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Airline Screwed Up? Here’s How to Score Vouchers for Free Food and Hotels

In these increasingly frustrating times rife with travel delays, cancellations, and airport drama, there may be a silver lining to be found⁠—flight vouchers.

As a rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to build into your travel plans an emergency fund and purchase a travel insurance policy for additional protection. While these are both great to have (plus lounge access to avoid paying airport food and beverage prices), did you know that depending on the cause and length of your flight interruption, airlines can offer you vouchers to cover food, hotel, and transportation?

One thing we can all agree on as travelers is that flight interruptions are a major inconvenience. Especially for travelers who like to take overnight or weekend trips, or those traveling for a special occasion, any airline hiccup can completely upend plans. According to FlightAware, a website designed to track flights, a whopping 17,000 flights were delayed over the July 4 weekend, with around 1,400 being canceled altogether. These kinds of mishaps can not only have you rearranging the itinerary but can also cost hundreds of dollars due to missed activities and new unexpected travel expenses.

The United States Department of Transportation states, “There are no federal laws requiring airlines to provide passengers with money or other compensation when their flights are delayed. Each airline has its own policies about what it will do for delayed passengers.” This means you are frequently at the airline’s mercy. In fact, most airline websites provide elusive responses about what can be done outside of flight re-arrangements. However, whether experiencing a delay or cancellation, you do have some options. Try asking your gate agent for the following types of vouchers if you find yourself amid a flight interruption fiasco.

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Will Airlines Feed You During Flight Interruptions?

The amount of time required for a delay to receive any kind of action starts around 3-4 hours. If you find yourself getting a little hangry around the 3-4 hour point of a delay, ask the gate agent if they can provide a meal voucher. Meal vouchers are only valid on the day of travel and can be used at any restaurant at the airport. They are not valid for the purchase of alcohol and are issued per ticketed passenger. You won’t be able to order a five-course meal, but you can get a decent bite to eat from somewhere like a pizzeria or burger joint. Typically, vouchers are not issued for weather-related delays or cancellations, however, if you ask nicely, the gate agent may be willing to help. I have experienced this firsthand with Delta.

You’ll Need a Place to Sleep

Airports are no comfy place for all-night sleeping. Although there are lounges and pod rentals available, these are not accessible at every airport. Much like meal vouchers, hotel vouchers are typically not issued for interruptions due to weather. However, when applicable, airlines have partnerships with nearby hotels to offer a complimentary night via a hotel/lodging voucher.

For instance, American Airlines states that “If the disruption is our fault or you’re diverted to another city, and we don’t board before 11:59 p.m. local time on your scheduled arrival day, we’ll arrange an overnight stay or cover the cost of an approved hotel, if available.” But passengers flying with the airline Frontier are governed by a different contract of carriage. On their website, Frontier states that with uncontrollable situations, they do not offer compensation other than rebooking passengers on the next available flight. It depends on the carrier.

If you do get a voucher, much like any other hotel stay, you will be able to enjoy the full amenities offered at that hotel (a bonus if you are comped at a hotel where you have status and can accumulate points). The check-in process is the same as a standard stay, which means you will need to provide a credit or debit card to cover the incidentals. This amount is refundable without any damages and/or room charges during your stay.

What About Delayed or Lost Bags?

Last year, I was left scrounging to repurchase clothing and toiletries as my luggage was lost in transit and then sent to an incorrect address. Southwest informed me that I could be reimbursed for the new items purchased by submitting receipts via their claims process. This should be done (if at all possible) within 4 hours of arrival and at the airport by visiting the airline’s baggage office. Other airlines such as Delta, and United Airlines have similar policies.

Are Other Vouchers Available?

I have witnessed myriad things at ticket counters that I did not know were possible. In one such scenario at a Southwest Counter, a passenger shared that her husband had run out of medication, and being stuck at the airport (for a second day) was putting him at serious risk for medical complications. The agent issued a medication voucher that allowed them to purchase the medication he needed at the nearby pharmacy. You can also ask for transportation vouchers for a taxi, shuttle, or ride-share service to and from the airport.

Be Prepared

In any situation, you can prepare for flight delays but giving yourself extra time at the airport and trying to book activities the day after scheduled arrival. The same goes for return flights padding a day or two before returning to work and other adulting activities. Pack plenty of snacks and entertainment.

Most of us probably immediately scroll to the bottom of the page and click “agree to terms” without reading the fine print. It’s in this fine print that our legal rights as passengers lie. It’s a good idea to take the time to read the contract of carriage at least once to be sure you are not leaving any money on the table during your travel adventures.

Bonus tip: if you booked with a credit card, some cards (such as Citi AA Advantage Executive World Elite Mastercard or Chase Sapphire Reserve) offer compensation for trip interruptions. Above all, remember that airline workers care about your safety. Always be kind!