complained of being stuck sleeping at the airport and a pilot was stuck sleeping in a hotel lobby. What chance do you think passengers have?

Yet this isn’t just a U.S. airline issue. Air Canada has sent a man and a woman, who didn’t know each other, to a hotel to share a room. And in China, Hainan Airlines put passengers up in an S&M-themed hotel.

So what do you do instead?

  1. Rely on your credit card coverage. Pay for your ticket with a credit card that offers trip delay coverage, book your own room and save receipts for it, along with ground transportation and meals. If the airline is offering you a room that could obviate coverage, but if they never offer…

    You’re assured the property you are comfortable staying in. You won’t wait. And you can look farther afield if need be. Sure, airport hotels might well all be booked. But if you aren’t spending an hour in line to get the room is a 20 minute drive away from the airport (also billed to trip delay coverage) so bad?

  2. Request a distressed passenger rate. If you don’t have credit card trip delay coverage, and you can’t find a good rate on your own that you’re willing to pay, one alternative to the long line may be the baggage office. Ask there about distressed passenger rates for hotels. If the line is long at your airline’s baggage office, or it isn’t staffed, be friendly and ask at another airline’s baggage office.

  3. Use points. Airline hotels often are great deals on points, with reward costs based on a hotel’s average daily rate which tends to be brought down by large airline contracts for housing crew. A few thousand points from your stash can get you a far better night’s sleep, more quickly, than relying on the airline.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Sage advice!

    This reminded me of a mechanical in OKC that I had. I rebooked my flight on the phone right as they announced it (not waiting in line) and then Ubered into downtown OKC – found a hotel and hit a brewery. I had a beer in hand less than an hour after cancellation. I heard from my seatmates the next morning that it took hours to get a room, get to the hotel, and there was no food. In the end AS reimbursed me for for food, lodging, and uber. And I had a much better experience than most everyone else.

  2. Bonus: Credit card coverage will work for weather delays. Airlines love using weather delays as an excuse to get out of their obligations to passengers (i.e. the crew was coming from someplace that had weather issues, therefore your flight from sunny LA to sunny Hawaii is delayed due to weather). Airlines will be happy to provide a document that says you had a weather delay and allow you to get reimbursement directly from insurance.

  3. You raise some excellent issues. I generally book award flights with my CSP since the card specifically covers awards where other cards won’t cover you.

    I do think that there’s a lot of YMMV on whether to accept the free room. I was on an AA segment run in December and got stuck in CLT due to a mechanical. I had planned on covering my own hotel but waited in the short customer service line to get a flight that would let me get six hours of sleep. The nice young lady not only changed me to the flight I wanted but voluntarily covered my stay at the Hyatt Place, transportation to the hotel, and a small food voucher. I was very pleased not to have to gather receipts and jump through hoops to recover my outlay.

  4. A lot of times, the length of the wait with the airline and the quality of the hotel will depend on the severity of the delay involved. If only your flight was impacted, the airlines are decent at providing assistance. If a widespread outage is involved, do not depend on the airlines as they will be just as overwhelmed as everyone else.

  5. After being sent to a hotel that was overbooked, and then I was moved around to *another* one that was overbooked but the manager made an exception, I vowed never to do that again.

    Time is my most valuable asset. As another reader pointed out, when this happens now and by the time other travelers even get a voucher, I’m already checked in and at the bar with a cold beer in my hand watching a sports game when I hear the shouting of frustrated travelers without a room halfway through the game.

    And to date, I get reimbursed anyway. 🙂

  6. I agree and will almost always book one of my favored hotel chains. However, one time my wife and I were shuffled off to some local hotel. The word was that rooms nearby were all sold out or very scarce. When the hotel shuttle driver arrived, he indicated that there were no rooms available. We all got on the shuttle to the hotel anyway. I was in the front seat and my wife was in the following row. I sent her a text: “When we arrive, you deal with the luggage and I’ll dash inside ahead of everyone else.” Incredibly, my wife read the text out loud. I was not the most favored person on the shuttle after that.

  7. Terrible idea ask another airline baggage office to help with distressed rates. Guaranteed not going to help. What should they? They will be having their own pax to deal with …..

  8. This is very good advice. One caveat that may impact some is that there are advantages to using an airline’s own card in terms of earnings. AA Loyalty Points as one example. So, this does present some tradeoffs.

    It would be great if US airlines would reimburse reasonable expenses in this case as is done elsewhere. We had a BA-booked flight cancelled by Iberia. BA changed the flight and agreed to pay for the overnight hotel. Took a while, but they did.


  9. Last time I was delayed on UA in Chicago they texted me a choice of 3 hotels. Picked one, got a taxi, was there is 20 min and in the room 10 minutes later, and the hotel was fine.

  10. I always get my own accommodations and don’t care about reimbursement. My comfort is more important and a few hundred dollars isn’t going to move the needle so shy even worry about it

  11. If the cancellation is airline’s fault, the airline is on the hook to provide accommodations. Sure I would prefer just go to a nice hotel and charge up to $500 room on my CSR but my understanding is that credit card travel protection is secondary and as such they may easily refuse the coverage citing that the passenger should have received a room through the airline. What is your opinion on that, Gary?

    In case of a weather delay airline is not on the hook and CC coverage will work but you will need to get an official reason from the airline. I understand it may be possible over email but if I’m about to book a $500 room, I would rather have this paper in my hands. Then guess what – still have to stand in that customer service line.

    Then there’s a gray area of what a CC will cover. They cover equipment issues and weather but for example they don’t officially cover lack of crew. Will they pay in this situation or not probably depends on the person processing the claim.

