It's never good news when an airline goes out of business.
People lose their jobs, an area's tourism industry can be negatively affected, and of course, it can mean thousands of passengers stranded without a way to get home—or take the trip they’ve been planning for their precious vacation time—without a lot of extra expense.
On September 23, 2019, British travel agency and airline Thomas Cook declared bankruptcy, stopping all flights, and leaving more than 600,000 people stranded.
And that wasn't the first time an airline stopped flying suddenly. On March 28, 2019, WOW Air’s financial troubles came to a head and the airline ceased operations, canceled all flights, and left thousands of passengers stranded. Germany's Air Berlin went bankrupt and ended all flights in 2017, low-cost airline Primera Air ceased flying in late 2018, and Jet Airways halted operations in April 2019. While these sudden (and in some cases, not-so-sudden) failures are often preceded by news of financial struggle, an airline going bankrupt doesn't guarantee it will cease operations. Several airlines have gone bankrupt and then found a cash infusion to keep them afloat (for example, both United and American Airlines have previously filed for bankruptcy).
Here’s what you need to know if your airline goes bust.
Look at “rescue fares” offered by other airlines.
When WOW Air ceased operations, for example, airlines including Norwegian Air, Icelandair, and Virgin Atlantic stepped in to offer cheap flights to passengers whose plans were affected by the collapse. These rescue fares varied; Norwegian Air offered 25% off, while Icelandair offered a set fare for $60-$160 each way depending on the route. These fares generally come with a lot of conditions. For example, you generally need to show proof that you had a ticket on the now-defunct airline, and your travel dates have to be during a certain window. Still, if qualify, these fares can be significantly lower than the cost of buying a new ticket.
For those stranded by Thomas Cook, Virgin Atlantic is offering rescue fares to help stranded passengers. Britain's Civil Aviation Authority is also assisting UK flyers in getting home in what's been dubbed "Operation Matterhorn."
Get a refund through your credit card or bank.
When you use a credit card to purchase an item or service and don’t receive it, you may be able to dispute the charge or initiate a chargeback with the credit card issuer. All cards have this protection, and most (but not all) cards have additional travel protections which offer compensation for things like delays, cancellations, and lost luggage. Even if your card doesn’t offer these travel protections, consumers have a right to receive the product they bought. Many banks will refund purchases in situations like this, regardless of travel protections related to a specific card.
If you booked with a card that includes some form of travel insurance, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve or American Express Platinum, in addition to a refund for the cost of the ticket, you may able be able to recoup other nonrefundable costs incurred, such as hotel or tour bookings. The Points Guy has a great in-depth explainer here.
Know your passenger rights under EU law.
Under Flight Compensation Regulation 261/2004 (also known as EU 261), passengers flying to, from, or within the EU are entitled to €250 to €600, depending on the flight distance, for delays more than three hours, cancellations, or being denied boarding from overbooking. If your flight is canceled, you have have the right to reimbursement for the unused portion of the flight, re-routing or return, as well as assistance and compensation.
Of course, there are exceptions and special considerations. For example, the rules state compensation is due if you were informed less than 14 days prior to the scheduled departure date. Additionally, it may be hard to recoup fees from an airline that's gone bankrupt. You can read full details and see if you're eligible for compensation here.
Use Google Flights to find the cheapest replacement ticket.
Whether you’re already on your trip and worried about how to get home, or frantically trying to find a replacement ticket so you can still take the trip you’ve planned, here are some tips for finding the cheapest ticket.
Use Google Flights and check out the Explore Map to see fares for an entire region for a specific day. If you’re in London, for example, and need to get back to Nashville, you can see the fares for the entire eastern half of the US. You’ll see that one-way flights to NYC and Boston are significantly cheaper ($334 to Boston, $374 to NYC on Norwegian Air) than flights to Nashville ($709). You could book a flight to one of those cities and then book a separate flight from there to Nashville for less than $200.
You can also search up to seven airports for your departure and arrival cities. So if you’re in Berlin and need to get home to San Francisco, you could look at departing Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, or even Paris, Geneva, or Zurich and arriving in Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Jose, or San Francisco to see which route has the lowest price.
Compare the costs of a roundtrip replacement ticket vs one way.
One-way international tickets can be significantly more expensive than roundtrip tickets, and ticket prices tend to rise at the last minute. If you need a one-way ticket, it may be more economical to buy a roundtrip and not use the return portion rather than booking one way.
For example, if you’re in Paris and need to get home to Las Vegas, a one-way flight is $505.
While a roundtrip flight returning the next day is $409, and you avoid a long layover.
Act fast, though. When it comes to last-minute flights, every day counts and prices keep rising as your travel dates approach. If you’re stuck abroad trying to get home, buy tickets as soon as possible to get the lowest price.