Another day, another travel mess: Here’s what to do if your flight is delayed or canceled
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According to Flight Aware, there’s been more than 2,000 flights cancelled on Jan. 2. More than a thousand have been delayed as of 10 a.m. Sunday. It’s a real mess, and it’s been a daily occurrence now for more than a week. New Year’s Day was worse with more than 2,400 cancellations.
The omicron variant has wreaked havoc on the holiday travel season, thousands of flights being canceled across the U.S. every day.
To make matters worse, bad weather in many parts of the country has added to delays and cancelations, making travel more unpredictable than we expected.
Whether it is due to severe weather, a stretched aviation system, tight staffing, a strike or other unplanned event, you can find yourself stuck at your origin, destination or even in the middle of your journey in a place you hadn’t planned to visit.
When you draw the unlucky straw and have a very delayed or canceled flight, sometimes you just have to wait it out. Other times, how you react to airline delays and cancellations will greatly influence how and when you get where you are going.
In light of all the recent delays and cancellations, today we’ll discuss how to decrease your chances of getting stuck during airline delays and cancellations and increase your chances of getting home faster.
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How to find out your flight might be delayed
You can see general flight trends across the country on FlightAware, which gives you a good overview of how a day in the sky looks. Here’s a direct link to the page that focuses on delays. I recommend manually checking the status of your flight in the 24 hours leading up to travel on your airline’s website (and check where the plane is coming from, if possible).
Also, opt in for flight notifications with your airline and have the carrier’s app on your phone. Here are some details on that process with American and United. Alternatively, you can get flight status updates sent directly from FlightAware.
When to arrive at the airport if your flight is delayed
This can be a tricky question to answer. If your flight is still listed as “on time” when you check the app, leave for the airport according to schedule. Once you’re at the gate, you may or may not experience a delay. Sometimes you’re really at the whim of airline operations or Mother Nature. Even if your flight does show as delayed in the app, that is usually subject to change, so it’s best to be at the airport ready to go at the originally scheduled time in most cases.
Remember that bad weather will sometimes cause a temporary ground stop at the airport. As soon as the weather gets better, the stop is lifted and airlines try to get their flights off the ground ASAP.
What to do if there is bad weather
Bad weather is the bane of all travelers. Monitor weather patterns starting a few days before your flight. It’s especially important to check the forecast on the day of travel to see how any issues are affecting your departure and arrival airports. Again, be sure you have opted in to getting updates on your flight’s status. If you know bad weather is coming later in the day, ask for an earlier flight if you can.
More and more airlines are allowing travelers to change plans with no fare difference in advance of severe weather problems, like an impending blizzard, ice storm or even a heavy thunderstorm. Some will even proactively change your flight for you.
If you know bad weather is on the horizon, either go to your airline’s website and look for an advisory notice or call the airline. If an airline gets ahead of weather issues, you may be able to reschedule your flight by a few days in either direction with no change fees. However, if the airline hasn’t issued its own advisory, you could have to pay out of pocket for any flight change fees.
What to do if your airline has a strike
If the airline you’re flying has on strike when you’re supposed to travel, you can be in a tough spot. If the airline has advance notice of the strike, it may be able to rebook or refund your travel, but the airline is not necessarily required to do that.
Your best bet, if your airline isn’t operating on your travel days, is to try to reach out via Twitter for assistance (it’s almost certainly more efficient to reach them online than over the phone when call volumes are likely to be astronomical). You should also see if your credit card offers any extra trip protections. You may be covered there, even if the airline can’t help.
If you are traveling to Europe, you’ll want to brush up on some extra protections offered for canceled or severely delayed flights to or from that region.
If your flight is delayed or canceled
If you realize your flight is likely to be delayed based on where it’s coming from, keep a close eye on your flight’s status. If a delay becomes reality and you want an alternative to waiting it out, check the airline’s app or in-airport kiosk for rebooking options.
You do not have to stand in line to talk to a real person in many cases, as you can self-service the rebooking with many major airlines. In fact, it may be faster to do it online or at a kiosk in the airport — and speed matters. You may have the option of not only new flight times, but new “nearby” origin and destination cities.
There are times when the automated rebooking systems are not your best option. Facing hours of delay and potential cancellation on a recent flight, my only automated option for a Thursday evening flight to from Orlando to Houston was a flight that got me home Sunday morning at 12:10 a.m. via Cleveland or Washington, D.C. … roughly three days later.
If you can’t find what you need online, you might need a human in uniform — but not just any uniform. You need an airline employee who knows how to work the ticketing desk. Look at the uniforms and name tags so you can get a ticket agent and not a baggage handler or similar.
If you have airline club access at a United Club, Delta Sky Club or similar, you can head there for help with potentially shorter lines. Also, consider calling the airline or utilizing social media (such as messaging the airline on Twitter) if lines at the airport are long. If the U.S. call center has a long hold time (which happens during widespread weather issues), you can try dialing an international number for faster service.
If there are no reasonable booking options left with your carrier, ask if there are options on another airline. If the delay is weather-related, and you are on a basic economy ticket or on a low-cost carrier, there might not be other airline options at your fingertips. Still, it is worth asking and — if possible — presenting available options you have researched yourself.
