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Don't Get Stranded: What to Do During Airline Diversions

May 14, 2019
10 min read
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"Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain, and as you may have noticed, we've been circling over Arkansas for the last few minutes hoping for the weather to clear in Houston. But we are now going to need to divert to Tulsa, to obtain additional fuel and await clearer weather in Houston." This is how the experience started. It wouldn't end for 22 hours and, for some, low points included having their belongings scattered by a bus along an Oklahoma highway in the middle of the night and not getting a room until 3:30am.

The sunset was pretty but there were storms nearby. (Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

But before we get to the bus portion of the experience, there were four hours with my fellow 150-ish United passengers in the otherwise closed Tulsa airport where we had diverted due to weather at our final destination. A stocked United snack cart awaited us as we deplaned to start a wait-and-see game in an airport that, at that time of the day, otherwise only featured two lonely vending machines for refreshments.

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The diversion snack cart that awaited us in Tulsa. (Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

We didn't make it to Houston that night, but instead found ourselves bussed at 1am to hotels in an Oklahoma office park, a state that none of us had planned to visit on that particular evening. No one can control the weather, but there were events in that 22-hour experience that taught me a thing or two about what helps and what hurts during an airline diversion. I didn't have a great time on my unintended Oklahoma overnight, but some passengers had it much worse.

Here's what to do if you are a passenger on a plane that diverts.

Prepare in Advance

About one-fifth of the commercial flights in the United States are affected by a delay of some sort. While most ultimately make it to their intended destination on the same day, enough don't that you need to always prepare for your trip as if your flight will be one of the unlucky few that are canceled, delayed or diverted. In February, 1,606 flights in the United States were diverted -- representing 0.30% of total flight operations that month.

This (small) risk means always packing enough extra clothes, meds, diapers and other essentials for an extra night. Don't put any items in your checked bags that you would need if you were diverted for a few hours -- chargers, baby supplies, etc. Also have the downloaded apps, or at least the phone numbers, of all your travel providers before taking off.

Last, but far from least, use the right credit card to book your trip. While an airline will potentially help you with some expenses in a diversion, there are plenty of times that the extra costs will be yours and yours alone. However, if you paid for your trip with a credit card that features built-in trip delay or trip interruption coverage, then you can pass along the bills for your extra meals, transportation and lodging expenses to someone else. For example, after six hours (or for an overnight delay), the Chase Sapphire Reserve provides up to $500 per ticket in trip delay reimbursement claims if you used that card, or points from that card, to book your airline ticket.

Related: The Best Credit Cards for Travel Protections

Research Options

As soon as you know your flight is diverting, switch into research mode -- especially if it is unclear how long the diversion will last. A quick refueling is one thing. Waiting out a storm or a mechanical problem is another. While you may ultimately just need to wait it out, check and see what other flights can get you where you need to be. Or, if you diverted to an airport relatively close to your final destination, start thinking through if you could use alternative ground transportation options to go the rest of the way. Note those expenses may not be reimbursable, but still worth considering.

Hopefully you charged your flight to a credit card with good built-in protections, but now is a good time to double-check which credit card you used and see the current travel benefit offerings.

One big issue that can come into play with diversions, is if the crew goes over their legally allowed workable hours (aka, "times out"). I've found that you can't always get a straight answer on when that will happen if you ask them this question, but sometimes they will tell you. If you are at a remote airport and your crew times out, there's a good chance you may be waiting there for a while for a new crew.

Screen Shot Your Boarding Pass

If you don't already have a paper boarding pass in hand, screen shot your mobile boarding pass if your flight diverts. You may need to show your boarding pass down the road to continue on the flight or to check into an airline-provided hotel, but the boarding pass may disappear from the airline's mobile app after a period of time.

Get Comfy, but Stay Close

If you are lucky enough to have diverted to an airport where you have access to a gate and can go into the terminal, do so. That's more comfortable than sitting on the plane. But, don't wander too far as announcements may be reserved for those in the gate area and the airline's app may not continue to display accurate information about the flight. If the plane does get cleared to go, you don't want to be left off because you didn't hear the announcements.

(Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

While killing time in the airport, if you have the option of sitting near airline crew, do that. You may hear unofficial updates (and speculation) about the flight that aren't made to the general public. On my most recent diversion, there was a large contingent of off-duty airline staff on the flight who knew we were spending the night in Oklahoma far before the official announcement came.

Don't Leave Without a Plan

The only way information about my recent diversion was shared to me was in person from airline staff at the airport. There was no pop-up message in the app, no email, no flight status update, nothing. Until you have a (new) plan to get where you are going, don't leave the herd at the gate unless you are willing to risk prolonging your delay.

That said, you don't have to necessarily just take what the airline gives you. Be proactive and if the delay drags on, don't be afraid to push for alternative options. If the line at the airport to talk to an agent is too long, consider calling or tweeting the airline for help. In my case, some folks on the diverted flight did get on a regularly scheduled earlier flight from Tulsa to Houston the next morning. The rest of us where still in Oklahoma until the following afternoon -- at which point therapy dogs arrived because we'd been there so long.

A highlight was when the therapy dogs arrived the next day. (Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

Don't Take the Bus

If your diversion is going to last overnight, the airline may provide you a hotel room. In some cases they are able to get very large blocks of rooms and send stranded passengers to hotels en masse. My advice: Wait around with the group long enough to know where you are being put up for the night (and when you need to return the next day), but do not take the airline provided bus to the hotel -- even if you take the provided hotel.

Passengers waiting for a bus at 1am. (Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

You've probably already had a long travel day, but imagine what happens when 100+ people show up at once to check into a hotel. I took an Uber to our assigned hotel with two other women and beat the bus by a few minutes. We only had a 15-minute delay to check in at 1:15am. However, some stranded passengers who took the bus and were at the end of the line were still checking in at 3:30am.

An entire 737 checking into a hotel at the same time. (Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

They lost two hours of sleep by taking the bus. As an aside, some also lost their bags as the bus driver forgot to latch the back door and luggage was scattered on the highway -- not all of it was recovered.

Just got to the hotel that @United is putting us up in for the night in #Tulsa. Bus driver forgot to lock the back of the bus now half of the people from the plane are circling back to collect their suitcases from the highway.
— Alexandra Mendrek-Laske (@mendreklaske) May 10, 2019

Pro tip: The stay at the DoubleTree paid by United did earn Hilton Honors points when I added my Hilton number.

Airline provided DoubleTree (Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

Prepare for Routine Security Screening

If you have to re-enter an airport using your "old" boarding pass during a diversion, don't expect PreCheck to work. Your old boarding pass may display the "wrong" date, "wrong" airport, etc. so expect to go through full TSA screening -- which may take a while if your flight diverted to a smaller airport and the passengers are all trying to go through security at once (See above: Don't take the bus).

Bottom Line

From the pilot, to the passenger, to the airline, no one enjoys diversions. They are pricy, time-consuming and can leave you feeling a bit stranded. But, you may have options if you do your homework and are proactive. Even on our one plane with 150 people, some got more sleep, had fewer costs and arrived at their final destination faster than others because of strategic choices made along the way.

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Why We Chose It

The Marriott Bonvoy Business Amex is a stacked card with a rewards rate that will help you earn bonus points on everyday and business-related purchases. You'll earn 15 elite night credits each calendar year, and receive automatic Gold elite status. Finally, the free night award certificate with a redemption level of 35,000 points or less can get you hundreds of dollars in potential value each year.

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