Missed your flight? Here’s what to do

Feb 3, 2022

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Travel is amazing and filled with adventure, but you have to get to your destination before the fun can begin.

As hard as we try, life sometimes gets in the way, and you don’t get to the airport in time for your flight. So, what steps should you take to minimize the damage when you miss a flight? It largely depends on who is at fault.

When you miss a flight, it’s either your fault or the airline’s fault. How you approach the situation, what compensation you’re entitled to, and what to do next largely depends on who is at fault. Let’s take a closer look at your options and what you can do to salvage a trip if you’re running late.

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In This Post

When missing the flight is your fault

Sad traveler with multiple suitcases and a backpack
If you miss a flight, you may be able to get on another. (Photo by Farknot Architect/Shutterstock.com)

Maybe you left your house too late, missed the bus or slept past your alarm. But just because you goofed up doesn’t mean that all is lost. Here’s what to do next if you’re at fault for missing a flight.

What is the “flat tire” rule?

Most airlines have an unofficial “flat tire” policy that allows passengers to rebook their flight without penalty if they just missed their flight or are running late. Your best bet is to call the airline before your flight departs to let them know that you don’t think you’ll make the flight. This allows them to rebook you quickly and board standby passengers who might have otherwise not been able to fly.

Flat tire rules vary by airline, but here are the rules for a few of the most popular domestic airlines:

  • American Airlines. A passenger who arrives within two hours of scheduled departure time can be rebooked on the next flight as a standby traveler without paying change fees or the difference in fare.
  • Delta Air Lines. Delta doesn’t have a specific policy, so they handle situations on a case-by-case basis.
  • JetBlue Airlines. The official policy is that you’ll forfeit the non-refundable portion of your ticket if you miss a flight. But, the airline typically allows passengers who missed their flight to wait on standby for the next available flight at no additional cost. Additionally, you can be proactive and perform a same-day switch or ask to fly standby prior to your departure time by paying a flat fee of $75 per person.
  • Southwest Airlines. While Southwest allows all passengers to change or cancel flights without penalty before departure, you have to pay the difference in fare. However, the flat tire rule accommodates passengers that arrive within two hours of scheduled departure on the next available flight.
  • United Airlines. United also doesn’t have a specific flat tire policy, but passengers can be rebooked if you contact the airline or arrive at the airport within 30 minutes of your scheduled departure.

Related: American Airlines will now rebook passengers who miss flights by a few minutes at no additional cost

Flying standby on the next flight

If you can’t get a confirmed seat on the next flight, flying standby can be a good option. Although many planes are full (or even oversold), not everyone shows up. After all, you’re not the only one missing your flight today.

A standby ticket allows you to fly on the next flight, assuming space is available to accommodate you on the plane. Many airlines will let you standby for a later flight for free if you miss your flight, whether under the airline’s standby policy or otherwise. It’s always worth explaining your situation and asking the gate agent to add you to the waitlist if they can’t confirm you on the next flight.

Consider rebooking on a budget airline

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Although you’ve missed your first flight, you shouldn’t let that ruin your vacation. If the airline cannot or will not accommodate you, consider buying a cheap ticket on a budget airline to get to your destination. It may not be the best in-flight experience, but you won’t miss much of your vacation, and you won’t be stuck at the airport hoping for the standby reservation to turn into a confirmed ticket.

Thankfully, you can often book last-minute one-way flights cheaply at the last minute. For example, this Spirit flight from Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) to Las Vegas (LAS) costs just under $96 on the day of departure.

ORD to LAS Spirit ticket
(Screenshot courtesy of spirit.com)

Likewise, this last-minute Frontier flight from Minneapolis (MSP) to Denver (DEN) is just $99 the day of departure, or $89 if you have a Discount Den membership.

MSP to DEN Frontier ticket
(Screenshot courtesy of flyfrontier.com)

Assuming you’ve booked two one-way tickets, the return flight will still be intact. Just keep in mind that many airlines will cancel the entire itinerary if you miss the first flight. For that reason, I always book two one-ways, even if it means paying a little extra.

Related: Why I (almost) always book one-way flights

Use your miles to book a last-minute ticket

While many of us dream of using miles for an exotic vacation, our rewards can also be used in case of an emergency. Most airlines have eliminated close-in booking fees, so there’s no financial penalty for booking a last-minute flight.

