I fly a lot, domestically and internationally, and sometimes things go wrong. Last week, something went wrong on my return flight from Europe, but unlike most delays and cancellations, this one had a silver lining: almost $650 in cash. But when I found out that several of my traveling companions had no idea they were entitled to compensation for their troubles, I realized that vacationers need more information.

Compensation is different from a refund, which you are always entitled to if your flight is cancelled (although you may still have to get home). Compensation is essentially a penalty the airline pays you for your inconvenience, on top of the fact that they (eventually) get you to your desired destination.

The U.S. lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to protecting consumers from the airlines they pay to fly, and the Department of Transportation’s most recent “final rule,” announced to much fanfare in April 2024, focuses largely on “junk fees” and deceptive marketing practices. That’s important, but it does little to protect consumers who actually fly and experience delays and cancellations. The most useful new rule requires airlines to reimburse baggage fees for bags that arrive at least 12 hours late (international rules are less clear for domestic travel), but that doesn’t go into effect until April of next year (2025).

But there is good news right now, and it comes from the European Union, even if you fly with US airlines.

Summer is peak travel season in Europe and typically also a peak time for airline cancellations and air disruptions, though 2024 has been surprisingly good so far, with the lowest flight cancellation rate in a decade for the first half of the year (1.4%). That leaves out the busy recent Independence Day holiday weekend, however, and includes almost none of the ultra-busy summer season. US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced that the year would see “record-breaking air travel,” and last month CNN reported that the European Tourism Organization was seeing “record numbers of Americans coming to Europe.” Even before summer had begun, Greece had reached an all-time tourism record – a staggering 24.5% increase for the first quarter compared to 2023.

According to aviation website SimpleFlying.com, the 600-flight-a-day milestone from Europe to the US will finally be reached this summer, eight years after the 500-flight benchmark (which saw growth slowed by the pandemic). You can be pretty sure that even on a good day, not all 600 of those flights will be on time.

Unfortunately, the rule that protects travelers isn’t new, it’s been around for almost two decades, but unfortunately, many Americans have no idea they’re covered, and many go through the hassle of delays and rerouting, and then, to make matters worse, leave hundreds of dollars on the table. Don’t be one of them. And don’t expect the airline to tell you. If you’re flying to Europe this summer, or beyond, or flying within Europe on an airline, here’s what you need to know.

Under Regulation EU261, passengers on any flight originating in the EU (and many not originating in the EU) are entitled to compensation for delays or cancellations of varying lengths, both within the EU and on flights to the US and other destinations. 27 EU countries are covered, plus major non-EU European countries such as Switzerland, Iceland and Norway, as well as remote islands linked to European countries such as the Azores, Madeira and even several Caribbean islands (Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint-Martinique). France, Italy, Greece and almost every major tourist hotspot in Europe except the UK are covered (Ireland is in the EU).

EU 261 covers US travellers on both flights within the EU and from the EU to anywhere outside the EU (such as the US), regardless of which airline they fly with. Basically, if it starts in the EU, you’re covered no matter who you fly with or where you’re going. However, flights from outside the EU, including the US, to the EU are also covered, as long as you fly with an EU airline.

So for me, a high-level United flyer, if I choose a Star Alliance partner like TAP or Lufthansa or Austrian over United when flying to Europe, I would be protected both ways. For Delta frequent flyers, the comparable main options would be Air France, KLM or ITA, and for American Airlines, Finnair and Iberia. For codeshare flights, the “airline” in this case is the one you actually fly with, not the one you buy the ticket from, so if I fly Lufthansa on a United ticket to the EU, I’m covered, but not the other way around (but when I get home, you’re covered on either airline).

And yes, frequent flyer tickets paid for with miles are covered.

So, what do you get?

It’s a little complicated, but not that complicated. For cancellations or delays of two hours or more on flights under 932 miles (1,550 km) you get €250 per person. For cancellations or delays of three hours or more on flights between 932 and 1,864 miles (3,000 km) you get €400. And for anything longer, like transatlantic, the delay has to be four hours (or cancellation) and you get €600.

There are more rules of course. If you are scheduled a day or more late, they have to give you a hotel and return transportation. Depending on the delays and distances above, you will also get meals.

Like rebookings and refunds when you fly, delays caused by things outside the airline’s control, like weather or air traffic control issues, don’t qualify. Mechanical and operational issues do qualify, and so far in the past year, almost all of my really bad flying experiences have been mechanical or operational in nature, like the time recently when the crew boarded the plane, the plane started boarding, and they realized they didn’t have a captain on hand to fly the plane.

A little over a week ago, Delta canceled my nonstop flight from Athens to Boston for mechanical reasons after a few hours on the tarmac, and rescheduled it for about 28 hours later. To their credit, they handled it well and announced before we even disembarked that they would put everyone up in a reasonably luxurious hotel, including meals and transportation (not that they had a legal choice), and because they had rebooked an entire plane, people didn’t have to run around trying to change their flights — unless, like me, they wanted to get home on the day they were scheduled.

I was able to connect to an Air France partner flight (both airlines are members of the SkyTeam alliance), but that meant a change in Paris and a further delay on the tarmac upon arrival. I also arrived home seven hours late (as opposed to my two checked bags, one of which arrived eight days later, while the other was still in limbo).

The experience was frustrating of course, but getting the compensation I was entitled to under EU law, €600 or about $643, went smoothly as silk (almost). I even did the online paperwork on July 4the weekend and on Monday, less than 72 hours later, the money was electronically deposited into my bank account. Receiving the $643 compensation was much faster than resolving virtually every other airline complaint I’ve ever had, or my ongoing baggage issue.

I’ve spoken to other passengers who’ve had similarly smooth experiences. Melissa Klurman, a writer for the ultra-popular frequent flyer site ThePointsGuy.com, wrote: “In the past, when I’ve used the EU 261 rule (yes, I’ve been delayed before), it’s been a very simple transaction. I simply found the right place on the website to file my claim (by law, airlines are required to inform you of the policy and provide information on how to file a claim); then I received the equivalent of the €600 in compensation in U.S. dollars directly into my bank account. (You can also opt to have a check mailed to you.)”

You have to go to the airline itself, through their website, and file the claim. Finding where to do that is perhaps the hardest part of the whole process. United, for example, has it under Customer Care, then Question, then International Passenger Rights, which may not be the most obvious search chain. Delta actually had a page for EU261 that was fairly easy to find, with a big button to file a claim. If that button had worked, I would have been impressed. But it didn’t, and I had to call customer service and speak to a representative who had clearly had this call before she immediately acknowledged the button/no button issue and walked me through filing the claim, which again was contradictory and basically amounted to writing a complaint letter to a generic customer service mailbox. A lawyer friend of mine recommends always including the words “what I am legally entitled to” when you do this. But once I did, I got confirmation back from Delta and cash fairly quickly. The submission, including the phone call, probably took 20 minutes and the next time it will take three minutes.

While the airline is obligated to give you the $600 (or whatever compensation you’re owed) if you want it, that doesn’t mean they can’t negotiate. ThePointsGuy writer Klurman just reported that she filed a claim on United’s site and was given the choice of $600 cash (direct deposit); 50,000 United miles; or a $1,000 United flight credit. I’d take the credit myself, since I know I’ll be buying tickets on United soon, and it nearly doubles the payout if you fly the airline again.

Back here in the US, the DOT is “also working on regulations” that would “require passenger compensation and provisions so that travelers are taken care of when airlines cause delays or cancellations.” But I wouldn’t hold my breath on that. In the meantime, if you’re flying to, from, or within Europe, I hope it goes smoothly, but if it doesn’t, at least get something for your troubles.