Winter is coming: 6 real-life strategies you can use when your flight is canceled or delayed
It's beginning to look a lot like winter across the United States.
Snow and ice are currently blanketing much of the Midwest and AccuWeather predicts that "a significant storm" will evolve later this week, "threatening to bring a wide swath of snow, rain and fierce winds from the Plains to the Atlantic Seaboard" just in time for Christmas.
As a result, if you're flying this week, your flight may be delayed, perhaps significantly, or even canceled.
Around the internet and on social media, it’s not hard to find lofty advice on how to make the most out of cancellations and lengthy delays — such as finding fine print loopholes or gaming the system.
The idea of demanding a voucher for the cost of your flight or scoring a swanky stay at a nearby hotel at the airline’s expense sounds great. However, that’s rarely the reality of what happens when your flight is disrupted due to a winter storm.
Here are the real-life strategies TPG staffers use to deal with flight hiccups when Mother Nature blows snow and ice their way.
Using FlightAware to get ahead
While there is no way to predict which flights will be canceled or delayed, you can sometimes get a heads-up before everyone else by monitoring flights on sites like FlightAware.
TPG senior reporter Katie Genter uses this strategy to stay ahead of the game and potentially beat out other travelers when rebooking flights.
When a flight becomes delayed (or if a flight should be boarding but the aircraft isn’t at the gate and no delays have been announced), she’ll check what FlightAware (or a similar site) shows.
You can click “see where my plane is now” to check whether it’s even inbound yet, which may give a better picture of what timeline to expect for delays.
Additionally, a flight showing zeroed out (which means the airline has stopped selling tickets) could indicate a cancellation, especially if it’s well in advance of a flight.
It's not a surefire way to determine when a flight is going to be canceled — airlines stop selling seats for a number of reasons, including a sold-out flight. However, it is a tool to get more information.
Once you realize a flight is going to be canceled, see if you can make a same-day change on the app for a new flight that works.
You can also call customer service to double-check that the flight is canceled and see about getting rebooked on the next available flight.
Genter notes that elite status call lines are great for this type of assistance, so if you have status with the airline, make sure to utilize that perk.
Being among the first to rebook will give you more options. Once everyone affected starts calling in and rebooking, seats on upcoming available flights will go quickly.
Related: 5 things to know about airline travel alerts
Get reimbursed for expenses
Know your rights and take stock of your credit card protections. It will require you to read some fine print, but you may be entitled to accommodations, credits or expense reimbursement by the airline or from your credit card (usually depending on the length of your delay and the reason for delay or cancellation).
Many travel credit cards offer trip delay insurance that can save you money when you’re stuck somewhere. It won’t help you avoid cancellations or delays. However, it could help cover expenses while you wait for your flight.
For example, when a TPG reporter's JetBlue flight was delayed for more than eight hours, she knew that according to its customer bill of rights she was entitled to a $200 credit (which actually more than covered what she had originally paid).
Additionally, by using trip delay protection on your credit card, you can get reimbursed for any expenses during your delay — such as an airline lounge day pass or a meal.
What you can get will vary by airline, but knowing the fine print will help you make the most of unfortunate hiccups during your travels.
Related: How to avoid airline change and cancellation fees
Call customer service (or reach out on Twitter)
It also never hurts to call customer service to see how the airline can help you — especially if you hold elite status with the airline you’re flying.
Although an agent may not be able to work any miracles to rebook you on a same-day flight to your destination, you can often get a flight credit or some other consolation for the inconvenience.
TPG contributor Benét Wilson had a direct flight from San Antonio to Baltimore get canceled on her way to the airport last winter.
She was unable to get a same-day flight out and ended up having to rebook with another airline. However, a call to Southwest did get her a $300 voucher.
“I called Southwest to make sure they didn’t cancel my Saturday return flight. The agent found a flight but it was SAT to ATL to MYR to BWI, with a late arrival,” Wilson said.
“He gave me a $300 LUV voucher for the inconvenience of the canceled flight. I used a travel credit to book the original flight, and the canceled part has already been redeposited to my account.”
Alternatively, many TPG staffers have found success reaching out to an airline on Twitter when customer service lines are busy.
The first leg of my American Airlines flight from New York City to Arkansas before Christmas was delayed, causing me to miss my connection.
Reaching out to American Airlines on Twitter helped ensure I was rebooked on the earliest possible flight.
While that still required me to spend a long layover in Charlotte, it was better (and less stressful) than rushing to the customer service desk to try and rebook upon arrival in Charlotte.
Strategically book your layovers
Speaking of that long layover in Charlotte, it’s a good example of why I always try to book layovers in cities where I have friends and family. Of course, this isn’t always possible, but some planning (and a willingness to have a slightly longer layover) could save you a headache (and a lot of money) later.
Because I had strategically picked Charlotte (instead of Washington, D.C.) for my layover on my way home, I was able to call a friend who lived in the area to pick me up from the airport when my one-hour layover turned into an almost 9-hour stint in Charlotte due to that original delay.
Instead of spending all day in the airport, I was able to spend time with a friend, get some non-airport food and take a nap on her couch.
Show up early for standby flights
If you get a heads-up that your flight is canceled or delayed in advance, getting to the airport early could score you a same-day standby flight that gets you to your destination early.
TPG engineering manager Steve Romain was able to avoid an overnight stay by utilizing this strategy.
A hiccup with his flight from Austin to New York City would have caused him to miss a connection in Dallas.
“Since I was A-List, I showed up at the ATX airport a bit earlier and did a free same-day standby onto an earlier flight that connected into a different city, and A-List bumped me to the top of the standby list.”
Note that getting on the standby list isn’t a foolproof method, especially if the earlier flight is almost full.
Having elite status (Romain has A-List with Southwest, for example) can certainly help since you’ll have priority over non-elite members. Also, some airlines charge a fee for non-elite members to be put on the standby list for an earlier flight.
Related: Delta’s now allowing non-elites to stand by for an earlier flight for free
Fly into a different airport
If you’re really itching to get home, you can also attempt to rebook a flight to another airport before using another method to get home.
This is TPG senior travel editor Melanie Lieberman’s top strategy when dealing with flight delays or cancellations that would require her to wait a day or more to get back home.
For example, if your flight from L.A. to New York City is canceled with no same-day rebooking options to fly into New York you may check to see if you can get on a flight to Philadelphia. From there, you can book a train to get the rest of the way back to New York.
If you don’t live in an area with easy access to train routes or buses, you can also try to do a one-way car rental to get from an alternative airport back home.
This method may not be for everyone — especially if you are able to get booked on a same-day flight or if you don’t mind staying the night in a hotel. However, it’s an option for those who need to get home as quickly as possible.
Bottom line: Know your rights
Unfortunately, occasional cancellations and delays are a reality of flying — especially right now. They aren’t always avoidable, but there are ways you can mitigate the fallout.
This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of everything you can do, but these are the strategies TPG staffers use regularly to pivot when we are faced with pesky cancellations and long flight delays.
At the end of the day, the best thing you can do is know your rights and feel empowered to ask an airline (politely) for help.
Whether it’s getting you rebooked on the best possible flight, setting you up with accommodations, giving you a flight credit or adding miles to your loyalty account as a consolation, it never hurts to see what an airline can do for you in the case of a cancellation or delay.
Additional reporting by Melissa Klurman.