Your Best Friend in Europe: The EU Passenger Bill of Rights

In 2017, I took a one week solo trip to Switzerland in late October. The night before my flight home, I checked in on the United app and a message box popped up and said “if your flight is delayed or canceled, ask for the European Union Passenger Bill of Rights at the airport.”


I thought that was a strange message, but when I woke up at 4am to discover that my direct flight from Zurich to Washington had been canceled and I would now be flying through Frankfurt with a four-hour layover, I decided to investigate.


At the airport I checked in and asked the counter agent for a copy of the EU Passenger Bill of Rights. They weren’t super thrilled to give it to me, but they did.


Here’s what I learned:

  1. The law covers all fights from the EU, regardless of whether the airline itself is European. So airlines based in the United States (like United) have to abide by the EU Passenger Bill of Rights if they are operating a flight departing from a European country.

  2. If you arrive at your final destination more than three hours after your original scheduled arrival, you are owed compensation for the delay. The compensation is determined by the length of the flight. My flight was more than 3500km so I was owed 600 euro. (!!!)

  3. The notice United gave me at the counter had instructions on how to file the claim.

  4. There are a variety of circumstances for which passengers have rights. This EU site is worth a review if you are traveling there in the near future.

  5. “Technical problems” with the aircraft are usually not good enough to be considered “extraordinary circumstances” that allow airlines to get around paying compensation for cancellations and delays. I guess in Europe they expect airlines to do regular maintenance?

After I left the counter with my EU passenger rights, I went to the airport lounge to get some breakfast and fired off my claim to United.


On December 1, I received an email from United saying that I was, in fact, owed compensation under EU law. Here’s a snippet from the email:

As alternative options to your claim for compensation under European Union EC261/2004 regulation, we would like to offer you a choice of a $900 (USD) UnitedTravel Certificate* (redeemable and transferable toward the purchase of any United or United Express operated flight) or 27,500 United MileagePlus® miles. However, if you still wish to pursue cash compensation under EU regulation in the amount of EUR600, please provide a valid address where you would like for us to send it. You will receive your compensation in the form of a USD check. Processing of your payment may take up to 6 weeks.

Since I’d been on a recently canceled United flight, I took the check option.


Sure enough, on December 21, a check for just over $700 USD arrived. I went to the bank immediately, still convinced this was too good to be true.


The check cashed.


(In case you don’t believe me, here is a photo of the check.)

A check from an airline. Who knew it was possible?

I can only hope I live to see the day that airlines in the US have to offer compensation for delays.

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