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7 Easy Tips for Dealing With Airline Delays and Cancellations This Winter

Jan. 18, 2017
10 min read
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It's important to remember that winter weather is as hard on airline staff as it is on airline customers. Achieving a good outcome during a storm means threading the gap between overtaxed automated systems and overstressed personnel in a way that maximizes the limited capacity of both.

Keep in mind that airlines handle weather delays and cancellations differently, albeit in subtle ways. Generally, weather events are included under the definition of force majeure in an airline's contract of carriage, which waives a carrier's liability with respect to fare refunds and incremental costs. That being said, all major US airlines have specific weather policies that provide passengers some relief in the event of unexpected hiccups. If an airline anticipates winter weather, it may issue a change and/or cancellation waiver, allowing passengers to change or cancel a flight without incurring the usual change fees, fare differences or other penalties. If bad weather is forecast early on, carriers may issue waivers several days in advance, while unexpected weather events or other mass delays may lead to last-minute waivers or cancellations. Here are several tips to help in the event of a winter-weather cancellation or delay.

1. Be Forewarned

Weather in the area? Check your reservation early and sign up for alerts by text, email, phone or a combination of the three. The earlier you can act when a delay occurs, the better your chances for a favorable outcome. Did you book a reservation through a travel agent or a website other than your airline's? Register for travel alerts as soon as you get the confirmation number, since travel agents and booking websites won't necessarily share contact information with airlines, and you may miss out on waivers and cancellation notices that could save you a wasted trip to the airport.

2. Come Up With a Plan B

If you're concerned about possible weather or delays, consider alternate transportation early on. If you're on hold with a phone representative or have spare time before your departure, there's not much of a downside to searching for last-minute flights on other airlines, Amtrak or even on bus lines if your trip is a short one. If delayed customers are lined up at the airport, the train or bus may actually get you to a relatively nearby destination quicker. One of my own travel nightmares was solved for less than the cost of a hotel room thanks to a quick search on my smartphone — after being bumped from four different standby lists, I ended up booking an alternate flight on my phone and was able to board 30 minutes later.

3. Consider Other Airports

If you live in a large metropolitan area, it may be worth it to check for flights at other, smaller airports or even those in nearby cities. As a New York City traveler, I can't remember the number of times I've flown into Philadelphia as a favorable alternative to a delayed or missed flight in the NYC area. Even including the cost of a bus or rail connection, the outcome can be cheaper in some cases.

4. Find Help in a Lounge

If you're having trouble getting in touch with a particular airline during a chaotic delay, consider ducking into a lounge belonging to the one you're flying with. While you might be charged a fee for one-time lounge entry (which will differ depending on the lounge), that investment gets you access to a highly skilled customer-service representative who has all the tools necessary to help you get to your destination, even ahead of those who are on hold or waiting in line. Having certain credit cards or elite status can also provide discounted or complimentary access to some airline lounges. Flying Delta? Use your Platinum Card from American Express to get into a Delta Sky Club and get help from a lounge rep.

5. Utilize Social Media

Consider using social media to contact your airline, since the teams manning these accounts are sometimes quicker to offer assistance than overloaded phone line representatives and many airlines offer support via Twitter and/or Facebook.

6. Know That Your Credit Card May Reimburse You

In the event that you do incur additional expenses, such as an overnight stay, emergency clothing or meals, certain credit cards do offer travel delay reimbursement that'll basically pay you back for some (or all) of these things you end up purchasing out-of-pocket.

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7. Remember, Every Airline's Policy Is Different

Keep in mind that each airline has its own unique policies — some have reservations systems that automatically rebook connecting flights in the event of a delay, while others do not. Knowing how and when your airline might change your flight can help you plan ahead. Recently, I was surprised to find that after landing in Atlanta after the inbound leg of a connecting itinerary that Delta's reservation computer had automatically rebooked me onto a later connecting flight because of a departure that was 30 minutes late. My original connection had also been delayed, meaning I could now make it, but getting back on the plane involved multiple phone calls and trips to the help desk at ATL. Of course, during a delay, it's always a good idea to check for travel waivers on your airline's website during major storms and contact them directly for the most up-to-date information. Consider this handy chart for reference should you need to get in touch with a US-based airline in a hurry, with some tips for deciphering the delay policies of several major US carriers.

