5 Times to Rely on Your Airline for Rebooking — and 3 Times You Shouldn't
A few weeks ago, I found myself stranded in Buenos Aires (EZE), having missed my return flight to Austin (AUS) by just a few minutes due to horrible rush-hour traffic.
I ended up on hold for almost half an hour with Delta's South America customer service team, while standing in line at the American Airlines ticket counter to buy a last-minute ticket on its 11pm flight. While waiting, I frantically searched Google Flights for any alternative route or airlines headed to the US within the next 12 hours.
At some point, the thought crossed my mind: What's the best option in situations like this?
When to Contact the Airline
1. Time is on your side
Under normal circumstances, I would have welcomed the opportunity to spend an extra day exploring Argentina. This time, however, I needed to make it home for a wedding in 36 hours, so rebooking my seat on the same flight the next day wasn't an option. If you have the flexibility to stay and enjoy some additional time away from the grind, it might well be worth your while to let your airline manage the hassle of rescheduling your return home for you, especially if the delay isn't your fault. The delay might provide an opportunity for you to check out a new hotel, or explore a locale that didn't make your list this time.
2. If the error is on the airline's end
If you missed your flight due to a delayed connecting flight or similar issue, the contract of carriage states that the airline is legally required to rebook you on another flight. In my situation, the fault lay with me, and although the airline will always help you find a way home, it might cost you a chunk of change in fees.
3. If your fare class offers enough flexibility to make rebooking a missed flight worth your while
Discounted fares, especially in economy class, tend to come with a number of restrictive rules that add fee penalties for refunds, route changes and cancellations. In most cases, the airline will charge a change fee as well as the fare difference between the flight you missed and the new flight you want to book. Since most tickets go up in price closer to the departure date, you may be looking at several hundred dollars in total cost for a new ticket. In contrast, full-fare tickets entice travelers to pay premium prices by waiving or reducing these additional fees for last-minute changes, so be sure to check the fare class on your ticket.
4. You want the miles
If you end up missing a flight, you almost always will not be rewarded the mileage for that trip since, from the airline's perspective, you didn't actually fly those miles even if you forfeit the rest of the ticket value. If you're betting on elite-qualifying activity to meet an end-of-year status goal, don't make the costly error of miscalculating your final total. Since I didn't end up flying home with Delta after all, I lost out on 5,800 SkyMiles I was hoping to earn before the end of 2017.
5. You're traveling for work and/or did not book your own ticket
If your company is paying for your travel, it might be more hassle than it's worth for you to book a new ticket on your own, only to later deal with the additional paperwork and explanation for your expense report. This way, any additional change fees and fare differences can be associated with your existing itinerary instead of generating a separate expense.
When to Go It Alone
On the other hand, it might be a good idea to rely on your own resources if...
1. You're in a hurry
No matter how and why you missed your flight, it's always a good idea to check in with the airline ticket counter to figure out your options. In my situation, I knew that only a handful of US-bound flights would get me back into the country in time for the wedding. And since all of those flights were scheduled to depart within the next few hours, I only had a short timeframe in which to find a suitable flight and book my ticket — and no airline-booking team would match my own urgency. I ultimately found my way home thanks to Google Flights, which showed me a flight from Buenos Aires to Austin connecting through Miami (MIA), which was available for a whopping $2,700 — a cost I was willing to pay to make it to the wedding on time.
2. You have a mileage stash that you're willing to spend
Frequent flyer miles offer one of the best redemption values when used for last-minute airfare. In a further stroke of luck, the American Airlines flight I wanted to book had economy MileSAAver seats available — the airline's cheapest-tier mileage redemption. I checked my AAdvantage account and saw I had 24,000 miles, just 6,000 shy of the 30,000 I needed. I quickly purchased the remaining amount needed for about $200, and booked my flight as soon as the miles hit my account.
Thanks to my mileage stash, the final total for my back-up plan ended up costing me about $380 after fees and my mileage purchase, instead of the $2,700 I'd originally expected to pay.
3. Your origin and destination cities consistently offer affordable fares
The more routes there are available between a pair of cities, the more likely you are to find consistently lower fares because competition between airlines drives prices lower. If you're flying to or from a major airline hub such as Atlanta, Denver or San Francisco or your cities of origin and destination consistently see a lot of mutual traffic (such as between New York and Boston or between Dallas and Houston), it's worth doing a quick check on your own to see if a same-day ticket would cost less out of pocket than the combined cost of any change fee and fare differences with your existing ticket.