    I am currently going through an open claim with CSP. It is extremely slow and painful process with Chase’s insurance, each response from them takes about two weeks and they’re extremely unprofessional as they don’t properly review the documents already submitted and request the same thing again. The claim is pretty small and includes a couple of meals and a rental car we took instead of waiting for the flight 24 hours later and I consider the process an interesting educational experience but I clearly see how it is designed to encourage normal people just give up on this effort.

  12. @Alex A why even worry? Maybe I’m just an old white 1%er but my last consideration is reimbursement! My stock portfolio moves then of thousands (sometimes over a hundred thousand) a day. A few hundred dollars for hotel, even if I could go through the effort to get reimbursed, just isn’t worth my time.

  13. @Retired Gambler – I am glad you’re doing well but that’s not the subject here. Gary is advising to forego airline provided coverage and use CC. My response is that while I agree that CC coverage gives more flexibility and better choices, one doing this must be ready to a lengthy and tiring process of claiming the reimbursement from CC and potentially get denied. Tell the people to go get a great hotel and get the money back from CC – they will do it. Tell them that they may never see this money again – they will stand in customer service line for an hour.

  14. @Alex – Insurance companies are, in general, not in the business of paying out claims. Allianz, who Chase and a number of other issuers use, is similar. That said, the online claims process was fine. I generally got responses within a day and what they requested was reasonable. Tedious? Yes. But no more tedious than having to deal with an airline during IRROPS.

  15. @ Gary — For elites, book your own room and be happy you are getting the elite credit you need for the year anyway.

  16. @Adam L – YMMV, I guess. I’m dealing with the claim from travel on Jan 2. Still in progress. And yes, I know well about insurance companies but I’m meticulous enough to usually get what I’m owed. I’ll get there on this claim is well but the path isn’t pretty. Most of all it’s disturbing how unprofessional the claim processor is.

  17. It’s a lesson for most of life. The less dependent you are on others, the better off you’re going to be. Even if it means shelling out a few bucks on your own.

  18. I agree with those that say take the lead and get your own room. Whenever I’ve done this, I’ve always been reimbursed by the airline afterwards. And @Gene, you’re right. No one is impressed.

  19. Last summer my return red eye flight from DEN was cancelled before I went to the airport. The waiting time for EXP line was about 2 hrs and I simply booked another night at Thompson Denver where I was staying. After that I twitted AA and they reimbursed me not the full price but something like $190.

  20. As a couple of readers have already posted, I just get my own hotel room. If there’s no shuttle, I take a taxi. I haven’t had an issue in years, and now I have Chase Reserve, so I’d file a claim. No way am I going to dork around with an airline booking me a room in some disgusting place. The very first time I had to spend the night somewhere, Continental gave us a voucher for the Howard Johnson’s in Newark. I just threw it away and called the EWR Marriott. It was New Year’s Eve, and we had an $80 bottle of champagne with our dinner. Makes a great story; if you’re spending $350 for a room, might as well enjoy yourself. I mean, WTH, life is short, right?

  21. Not so much of an expert on this because — despite almost 100 flights a year — I very rarely get stranded. Like once ever 5 years or so. The odds that you’ll be stranded by an airline — especially where it’s their fault and they will pay for a hotel room — is small. It is extremely small if you fly nonstop and avoid the last flights of the day.

    That said, like everything else with travel, what you should do if this happens depends on the situation. So it’s hard to give advice on how to respnd. Emergency hotel rooms can be expensive, or non-existent. I would obviously try to get the airline to give me a free room if getting that room didn’t involve a lot of hassle. If there was hassle, I’d try alternative strategies, including trying to use hotel loyalty points to pay for the room. If you do get stranded, and you have to pay for your room, make sure to complain in writing to the airline. I have found the US airlines to be very accomodating these days to legitimate complaints. They’ll usually provide you with reasonable compensation for your trouble.

  22. I think it is good advice to get your own room and seek reimbursement from the airline/card, but the last time this happened to me, though I had to wait a while in line, UA did treat me well, with two nights at (I think) the LAX Marriott, with food vouchers to get through until the following evening, since it was a 24 hour delay. However, I think it was being a Plat, flying in business class, and doing this in the UA lounge, that made the difference. Most airlines seem to take much better care of their elites, and people flying business or first, in IRROPS, and that is one of the very real advantages of being one or being in J.

  23. I only flew 12 times last year, but I got stranded quite a bit, being at the mercy of a racing schedule during the spring and summer. But from the time I had my first delay over 30 minutes (turned into 36 hours), I was polite and asked Delta people for help and tried to understand the situation. I was NEVER pointed towards a phone to solve my problems. I was ALWAYS helped. I did feel terrible once when I used my free upgrade to first class on an ATL-MKE flight that got canceled because of crew issues and some passengers slept in the airport with a paper blanket while others (myself included) were put up in a nice hotel downtown, but so much about flying for me is dependent on how nice you are to ticketing and gate agents. Maybe having even the baby Amex card and utilizing Skymiles helped, but wow. My experience has been very different.

  24. I got bumped on Delta. They gave me a Marriott Courtyard. Took a $26 Uber and slept in my own bedroom instead.

  25. Condor. Morning flight cancelled. Frankfurt Airport. Hotel was to be ready late afternoon. We took a cab, paid the day rate, ouch!, and arranged to stay in the same room. Saved lunch receipt. Everything got paid back within 3 months by the credit card.

    Shout out to the Steigenberger Frankfurt Airport. Everything worked, scrupulously clean, staff proactive and pleasant, great breakfast, far better than our experience at the Sheraton attached to the terminal. Cold shower. Really.

  26. In the USA when possible (without a long wait) ask for a “military excuse” document from the gate agents. This is good proof for things that are hard to prove to insurance companies later. For example, a random thunderstorm in NYC that screws up your DFW flight is hard to get proof of after you file the claim.

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