In my case, an airline employee got me on the standby list for another flight to Houston. Unfortunately, I missed getting on by three people, so that didn’t help me get home faster. Travelers with elite status will generally get preference on the standby list.
Shop for new tickets
Sometimes, if you really need to get home, you may need to do the work and lay out the expenditure yourself. In an Orlando-Houston delay, I found that American Airlines had an award on a connecting itinerary available that night for 30,000 miles, and Southwest had a nonstop flight to Houston Hobby available for $463. In the end, I went for the Southwest option and my original United ticket was refunded, offsetting some of the pain of a new ticket.
Check airport hotels
While thinking through what to do in case of a flight delay or cancellation, consider your options at airport hotels, which can fill up if there are major delays and cancellations. Sometimes it is best to pull the plug on getting home that day, get some good rest and try again in the morning. Airport hotels are generally pretty affordable on points, although cash rates can skyrocket when demand surges. Accommodations are typically one of those expenses covered by trip delay protection, offered by cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve and The Platinum Card® from American Express.
Retreat to a lounge
If you can get into a lounge at the airport, use it as a spot to gather your thoughts, charge your phone and make level-headed decisions. In airline lounges such as the United Club or Delta Sky Club, the agents might be able to help you change or track your flight. In third-party lounges, such as an Amex Centurion Lounge, you won’t be able to get that type of airline-specific assistance, but you’re still probably in a better spot to wait out the storm than in a crowded terminal.
Make a decision
If you are indecisive in the face of delays and cancellations, your flight options are likely to disappear, as hundreds (or thousands) of other passengers will beat you to the rebooking if you don’t move quickly. Weigh your realistic options and make a quick decision if you want to keep some control of your schedule.
If you are OK getting stuck somewhere for a bit or taking a creative route, waiting for the airline to direct you is a feasible option. Just don’t stress about your decision once you make it. If you are stuck along your journey, your credit card’s built-in travel protections may cover unexpected expenses not covered by the airline (such as a hotel for an overnight weather delay, though not a new flight).
In my Orlando example, my original flight was stuck in Denver with a five-hour weather delay, so those odds of that flight getting me where I needed to be that day didn’t seem great to me. When I didn’t clear standby on the other United flight to Houston from Orlando that night, I made a decision and stuck with it.
I left the terminal that United utilizes and headed to my new Southwest flight in another terminal (having Clear and PreCheck helped with that quick transition). Yes, that cost me a new flight home, but I had to make that call right then or roll the dice on my United flight making it out that day. I wasn’t in a gambling mood when it came to getting home.
Ask for a refund
If you decide not to fly your originally scheduled flight in light of major delays and cancellations, get your money or points back — do not settle for a voucher. You may have a cancel-and-refund option available to you online or in the airline’s app. If not, you can ask an airline employee for assistance in person or over the phone. Just be sure to cancel your original flight before its eventual departure so you can get the money or miles (hopefully) returned.
How to keep earning miles from home
You might not be spending as much time in the skies as you used to yet but that doesn’t mean that you have to stop earning valuable rewards. Here are some cards that help you rack up points from the comfort of your home. Several of them also confer valuable travel protections for when you do have a delayed or canceled flight.
American Express® Gold Card – For U.S. supermarket purchases and food deliveries from Grubhub and Seamless. Use this card to earn 4x points when buying groceries or ordering meal deliveries via Grubhub and Seamless from U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 in purchases per calendar year, then 1x). TPG values these points at 2 cents each, so that’s an 8% return on spending. You may even be able to score additional savings via Amex Offers. Once things get back to normal, your stash of Membership Rewards points will go a long way toward booking a much-deserved vacation.
Chase Sapphire Reserve – For free food delivery, credits and bonus points. If you’re tired of cooking your own meals, switch things up with a food delivery service. Enjoy complimentary DashPass membership, which includes free deliveries via DoorDash and Caviar.
Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express – For select U.S. streaming services, U.S. gas stations and groceries at U.S. supermarkets. Whether you’re stocking up on groceries or renewing your Netflix subscription, this card has you covered with generous category bonuses. You’ll earn 6% cash back on up to $6,000 in purchases at U.S. supermarkets each calendar year (then 1%), plus 6% on select U.S. streaming services. Cash back is received in the form of Reward Dollars that can be redeemed for statement credits.
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card – For travel insurance. When you’re back on the road, you’ll be glad to have this card in your wallet because of its suite of travel protections. We’ve all learned the value of travel insurance and these protections lately. The Chase Sapphire Preferred includes trip cancellation and interruption insurance, trip delay reimbursement, travel and emergency assistance services and more.
Most of the time, your flight will get you where you need to be, when you want to be there. Even if your flight is delayed by an hour or two, there’s not usually much to do other than be patient. However, when facing a long delay or cancellation, it’s good to have a plan so you reduce the odds of being stuck. Given the common theme of full loads on flights these days, acting quickly, researching options and making a (quick) decision will put you ahead of the pack.
Additional reporting by Benji Stawski and Benét J. Wilson
Featured photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images.
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