What to do if your flight is delayed or canceled?

Sep 13, 2019

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By mid-September 2019, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, more than 719,000 flights have been delayed and more than 85,000 others have been cancelled. That’s already worse than for all of 2018, and this year is far from over. Multiply those numbers out by how many people are on the planes and you get millions of impacted travelers each and every year.

Whether it is weather, a stretched aviation system (with an entire aircraft type still on the ground), 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 state 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.

Here’s how to decrease your chances of getting stuck during airline delays and cancellations and increase your chances of getting home faster.

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 at how the 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 airline’s app on your phone. Here are some details on that process with American and United. Alternatively, you can get flight status updates sent 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 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 or arrival airports. Again, be sure you have opted in to getting updates on your flight’s status. If you know 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 in advance of severe weather problems, like an impending blizzard, ice storm or even heavy thunderstorm day. 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 goes 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 to the airline on 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 the Europe, you’ll want to brush up on some extra protections offered for cancelled 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 Dulles … roughly three days later.

Summer Hull

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 SkyClub 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 an international number for faster service.

Image by Zach Honig / The Points Guy
(Image by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)

If there are no reasonable bookings 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 option 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. Elite status fliers 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 my recent 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 that option and my original United ticket was refunded, offsetting some of the pain of a new ticket.

Image by Summer Hull / The Points Guy
(Image by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Your credit card’s built-in trip delay or trip cancellation coverage can help with many expenses, but a brand-new flight home isn’t likely to be one of them. Spending $19 in advance on Freebird may be worth considering, since that service will book you a new flight home (on its dime) if your flight is cancelled or severely delayed.

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, though cash rates can skyrocket when demand surges.

Hyatt Regency MCO entrance (Summer Hull / The Points Guy)
Hyatt Regency MCO entrance. (Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

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 SkyClub, the agents might be able to help you change or track your flight. In third-party lounges, such as the 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.

Related: Best credit cards for airport lounge access

Amex Centurion Lounge. (Photo by Katherine Fan/The Points Guy)

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 (CLEAR and PreCheck helped with that quick transition). Yes, that cost me a new flight home, but it was 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.

PreCheck and CLEAR saved tons of time when changing terminals (Summer Hull / The Points Guy)
PreCheck and CLEAR saved tons of time when changing terminals. (Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

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. You may have a cancel and refund option available to you online or in the airline’s app. If not, you can ask a real 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.

Bottom line

Roughly 80% 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 of flights these days, acting quickly, researching options and making a (quick) decision will put you ahead of the pack.

Read on for more tips to deal with airline delays and cancellations:

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Featured image by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

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