How EU261 Compensation Works: How and When It Protects You

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How EU261 Compensation Works
Updated June 20, 2024
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I love to fly, but it can be a challenging way to travel when weather, mechanical issues, or other situations occur. A recent study found that departure delays cost passengers billions of dollars in extra travel time every year.

So, what happens when your flight is delayed or canceled? When your travel involves a European airport, it’s possible to get compensation for the inconvenience thanks to a rule known as EU261.

In this article

What is EU261?

While there have been attempts to create a robust passengers’ bill of rights in the U.S., there is no standard for compensation at present when your flight is delayed or canceled. For those of us who travel to and from Europe, though, we have certain rights thanks to EU261.

This law sets a standard for compensation and care provided by airlines to passengers when traveling to, from, or within the European Union (EU). The compensation varies based on when a passenger was notified and how much they’re affected by the delay or cancellation.

When and why EU261 was passed

In February 1991, Council Regulation (EEC) 295/91 was passed to establish common rules for passenger compensation when they were denied boarding. But because "the number of passengers denied boarding against their will remain(ed) too high" even under that regulation, the European Union decided to take further action.

It passed EU261 in February 2004 to enhance passenger rights and "raise the standards of protection" for travelers. If you’re departing from an EU-member country's airport or traveling to one, you may be covered by EU261, depending on which airline is operating your flight.

Who is eligible for EU261?

The good news is you don't have to be a citizen of an EU-member country to be eligible for compensation under EU261. As long as you’re flying on an airline governed by the law, you’re entitled to its benefits.

If you’re denied boarding, the operating airline must fully inform you of your rights so you can effectively make a decision based on your available options. EU261 expressly states that passengers are covered by these protections whether they’re using cash, airline miles, or a ticket purchased as part of a travel package.

Which flights are covered under EU261

Airlines are subject to EU261 depending on the departure and arrival airport. All EU-based airlines are subject to EU261 if the flight departs or arrives from an EU airport. Non-EU airlines have to comply with this law based on where they’re flying to or from:

  • Intra-European: for flights between two EU-member countries, all flights are covered by EU261, no matter where the airline is from.
  • Arrivals from outside the EU: Passengers are covered only when the flight is operated by an EU-based airline.
  • Departures from the EU: All flights departing the EU are subject to EU261, no matter the operating airline.

Be aware that when you buy a ticket, whether with cash or miles, the airline you purchased from might not be the one that flies you to your destination. This is what's known as a code-share flight. The “operating airline” is the airline that flies the plane. You can tell which airline is operating your flight based on the letters next to the flight number on your confirmation.

For example, I'm taking my son to Amsterdam and Denmark this fall. On our flights home, I used United Airlines miles to buy our tickets, yet we’re flying with United's Star Alliance partners Lufthansa and Scandinavian Airlines (better known as SAS).

So if we have any problems with our flights, we’ll contact either Lufthansa or SAS (depending on which flight we're on) to voice our issues and discuss compensation. Although United sold us the tickets, it’s off the hook.

Examples of when EU261 does and doesn’t apply

Because the rules of coverage can be tricky, here a few scenarios to make them easier to understand:

  • Flight from Atlanta to Paris on Delta Air Lines: Because this flight is departing the U.S. on a non-EU airline, it’s not covered by EU261.
  • Paris to Stockholm on Air France: This flight is between two airports within the EU, so it doesn’t matter which airline is operating the flight. All airlines are covered by EU261 when flying from one EU airport to another.
  • Stockholm to Chicago on Scandanavian Airlines using United Airlines miles: Although you purchased your ticket using United miles, Scandanavian Airlines is operating the flight. This means SAS is responsible in case of delay or cancellation. In addition, because you’re departing from an EU airport for a non-EU airport, all airlines must comply with EU261.

Circumstances EU261 will not cover

As robust as EU261 is, it doesn’t cover passengers in all situations. We may get frustrated and blame the airlines when our plans are disrupted, but these situations aren’t always the airlines’ fault.

Extraordinary circumstances

When delays or cancellations occur that could have been prevented, the airline is usually on the hook. For example, if a flight is delayed or canceled because the airline failed to perform routine maintenance and a problem was discovered during a routine check, the airline would be responsible.

But when extraordinary circumstances happen that are beyond the airline’s control, it doesn’t owe you if a flight is canceled or delayed. Extreme weather events — like hurricanes, terrorist activity, and the recent situation with the 737-MAX groundings — are examples of extraordinary circumstances.

Late check-in

Mobile devices and airline websites make checking into your flight extremely simple. In most cases, you can do so online 24 hours in advance of your departure. Even if the airline requires manually inspecting your passport, you can still check in before arriving at the airport.

Most international flights require passengers to check in at least two hours before departure. EU261 requires passengers to do so no later than 45 minutes before the published departure time. If you fail to meet the airline's deadlines and are denied boarding, you won’t receive compensation.

Flying on a not-publicly-available fare

If your fare wasn’t publicly available, you won’t be covered by EU261. For example, if your friend flies for an airline and you're flying using their "buddy pass," you won’t receive any benefits in the event of a cancellation or a delayed flight.