AmericanDeltaUnitedSouthwestVirgin America
Automated reroutingAfter 60 minutesYes, variesNoAfter 60 minutesNo
Refund after delay1 hour90 minutes2 hoursCan cancel for flight credit, request cash refund online.3 hours
Separate baggage coverageYesYes, $50 for one dayYesYes Yes
Overnight/incidental costs coveredNoNoNoSome exceptions; may help with hotel reservationsSometimes
Twitter help@AmericanAir@Delta@United@Southwest@VirginAmerica
Phone number1-800-433-73001-800-221-12121-800-864-83311-800-435-97921-877-359-8474

American Airlines

If you're delayed during the first leg of a flight, American Airlines' reservations computer will automatically attempt to rebook you after 60 minutes. The computer will consider alternate routes to your destination and will book you into confirmed seats on the next available itinerary — this booking is optional and you'll have the option of choosing another flight or braving the original one. When weather waivers are issued, passengers may also travel standby on earlier flights without risking their confirmed seat. American Airlines is renowned for its responsive social media team, which can offer help on Twitter via @AmericanAir or on Facebook.

Delta Air Lines

Delta's website is arguably the best-functioning and most intuitive of the bunch, and it can be a godsend if used properly during a weather delay or weather waiver period. In the event of a cancellation, Delta will offer a choice of alternative flights and routes, selectable through both and the Fly Delta app. Remember to check in as soon as a waiver is issued to improve your options, as alternate flights can fill up fast. If a waiver has been issued, passengers can use the website and app to change their reservations by clicking the "change reservation" button. Delta also offers rebooking assistance via its Twitter account, @Delta, and Facebook page. Passengers can also opt for a full refund if a flight is cancelled.

United Airlines

United passengers are eligible for a full refund if a flight is delayed longer than two hours. It is possible to cancel your flight either through or by calling the airline directly. During a weather delay or cancellation, United will try to accommodate passengers in confirmed seats. You may fly also opt to fly standby without risking your confirmed seat. The carrier offers social media assistance via its Twitter handle, @United, and customers can use to change or cancel their flights in accordance with any weather waiver.

Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines has a particularly generous cancellation policy that can be advantageous in the event of a weather mishap, allowing passengers to retain airline credit without penalty up to 10 minutes before departure. After switching to an alternate flight on another airline recently, my Southwest Rapid Rewards points were refunded to my account after my originally scheduled flight had departed without having to contact customer service, so I was able to save them for another day. Passengers who choose not to cancel their flights in the event of a cancellation will be automatically rebooked on the next available itinerary and may be rerouted. In my experience, airport staff are in a much better position to help with any changes than phone representatives, who are sometimes unable to modify a reservation after an airport agent has tweaked it. While the lounge workaround strategy I mentioned earlier (see point #4) is a no-go since the airline doesn't operate any of its own lounges, Southwest does offer some support via its Twitter account, @SouthwestAir, and through Facebook.

Virgin America

Virgin America's generally customer-friendly approach extends to weather delays as well. A spokesman for the airline said that while it's not the airline's policy to reimburse passengers for overnight stays and other inconveniences due to weather, Virgin America does examine situations on a case-by-case basis. Full refunds are granted for flights that are delayed three hours or more — under a weather waiver, passengers may change to a flight up to 60 days later as long as it's between the same cities. The airline doesn't tout social media support, but does respond to customers in a timely fashion via its regular Twitter handle, @VirginAmerica, suggesting people send them more specific details via direct message or by contacting the airline by phone. In my experience, Virgin America has a relatively efficient call center that can be reached at 877-359-8474, and airport staff are usually more than willing to help. Virgin America also operates Loft lounges at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and San Francisco International Airport (SFO).

Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines provides customers with exceptional flexibility in the event of weather or air-traffic-control delays. If you're unsatisfied with alternative travel options, you may opt to cancel your ticket for a full refund at any time after a delay is announced. The airline maintains a fairly responsive 24/7 twitter account, @AlaskaAir, and also operates Alaska Lounges with helpful concierge staff at major hubs including Anchorage, Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle. Priority Pass also gains you entry to any of these Board Rooms, while a day-pass can be purchased for $45.

JetBlue Airways

When the weather turns sour, JetBlue actively encourages passengers to consider options out of nearby airports, so you'll want to call the airline before you leave your home or office to find out if other options are available. If you're flying out of New York, for example, consider not only JFK, LaGuardia (LGA) and Newark Liberty (EWR), but also Westchester County Airport (HPN) in White Plains or Stewart International Airport (SWF) in New Windsor. JetBlue flies out of multiple airports in the vicinity of Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, Tampa Bay and Washington, D.C. as well, so it never hurts to branch out from the main hub. The carrier also offers refunds during weather delays and cancellations if there are no rebooking options available within the same day.

Have your own tips or success stories navigating winter weather chaos? Share them with us, below.

Featured image by Getty Images/iStockphoto

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