If you’re heading to Europe this summer, it might make more sense to book your flight with a European carrier rather than with a U.S. airline. The reason: If your flight is delayed or canceled or if your luggage is lost, European airlines by law have much more generous compensation policies.
Joanna Goodman, an author based in London, found that out the hard way. On a recent trip to Las Vegas, she departed from London on Virgin Atlantic, the British airline. She connected to a Delta flight in New York, and when she landed in Las Vegas, she says she discovered that the airline had lost her luggage, so she had to shop for clothes.
A week later, when returning to London, Goodman had more problems. Delta rebooked her Las Vegas-New York flight to the following day, causing her to miss her connection in New York to the Virgin Atlantic flight. As a result, she had to spend an extra night in a hotel—another out-of-pocket cost.
“I didn’t even get a voucher for a meal, and there was no help or guidance with finding a hotel,” she says. Goodman plans to file a claim with Delta for her clothing and hotel expenses. Delta wouldn’t comment to Consumer Reports on how it handles such situations but referred us instead to its website to review its policies.
If Goodman had flown Virgin Atlantic all the way to Las Vegas instead—which was an option—and if she had experienced the same bad luck, the extra costs she incurred would have been much lower. Virgin would have paid for the hotel up front, and she would have known how much the airline would reimburse her for clothing and other expenses.
“The way passengers are handled on European Union carriers and U.S. carriers can be dramatically different,” says Charlie Leocha, chairman of Travelers United, a passenger advocacy organization.
As Goodman discovered, European airlines tend to have more straightforward and generous consumer protections than U.S. carriers no matter where they fly in the world. These protections also cover all airlines leaving Europe, for the first leg of the flight, regardless of destination. So it’s important to pay attention to the policy your airline is required to follow when things go wrong and how clearly those rules are disclosed.
The Department of Transportation provides guidelines for what U.S. carriers may do in situations such as delays or lost luggage. But in most cases, it’s up to the airline to decide how to compensate you, if at all.
By contrast, if you’re traveling on a European airline—or a U.S. airline flying within or leaving Europe—European Union legislation provides well-defined rules on compensation. So if your luggage is lost or your flight is delayed or canceled, you’ll know how much the airline will reimburse you, which is helpful information before you start spending.
An example: If you’re traveling to Europe and your flight is delayed by 3 hours or longer, there are no U.S. regulations for what accommodations airlines must provide you, Leocha says. But if the same situation occurs on a European carrier, you would be entitled to receive a minimum of 600 euros (about $736), plus food and accommodations if necessary.
“Travelers may want to consider the differences in the rules before purchasing a ticket,” Leocha says.
What You Should Know
To help you weigh the risks before you book your next flight, here’s how American and European airlines would compensate you for these common passenger problems:
Your Flight Is Delayed or Canceled
On a European carrier. Under European Air Passenger Rights legislation, if there is a delay of longer than 3 hours or your flight is canceled because of the fault of your carrier—and not because of adverse weather, air traffic control, or, say, security risks—a European airline will compensate you 250 euros (about $310), 400 euros (about $496), or 600 euros (about $736), depending on the distance of your flight. It will also pay to cover the cost of a hotel room, transportation between the hotel and the airport, refreshments, and food.
On a U.S. carrier. If you travel from the U.S to Europe on a U.S. airline, you are not covered by European rules. Instead, you can make a claim directly to the airline. American Airlines says it will “make a reasonable effort to ensure you get food, water, restroom facilities, and basic medical assistance.” JetBlue says that for its international flights, it may, if you request, give you a meal or hotel voucher, but your flight must be delayed by 6 hours or longer.
If you are traveling from Europe to the U.S. on an American carrier, you will be covered under European rules. But if you make a connection once you’ve arrived in the U.S., you will no longer be covered by European policies and American rules apply.
If the Airline Loses Your Luggage
On a European carrier. You’ll be reimbursed for items you need to buy, such as clothing, up to a specified amount depending on how far you traveled. You are not required to show proof of the value of the contents of your suitcase. If you aren’t satisfied with the response from the airline, you can file a claim with the specific European country where the problem occurred. In Europe, you’re entitled to compensation of up to 1,220 euros (about $1,512) per passenger.
On a U.S. carrier. In the U.S., the maximum airlines say they’ll pay for luggage lost on an international flight is $1,627, under the Montreal Convention, an international treaty that governs airline liability. But there are no guarantees. The airline can still dispute your claim or pay less, so it’s important to file a proper claim.
If You Are Bumped Against Your Will From a Flight
On a European carrier. You are entitled to be reimbursed for the cost of the ticket, rerouted or rebooked for a future date.
On a U.S. carrier. The Department of Transportation requires that the airline compensate you for 200 percent of the one-way fare (capped at $675) for flights arriving 1 to 2 hours late, or 400 percent of the one-way fare (capped at $1,350) for flights arriving more than 2 hours late.
If the Airline Downgrades You
On a European carrier. There are set procedures. You’re entitled to prompt reimbursement of between 30 and 75 percent of the price you paid for your ticket, depending on the length of the flight.
On a U.S. carrier. There are no hard rules from the Department of Transportation, but there are policies buried deep in the airlines’ contracts of carriage. American says it will refund the difference in fares—for example, if you were downgraded from business to economy. But Delta only promises that you “may” be entitled to a partial refund.
European Airline Issues
It’s possible that you’ll run into other problems. For instance, if you booked your flight from the U.S. to Europe on an American carrier but the U.S. airline has a code-share agreement (where two or more airlines share the same flight) with a European carrier and you end up on that flight, it might not be clear to you which regulations apply. In such a situation, according to the European Commission’s website, the carrier you paid for your ticket is not responsible. Instead, your rights are governed by the airline that operated the flight, in this case, the European carrier.
Keep in mind that while the rules on European airlines are typically more generous than on U.S. airlines, there are times when a problem on a European carrier may not be easily resolved. If that happens, there is a standard form that you can complete and submit to the airline. If you haven’t received a reply within six weeks or if the response is unsatisfactory, you can use this same form to file a complaint with the national enforcement body in the member state where the problem occurred.
This article originally published in ConsumerReports.com.
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