With the official start of the holiday and storm seasons upon us, let’s address the granddaddy of all air travel nightmares – flight delays or cancellations due to extreme weather or ‘mechanical issues.’ Read on for CheapAir’s simple steps to alleviate your pain should you find yourself stranded over the Thanksgiving holiday:
1. Get out in front of a travel emergency
If you know a big storm is hitting tomorrow and you’re scheduled on a connecting flight where the weather is projected to be a problem, you may be able to circumvent the trouble spots. When you call the airline 24 hours prior to your flight to reconfirm, express your concerns about the weather. The airline may reroute your trip before the weather gets an opportunity to derail your vacation, often for free.
Always check your flight departure status before you leave the house on your travel day! It’s shocking how many people in the rush of getting to the airport simply forget to take this simple, hassle-alleviating step. If your flight gets canceled for bad weather, you can handle rebooking from the comfort of your home
2. Avoid Checking a Bag
Checked bags can complicate things when dealing with flight delays or cancellations. If you’re traveling light and let the gate agents know you’re amenable to a cross-terminal sprint, you’ll (a) be seen as flexible/accommodating and (b) you’ll increase the likelihood of finding an alternative. An airline rep will sometimes avoid a complicated work-around for someone with checked bags. No one wants to risk getting you to your final destination after an exhausting day, and upon landing finding out your bags are in another city. If you’re traveling light, you’re low risk.
3. Know when to fold ‘em Don’t gamble with your plans. If you find yourself languishing indefinitely at the airport due to a blizzard, and your trip is non-essential, you might want to cancel altogether and walk away. If you decide to take this option, though, it’s important to understand what you’ll get back.
If the flight you are booked on has been (or ultimately is) canceled, you are entitled to a full refund for the price that you paid, even if the ticket was non-refundable.
On the other hand, if the flight you were booked on is merely delayed—but does take off eventually—the non-refundable rule still applies. You will only be eligible for a credit toward a future flight, minus a penalty. The penalties are often substantial; for domestic flights, most airlines charge $200. There is also no guarantee that the new ticket you buy with your credit will be the same price. If you bought your tickets at a super low fare during a sale, you would have to pay any difference between the amount you paid and the new fare at the time when you rebook your trip.
4. Game the system with your tech savvy
Ok. Let’s say your problem is mechanical, not weather-related and you’ve decided to try and get on another flight. Before you left the house, you had the foresight to load up your phone with your airline’s apps and toll free numbers, and gave it a full charge. As soon as the delay is confirmed, get in line to talk to gate agents and simultaneously dial in to the airline call center. Often, the call center can book you faster than the gate agent dealing with frustrated passengers.
Another tactic that makes your phone very handy is the divide and conquer technique (only applicable if you’ve got a partner in crime). If your flight has been canceled or delayed for mechanical reasons, you might want to split up from your travel buddy. Send your travel partner to the main ticketing area at the front of the airport while you get in line at the gate with the other affected passengers on your flight. Sure, there may be an extra gate agent or two who have been called over to assist, but remember – those agents at the gate are dealing with a whole plane full of people, some of whom are in a hurry, all of whom are inconvenienced. If you head to the main ticketing desk, you might get faster service. It is certainly a gamble, but you can stay in touch with your traveling companion via text and see who’s making better headway.
One final (and somewhat controversial) tech savvy move is to consider tweeting the airline that’s grounded you. American Airlines (for example), has an amazing customer service record via Twitter (@AmericanAir). Utilizing this public forum sometimes gets results fast. Check to see if your airline has a Twitter account and consider reaching out to them if you run into mechanical trouble. One caveat here: this tactic can cut both ways. There have been reports in recent weeks and months that overzealous (ahem!) tweeters have seen themselves banned from their flight once things get moving again. Airlines can ground you if your behavior is seen as disruptive or inflammatory. These days, with so many people utilizing Twitter for distress calls, airlines are occasionally pushing back. You should always communicate in a polite and concise voice when tweeting at the airlines or you risk being ignored or even getting the boot. If you’re not sure how to modulate your own emotions, best to avoid social media lest it bite you back.
5. Know your rights and don’t be afraid to be the (extremely polite) squeaky wheel
Back in the day, airlines were government-regulated. At that time, they were required by law to put you on the next flight out even if it was on another carrier at no additional cost to the traveler. Though those days are long gone, somewhat surprisingly, most airlines still have some vestige of this old rule still on the books. It can’t hurt to request this assistance in a polite manner.
6. Set yourself up for success and be your own advocate
It’s worth it to become a frequent flyer with a couple of big domestic air carriers. Then try to fly with the same airlines whenever possible. If you are a preferred member of one airline, try to fly on other airlines who belong to their alliance when you can – if there are problems down the road in your travel life, it may garner yourself a slight edge over other disgruntled passengers.
Know the airline’s policy about rebooking canceled or delayed flights. Some airlines allow you to rebook yourself when a flight has been canceled or delayed. For example, Delta will allow you to rebook WITHIN 24 hours when your flight has been delayed or canceled at no additional cost to you.
7. Try to avoid connecting flights
If you tend to get stuck in blizzards and other weather-related acts of God because you’re usually flying to Buffalo or Boston in the dead of winter, non-stop flights may give you a slight advantage. When weather starts affecting flights around the country, it’s a domino effect. If you’ve got connections in bad weather, you’re more likely to get stuck somewhere else. If you can’t avoid connections – try to choose connecting cities unlikely to experience weather delays.
8. Channel your inner novelist
When all else fails, if you have a bad experience – write down the facts and send a good old-fashioned letter post-trip. Don’t assume an airline will not try to make you whole in some manner. A well thought-out, articulate letter that explains your position and disappointment may result in some sort of compensation for your troubles.
9. Little-known fact that will save you a big-time headache later
One more thing. If you’re able to out-fox an outbound delay by purchasing a one-way ticket on another airline or renting a car at your stalled connection point and driving to your final destination, do not simply assume you have a seat on your scheduled return flight. If you do not tell the airline about your DIY workaround, they will consider you a NO SHOW on the return flight, causing them to drop you from the flight list. Bummer. Avoid this by clearly communicating your plans with the airline and make sure they know you will be on that flight.
It’s a modern-day irony that air travel, which revolutionized how quickly we get from point A to point B, is sometimes fraught with delays and less often, cancellations. Just keep in mind that 98.5% of flights aren’t cancelled and over 80% arrive right on time. We hope this guide will help you keep your head and get you where you need to go with a modicum of headaches this holiday season. Happy travels!