How to Get Home After a Natural Disaster Like Hurricane Irma

Sep 12, 2017

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Ahead of Hurricane Irma’s landfall in Florida, almost seven million people were ordered to evacuate. The evacuation order affected around 30 percent of the entire population of Florida — this was one of the largest evacuations in US history, and more than double in size any other hurricane evacuation in US history.

Now, all of those evacuees have to get back home. From the experience of TPG staffers trying to escape the storm and get back to Florida afterwards, here are our tips on how to do so:

Make Sure It’s Safe to Return

Before you head back, it’s important to check with local authorities if you’re able to return to your home. After a natural disaster, local police may restrict access to an area while they check to see if it’s safe to enter.

Set-Up ExpertFlyer Notifications

All flights sold out? Well, maybe not for good. As passengers booked on flights into disaster areas cancel their trips or rebook on later flights, availability might open up later on. Rather than obsessively searching the airline’s website, utilize ExpertFlyer to set award availability and revenue availability alerts.

You might be surprised how many alerts you’ll get. I set alerts for four sold-out Southwest flights from Tampa (TPA) to Atlanta (ATL) ahead of Hurricane Irma, and received alerts from ExpertFlyer for all four flights.

ExpertFlyer Irma evacuation

Don’t Hesitate to Book, Use Free Cancellations

Flights returning to an area after a disaster are likely to be packed, both with those returning home and those with other reasons to be in the area. This issue is typically compounded by reduced flight operations. So, if you see a reasonable flight option, don’t hesitate to book it.

My father employed this strategy for escaping from Florida before Hurricane Irma. Since he was unsure where he was going to evacuate, we booked both a Delta flight from Tampa to Washington, DC and a Southwest flight to Birmingham, Alabama. Both airlines allow free cancellations and refunds even when booked the day before the flight.

Southwest has a straightforward 24-hour refund policy. As part of its Risk-Free Cancellation policy, Delta allows free cancellation and full refund until midnight the day after the ticket is purchased, but no later than midnight the morning of departure. United also has a 24-hour cancellation policy but is subject to a few more terms.

One notable exception: American Airlines. As a primarily American Airlines flyer, I often use AA’s free hold option. This holds both the seat and the fare for at least 24 hours. However, one major limitation of this is that this hold option is not available if the flight is within seven days of departure. However, AA recently changed its refund policy to allow for a full refund if you cancel within 24 hours, but only if you booked at least two days before departure.

Monitor Airport Reopening

After a disaster, airports may be shuttered for days as damage is assessed and repaired. For Hurricane Irma, many Florida airports were closed for a few days — and some still are. It’s important to closely monitor the airport status so you aren’t surprised by a flight cancellation by the airline.

Currently, a couple of Florida airfields are open but the terminal is closed for lingering power outages. If you’re scheduled to fly into an airport in this situation, consider checking with the airline to see if you can rebook yourself on a flight a day or two later. If you wait until the flight is cancelled, availability on later flights might fill up quickly and leave you stranded longer.

Employ Status

Airline status is nice for perks like upgrades, lounge access and free checked bags. But, it’s times where you need an agent as soon as possible when the value of airline elite status can really shine.

For my American Airlines flight change (from TPA-ORD to ATL-ORD) in the midst of the evacuation frenzy, calling the Executive Platinum desk got me an agent in a few seconds. The whole rebooking process took mere minutes and allowed me to snag availability on a flight that filled up a few hours later.

While my father was packing up to evacuate Tampa, I called Southwest’s reservation center to add a pet reservation to his flight. The standard reservation line had an 84-minute wait. I hung up, called back and entered his A-List Preferred number and got an agent in seconds.

TPG Chief of Staff Adam Kotkin called JetBlue to book flights for friends evacuating Hurricane Irma. Thanks to his Mosaic status, an agent picked up immediately — noting that the standard wait was 39 minutes for the 1,500 other callers on hold.

Utilize International Call Centers or Twitter

If you don’t have elite status and need to speak with an agent, consider calling an international call center to reach an agent quicker. Yes, there might be some extra cost, but you might be able to scoop up flights before others waiting on hold with the US call centers.

Or, you can try contacting airlines over Twitter. That’s what I did when my flight from Nagoya, Japan (NGO) to Guam (GUM) was cancelled last month due to a typhoon. The app and website provided no rebooking options and I wasn’t thrilled about a long phone call from overseas. The United Twitter team did a great job of rebooking us on the first flight option available.

Don’t Wait to Rebook

If you receive a flight cancellation notification, jump on the situation as soon as possible. Remember that there’s likely a planeful of passengers in your same situation and likely light availability on other flights. The quicker you address the situation means the quicker you can get home.

Monitor Airline Disaster Fares

Some airlines got a lot of bad press for “price gouging” passengers trying to evacuate Florida ahead of Hurricane Irma. Some airlines, like JetBlue, instituted price caps shortly later. One TPG reader reported paying $700 for a one-way JetBlue flight to get her daughter out of South Florida. Once the price cap was set, she contacted JetBlue and the airline refunded her $550.

Fly Into a Nearby Airport

If operations are struggling to resume at your home airport, consider flying into a nearby airport and renting a car or using a bus service like Megabus to take you the rest of the way. For South Florida, this is easier than other places, with Miami (MIA), West Palm Beach (PBI) and Fort Lauderdale (FLL) airports all fairly close.

Are there any other tips you’d add to the list?

Featured image by Christophe Archambault / Getty Images

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