In some cases, award prices are low for last-minute tickets because the seat will otherwise fly empty. Loyalty programs that use dynamic pricing sometimes have these cheap deals, such as United MileagePlus and Delta SkyMiles

Delta EWR to BOS last minute award flight
(Screenshot courtesy of delta.com)

Or, you can take advantage of programs with a fixed award chart if there’s saver space available. If you missed a short-haul domestic flight, your best bets are booking United flights with Avianca LifeMiles or American and Alaska flights with British Airways Avios.

MIA to ATL last minute British Airways award flight
(Screenshot courtesy of britishairways.com)

Take a flight at a later date

Worst case, you can always rebook for another time. Many airlines now offer free cancellation on tickets, so if you know that you aren’t going to make it, consider canceling your flight before it departs to avoid losing your money or your miles.

Alternatively, you can try to rebook your flight for the next day or whenever the next available flight is. Of course, many of us have fixed vacation schedules due to work and school constraints. While it is a bummer to cut your vacation short, you can still have a wonderful time if you are there for one or two days less than you originally planned.

Related: Why you should wait to change or cancel your flight if you want your money back

When it is the airline’s fault

Terminal 3 and Terminal G: San Francisco (SFO)
When the airline causes you to miss a flight, it will almost always rebook you for free. (Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

The airlines can also be the reason why you miss a flight. With staffing shortages, winter weather, and illnesses among cabin crew, it’s easy for a domino chain reaction to occur and thousands of flights to be canceled or delayed. In turn, these delays and cancellations can sometimes cause you to miss a connecting flight.

Here’s what to do if you find yourself in this situation.

Speak to an agent immediately

Speak with an airline’s representative at the first sign of trouble with your flight. 

Do not wait for confirmation that your flight will be delayed or canceled. The representative can let you know the status of your flight and help rebook you so that you don’t miss any more of your vacation than you need to.

If you wait too long, you’ll quickly find yourself at the end of a very long line of other passengers in the same situation as you. While there may be a few available seats on the next flight, they are limited. The people who were first in line will get them, while everyone else at the back of the line will be stuck waiting on standby or confirmed on a later flight.

Try changing your flight online

If a canceled or delayed flight causes you to miss a connection, you may be able to change your flight online or using the airline’s mobile app. Look into this option immediately when your flight is canceled or delayed, as it can save you time and energy at the airport.

Call international call centers

When you’re in a long line, call the airline to try to give yourself the best chance of snagging an available seat on the next flight. However, if there’s a big weather event, many travelers will be calling them too, and the hold times can be really long.

One way around those long hold times is to call the airline’s customer service team in another country. Those agents typically aren’t dealing with the same call volume as local agents, so their phone lines won’t be as busy. If you’re worried about the international calling rates, try using Google Voice which may have lower calling rates.

Additionally, make sure to call the elite line if you have elite status with the airline you’re flying. Elite call centers generally have shorter wait times and better-trained agents, which can go a long way when you’re in a bind.

Visit the airline’s lounge

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Airport lounges are there for more than free drinks, food, and Wi-Fi. The desk agents are also there to help you with your flight needs. Plus, you won’t have to deal with the same long lines since access to the lounge is generally restricted to eligible fliers, people with the right credit cards, and lounge members.

Some lounges sell day passes, which might be worth the fee if it means that you can get on the next flight instead of being stuck in the airport overnight. Alternatively, consider opening one of these credit cards that includes lounge access.

Use your credit card benefits

Many travel credit cards include trip delay, interruption, and cancelation benefits that protect you when flights go bad. When you know that your flight will be affected, contact the card issuer that you purchased the ticket with to determine your options.

Typically, your flight must be delayed by a certain number of hours before benefits kick in. However, being proactive gives you the information to make decisions when speaking with airline representatives. If the airline can’t get on the next flight until tomorrow, but your credit card benefits will reimburse you for a hotel stay near the airport, you can save hundreds in the process.

Related: The best credit cards that offer trip cancellation and interruption insurance

Bottom line

Missing a flight can be frustrating, but you have options to salvage your trip.

The path to take depends on whether missing the flight was your fault or the airlines. In either case, you need to act quickly to protect your trip and secure the next available seat on an upcoming flight. Be flexible in your approach and, most of all, always be kind to whoever you’re speaking with. A little kindness in a stressful situation can go a long way towards getting your trip back on track.

Feature photo by Dmitry Marchenko/EyeEm via Getty Images

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