What you are entitled to in the event of a delay or cancellation

The rules for compensation are based on when you’re notified of the delay or cancellation as well as the distance you’re traveling. The farther you’re flying, the more benefits you’ll receive in the event of a delay or cancellation. Your flight will fall into one of three categories:

  • Short distance: 932 miles (or 1,500 kilometers)
  • Medium distance: 932 to 2,175 miles (or 1,500 to 3,500 kilometers)
  • Long distance: Over 2,175 miles (or 3,500 kilometers)

When a delay occurs, you’re entitled to the following benefits based on the length of your flight:

  • Short distance: 250 Euros
  • Medium distance: 400 Euros
  • Long distance: 600 Euros

Additionally, the amount of time you lose as a result of the delay or cancellation also factors into the calculations for compensation. The airline may reduce your compensation by 50% if your new arrival time is within a few hours of the originally scheduled arrival time.

  • Short distance: Within two hours
  • Medium distance: Within three hours
  • Long distance: Within four hours

In the event of a flight cancellation, your eligibility for compensation differs from a flight delay. Passengers are entitled to a choice of their money back or a comparable flight at the earliest opportunity to the original destination.

If you choose to receive your money back, the airline must pay a full reimbursement of the canceled flights within seven days. Additionally, if you already started your itinerary, the airline must offer a return flight to your first point of departure.

Additional compensation isn’t owed under the following circumstances:

  • If passengers are informed of the cancellation at least two weeks before the scheduled time of departure
  • If a passenger is offered rerouting between two weeks and seven days before the scheduled time of departure; additionally, the new flight departs no more than two hours before originally scheduled and arrives no more than four hours after the scheduled time of arrival
  • When a passenger is informed of the cancellation less than seven days before departure and the new flight departs no more than one hour from the original departure and arrives less than two hours after the scheduled time of arrival

If these conditions are not met, passengers are owed the same compensation as a delayed flight. The compensation is based on the distance of their flight and length of delay in arriving compared to their original itinerary.

How to claim your EU261 compensation

Your compensation for denied boarding under EU261 isn’t automatic. You must file a claim in a timely manner. Every airline has its own process to submit a EU261 claim. For example, with Air France, you would file your claim electronically. Visit the homepage of your operating airline to find the instructions on how to submit a claim.

The deadline to file your EU261 claim varies by country. Your deadline isn’t based on your citizenship or where you flew, but where the headquarters of the operating airline are located or what court has jurisdiction over cases involving that airline.

For example, in Germany, your claim period ends with the third full year following your flight. If you flew July 8, 2019, this period would end Dec. 31, 2022. Sweden's deadline is three years from the last claim that was filed. However, the three-year clock restarts any time a new claim is made.

Best practices for filing your EU261 compensation

  • Keep good records: Write down the details of your delay or cancellation. Always ask for the name and ID number of the person you’re speaking with. Save your travel documents and receipts of any expenses you incurred when you were denied boarding. Scan documents and receipts with your phone or home scanner and store them digitally so they don't get lost.
  • Avoid getting angry: Situations can be stressful, but it doesn't do you any good to get upset at the person helping you. We're all human beings with feelings. Plus, let’s be practical — who do you think the customer service person will help out more? The person who is nice and respectful or the person who is yelling, threatening to never fly the airline again, and using curse words?

Can you hire someone to file an EU261 claim on your behalf?

Yes, you don't have to go through the claims process on your own. However, be aware that these companies take a big chunk of your compensation. Most firms charge in the 20% to 25% range, although the costs can be as high as 50% if you need to go to court to fight for your claim. Although these amounts may seem high, the service could be worth it if the airline is disputing your claim.

The good news is that you can submit your claims without involving one of these companies. And if you do need to hire a service, most firms only get paid if they win, so you don't need to worry about paying anyone up front to help with your claim.

How you will receive your EU261 compensation

Airlines may pay compensation to passengers by cash, electronic bank transfer, bank orders, or bank checks. With the signed agreement of the passenger, the compensation might be in travel vouchers or other services.

The bottom line on EU261

EU261 is a good rule that requires airlines to take care of passengers. But don't forget about using your credit card benefits or buying a travel insurance policy to protect yourself when you travel internationally. Although you can't double-dip the same items, travel benefits and travel insurance policies from credit cards cover some expenses EU261 does not.

The simplest thing to do is apply for one of the best travel credit cards with travel insurance benefits before your next trip. For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Sapphire Preferred, and Chase Ink Business Preferred will cover you for situations that EU261 will not. The travel insurance provided by these cards will protect you if there is extreme weather; a terrorist event; or a sickness or death of you, your traveling companions, or an immediate family member. But remember that this coverage works only if you pay for the trip with that credit card.

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Lee Huffman

Lee Huffman is a former financial planner and corporate finance manager who now writes about early retirement, credit cards, travel, insurance, and other personal finance topics. He enjoys showing people how to travel more, spend less, and live better. When Lee is not getting his passport stamped around the world, he's researching methods to earn more miles and points toward his next vacation.