Flight delays and cancellations can send your holiday plans spinning wildly off-course. Instead of diving into the pool at your favourite destination, you're left high and dry with nowhere to go, right? Well, not exactly. It turns out you've got a few rights to lean on, often including some pretty decent cash compensation. Predictably, there are some loopholes to watch for and hoops to jump through to get it. Even so, it can definitely be worth kicking up a fuss if you've been hit with a late or cancelled flight.

Here's what to do when your holiday never gets off the ground.

EU Regulations on flight delay compensation

Most of this comes down to current EU regulations. If you're heading out from an EU airport, you've got some cover if it all goes wrong. Similarly, if you're landing in the EU on an EU carrier, you get the same type of protection.

Any delay in your arrival time of over 3 hours will score you compensation. If your flight's cancelled altogether and you're put on an alternative plane, then the delay only needs to be 2 hours to qualify. Remember that it's your final destination that counts when working out your total delay. No individual hop on a multi-leg journey needs to be over the 3 hour limit to claim.

Obviously, if a substitute flight isn't an option for you, you can just go ahead and demand a full refund. It's not just cash we're talking about, either.

Can I claim for food if my flight is delayed?

You're entitled to some basic necessities like food and drink, for instance. You might be given a voucher for this, depending on the situation. If you need to send people a heads-up about your delay you should be given a way of doing that, or at least have the costs repaid.

Can I claim for additional travel and hotel costs if I can't fly home?

Longer delays might see you lumbered with an an unexpected hotel stay, and the expense of getting to and from it. You're off the hook for these costs, though, as the airline has to stump up the money for them. Generally, you'll have to take whatever accommodation you're offered, so don't book yourself into the poshest hotel in town and expect free VIP treatment.

How much cash can I claim for a delayed flight?

As for the cash you can expect, again it depends on the circumstances. Any delay over 3 hours will currently net you about £230 for most shorter flights. Trips of over 3,500km go as high as £275 if you're delayed 3-4 hours, or £550 if its even longer.

Is there a time limit on making a claim for a delayed flight?

Yes there's a time limit on your compensation claims. It's surprisingly long, though. You can actually get your pay-out for up to 6 years. Airlines have sometimes tried to weasel out of coughing up after 2 years, but they don't really have a leg to stand on in court.

Reasons you can't claim for a delayed flight

Now for those loopholes we mentioned.

One reason you might not be able to get compensation is the slightly fuzzy concept of “extraordinary circumstances”. For your trip to qualify for compensation, the airline itself must be at fault in some way. You won't, for example, get a pay-out if bad weather messes up your flight. The same goes for things like airport strike action or long queues.

However, late-running staff, mechanical failures and even overbooked planes still qualify. Airlines have recently tried claiming “hidden manufacturing defects” mean they don't have to pay out. Make some noise if they try that on you, though. It's been tested in court already and it doesn't hold up.

How can I get help making a flight delay claim?

If you feel like you need help chasing up your compensation claim, you've got some options. You could use a solicitor on a no-win-no-fee basis, for instance. Alternatively, you could chase it up through the government's Money Claim Online service (or the new replacement system they're currently testing). Generally, though, you'll only need to do this if you're not getting any joy from the airline directly.

Those are the basics you need to know about dealing with delays and cancellations. Holidays are among the top things people splash their annual tax rebates on, so have a great one – and start planning what you'll do with next year's cheque from HMRC!

RIFT have been the UK's leading tax refund and tax return experts since 1999.  Use our tax refund calculator for free to get an instant estimate of how much your HMRC tax refund could be worth.