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Passengers' rights - what you should know

Elisabeth Yorck von Wartenburg
March 22, 2016

Train cancelled? Flight delayed by three hours? That's annoying, but at least there's usually compensation. Do you know your rights?

Missed flight. Copyright: MK - Fotolia.com
Image: PhotographyByMK - Fotolia.com

The Germans are known for being very punctual but this does not guarantee that planes and trains are always on time. So here are some tips to reclaim your due if you face delays.

Flight delay compensation

If you land at your destination airport more than three hours late - for instance, if your planned flight was cancelled or overbooked - you can claim compensation. Under EU law, you're entitled to up to 600 euros ($676), depending on the flight distance, but not the ticket price. You only receive compensation, however, if the delay was not caused by "extraordinary circumstances" such as a strike or bad weather.

Airline Ryanair, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/F. von Erichsen
If you have trouble with your flight, talk to the airline first.Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. von Erichsen

Most people don't know their rights, so they don't claim compensation. In addition, it's hard to get airlines to pay up. Airlines often fail to react to the claim or let the case go to court. Don't be daunted. Look at the websites of Flightright (in several languages), WebuyyourFlight (in German and English), or Flugrecht (only in German). These companies' lawyers submit and deal with the claim for you. On WebuyyourFlight.com, for example, you can enter the data on your flight and find out shortly afterwards whether you have a right to compensation. If you do, the company buys your ticket for up to 400 euros ($450). In this way, you receive most of the compensation, and the company funds itself from the remaining money claimed from the airline.

Suitcase missing - now what?

Sutivcases, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/Hannibal
In 2014, about a million pieces of luggage were lost permanently worldwideImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Hannibal

On average, seven out of every 1,000 pieces of luggage go missing. What should you do if your suitcase disappears during a flight? First, keep calm. Christina Koch, from Frankfurt Airport, told the German news agency dpa that most pieces of baggage are found within two or three days. If that doesn't happen, the airlines pay their passengers up to a maximum of 1,200 euros ($1,350).

Sandra Kraft from Lufthansa told DPA, "If luggage arrives late at their holiday destination, travelers are reimbursed in cash to pay for the specific items they need in that situation." She was referring to such items as a toothbrush, for instance, or underwear. But the costs have to be kept as low as possible.

In addition, make sure you report the loss of your luggage at the Lost & Found before you leave the airport. Otherwise you must be able to provide evidence that your suitcase was actually lost during the flight and not afterwards.

If your luggage arrives late on your return flight, you have little chance of your expenses being reimbursed. "When passengers arrive home, we assume they'll find everyday necessities at home," says Sandra Kraft.

Compensation for train delays

Deutsche Bahn strike, Copyright: Frank Rumpenhorst/dpa
25 percent of all long-distance trains in Germany arrived too late in 2015Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Last year, more than 25 percent of all long-distance trains in Germany were delayed. If your train arrives at your destination 60 minutes late or more, you have the right to a refund of 25 percent of the ticket price. After a delay of 120 minutes, you receive 50 percent back. Deutsche Bahn  also pays for a night in a hotel if you can't resume your journey until the next day because a train has been cancelled or delayed. You can fill out a form to assert your claim. Such forms are usually distributed on the delayed train. You can also fill one out at a DB travel center or download one on the internet. You have to attach the original ticket to your claim, so remember to make a copy for your own files.

Passengers' rights on long-distance buses

Just as on airplanes and trains, the rights of long-distance bus and coach passengers are protected throughout the EU.

ADAC Fernbus in Cologne, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Berg
Long-distance bus and coach trips are increasingly popular in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Berg

On journeys of more than 250 kilometers (155 miles), the coach operator has to offer to refund your fare if the bus has been overbooked, delayed by more than two hours or cancelled. If you don't receive that offer, you can later claim a refund for the ticket plus compensation amounting to 50 percent of the ticket price. After a delay of more than 90 minutes, you're entitled to a free snack or refreshments.

Cost-efficient travel cancellation

You've booked a train or flight, but something's come up and you have to cancel your journey. Both the railway and the airlines usually give you most of your money back, depending on the kind of ticket you have. But if you've booked a package tour, cancelling it will be expensive. Many package tour operators demand up to 90 percent of the tour price as a fee and sell the trip a second time. For the tour operators it's anything but a loss, but it certainly is one for you. You can avoid the high cancellation costs by transferring your booking to someone else. Changing a name generally costs between 10 and 30 euros. But how do you find a buyer for your trip? The online platform Tradeyourtrip (in German and Dutch) is the latest thing on the market. Here you can post your trip and sell it to someone else, thus saving costs and administrative hassle.

Having trouble getting compensation?

You're in the right, but your complaint to the carrier remains unsuccessful. Should you give up straight away? No, you shouldn't. You can get help from the German SÖP, the German Conciliation Body for Public Transport. The procedures are free of cost for travelers. The SÖP is in great demand. Last year, about 11,700 requests were filed.

So the next time you reach your destination too late when you fly or travel by train or coach, don't get too upset. Get going and claim your passenger rights!

Elisabeth Yorck
Elisabeth Yorck von Wartenburg Author, editor, planner, social media manager